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PATHS OF RESISTANCE IN THE EAST VILLAGE
By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
|in: New York Times, September 14, 2007|
Art and Unrest in the East Village. Dig into the roots of rebellion and creativity that have made the East Village a mecca of counterculture for a century and a half. With John Strausbaugh. | ► see video
For a long time the East Village was an urban frontier. The upper half of the Lower East Side, stretching from Houston Street north to 14th Street, and from Third Avenue and the Bowery to the East River, it was a toehold in America for generations of new immigrants — Irish, German, Jewish, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican and others — and a magnet for artists, bohemians, radicals and reformers. It has often been ravaged by grueling poverty and neglect. But it was also an area of intense cultural activity that changed the world.
Beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 2000s, new waves of affluent “immigrants” came to tame the frontier. Condominium towers reared up from blocks of old tenements. Many tenements themselves were renovated, with expensive rents and lofts worth more than a million dollars. Artists’ studios and corner bodegas gave way to chic shops and trendy bistros.
The East Village has been dragged up-market, but isn’t going without a fight. The photographer and videographer Clayton Patterson has documented the changes since he came here from Calgary, Alberta, in 1979. Mr. Patterson, also the editor of “Resistance,” a sprawling collection of essays on the contentious politics of East Village real estate, recently took me on a tour.
We began in Tompkins Square Park, a focal point in the neighborhood’s history, which before the 1800s was soupy swampland and marshes. The East River shoreline was where Avenue C is now; everything east of that was built on progressive stages of landfill — including, amazingly, rubble from bombed London, shipped across the Atlantic after World War II to form part of the foundation for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.
The park was opened in 1850. Poor immigrant families lived crowded into dilapidated shanties and later the brick tenements that still surround it. They came to the park for a breath of air and to protest their dreadful living and working conditions.
In 1857, a year of bank failures and economic panic, they were attacked by police while protesting the lack of jobs and food. In 1863 the park was a staging area for the deadly Draft Riots that inflamed much of Manhattan. In 1877 5,000 locals who had gathered to hear Communist speakers preach revolution tussled with police and National Guardsmen.
During the Vietnam War many antiwar rallies were staged in the park, and the ► Grateful Dead gave a concert there in 1967. Wigstock, the annual drag festival, began there in 1985. At that time the park was used around the clock. Homeless people camped in one corner, drug dealers had another, and neighborhood families shared the rest with punks and anarchists.
On the night of Aug. 6, 1988, the New York Police Department met with resistance trying to enforce a new 1 a.m. curfew. Mr. Patterson videotaped for more than three hours as a melee spilled out to the streets. Police batons cracked heads, bottles flew, and mounted officers galloped up Avenue A in bizarre cavalry charges.
As dawn broke over the littered and bloody streets, protesters attacked the 16-story Christodora House, facing the park at East Ninth Street and Avenue B. The Christodora, built with charitable donations and opened in 1928 as a high-rise settlement for poor immigrants, had fallen into the city’s hands in the 1960s and had been abandoned. Renovated and reopened as luxury condominiums in 1986, it was a looming symbol of “yuppiefication” for the protesters, who smashed the glass doors and dragged a potted tree from the lobby into the park.
Behind the construction shed on Avenue B between Seventh and Eighth Streets stands another symbol of change: St. Brigid’s ► Roman Catholic Church, begun in 1848 by neighborhood Irish dock workers. Once serving a thriving parish, it was closed in 2001 by the Archdiocese of New York, which cited structural damage (an ugly crack scars the Eighth Street wall) and a dwindling congregation. Gutted, its pews and stained-glass windows smashed, it awaits its fate as preservationists — helped by a celebrity or two, including ► Matt Dillon — have fought in court to save what’s left from the wrecking ball.
Behind the Christodora on East Ninth Street sits the massive, crumbling hulk of the former Public School 64, closed in 1977. It also waits forlornly, as preservationists have wrangled in court with a developer who wants to build a 19-story high-rise on the site.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the area between Avenues A and D became largely Hispanic, known as Loisaida (Nuyorican for Lower East Side) and Alphabet City. Neglected by slumlords and city services, the neighborhood had one visible sign of real estate activity: the arson that routinely destroyed abandoned buildings, which were then razed to leave debris-strewn lots.
In the early 1970s local residents began to create community ► gardens on many of those city-owned lots. The city auctioned off a number of the lots to private developers in the 1980s and ’90s, but other gardens were saved and now operate under the auspices of the Parks Department.
