East Village Poser
A fresh history dispels the myth of the "real" New Yorker
When I was five years old, I spotted a giant plush Barney the Dinosaur toy sprawled out on the sidewalk somewhere near Second Avenue and St. Marks Place. A devout fan, I urged my mother to take a picture. She burst into laughter as I assumed a pose, and I noticed a couple onlookers following suit; I smiled, thinking I’d done something cute. It wasn’t until I looked at the photograph with adolescent eyes that I realized what had been so funny. Scrawled out on Barney’s chest in giant, bolded black letters were the words: “DUMB FUCKING DINOSAUR.”
This, it turned out, was far from the last sleight-of-hand trick St. Marks Place would play on me. Eighteen