The enormous weeping willows at La Plaza Cultural, on the corner of Avenue C and Ninth Street, are fed by the same underground springs that once made the area a swamp. One of the largest and lushest gardens, the Sixth Street and Avenue B Community Garden, was begun in 1983 with a few small plots of vegetables among the rubble of demolished tenements. Today, one of its founders, Joanee Freedom, told me that there are about 90 plots, where neighbors grow everything from string beans and cucumbers to ferns indigenous to this once marshy area. A speckled koi chases goldfish in an artificial pond, and there’s a small stage for cultural events and weddings.
The garden is also noted for the “Tower of Toys,” the lofty, gravity-defying wooden spire erected by the garden’s longtime gatekeeper, Eddie Boros, who lived all his life in an apartment around the corner until his death last April.
In the 1980s and ’90s, squatters commandeered more than 30 abandoned buildings, some because they could no longer afford the rents in the neighborhood, others as a political stand against gentrification. Mr. Patterson filmed the small armies of riot police and armored vehicles that the mayor, then ► Rudolph W. Giuliani, sent rumbling down the streets to evict squatters.
“It looked like the Russians invading Budapest in 1956,” Mr. Patterson recalled.
In 2002 the city made it possible for occupants of 11 remaining squats to develop their homes as low-income co-ops. The defiantly scruffy See Skwat (155 Avenue C, between 9th and 10th Streets) still displays a handmade placard on its fire escape declaring, “This Land Is Ours — Not For Sale.” Interestingly, and tellingly, it is sandwiched between a cafe and a bar, Rico and Royale.
There are also still signs of earlier groups that lived and struggled in the neighborhood. Walking west along Sixth Street, past long rows of still-standing tenements, Mr. Patterson noted that for much of the 19th century, the area was known as Kleindeutschland, “Little Germany,” the largest German enclave outside Germany itself. On June 15, 1904, about 1,200 people from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (323 Sixth Street, between First and Second Avenues, the site of the Community Synagogue since 1940) died when the steamship the General Slocum, taking them on a day trip up the East River, burned. It was the deadliest disaster in the city before Sept. 11, 2001. It traumatized the community and hastened residents’ flight to uptown areas like Yorkville.
They left a few wonderful buildings behind. On Second Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Streets stand the magnificent Freie Bibliothek and Lesehalle and, next door, the Deutsches Dispensary, now the Ottendorfer branch of the ► New York Public Library, and Stuyvesant Polyclinic. Completed in 1884, their facades feature sculptured terra cotta putti, owls, globes and portraits of famous Germans.
From the 1950s through the ’80s, the East Village was home to Beats, then hippies, punks and post-punks. It earned the name East Village to distinguish it from the older Greenwich, or West, Village. Artists’ studios and galleries, performance spaces and ► music clubs bloomed on every street.
There’s nothing to see there now, but in 1959 the artist Claes Oldenburg had a studio at 46 East Third Street, while next door at 48 was the Artist’s Studio, where ► Jack Kerouac stood on a ladder and read from “On the Road” to an audience that included ► Allen Ginsberg and ► Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones.
St. Marks Place, then as now, was “the most commercial strip, and the gateway from West to East,” Mr. Patterson explained. In the ’60s the Bridge Theater, formerly at 4 St. Marks Place, held performances by ► Yoko Ono and the Fugs; Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin founded the Yippies in a basement apartment at 30 St. Marks Place; and at the Polish hall known as the Dom (19-25 St. Marks Place), ► Andy Warhol presented the Velvet Underground. That site is now apartments and shops.
In the early 1980s Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibited at 51 St. Marks Place, and Gracie Mansion had a gallery across the street at No. 54, now the site of a new midrise building.
“A lot of artists did important work in the East Village,” Mr. Patterson said. “They were here because they could afford to live and work here. They can’t anymore. Now it’s the American Montmartre. Tourists come to see where that culture was.”
And that shuttered, anonymous spot at 315 Bowery (between First and Second Streets)? Less than a year ago it was CBGB, the birthplace of punk rock in the ’70s. Standing outside, John Holmstrom, the publisher and editor of the scene-building magazine Punk, remembered that in 1975 he was “a little nervous about coming down to the Bowery, because it was a very dangerous neighborhood.”
“But I really wanted to see the Ramones,” he added. “And it was great.” He soon moved to St. Marks Place “because I wanted to be in walking distance of CBGB.”
CBGB closed in October 2006; its founder, Hilly Kristal — who named the club CBGB & OMFUG, for the kind of music he wanted to present: “country, bluegrass, blues and other music for uplifting gourmandizers” — died last month at 75. But hey, you can have your picture taken under the street sign for Joey Ramone Place (East Second Street), and buy a T-shirt at the CBGB souvenir shop on St. Marks Place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Strausbaugh (born in Baltimore in 1951) is an American author, cultural commentator, and host of the New York Times "Weekend Explorer" video podcast series on New York City.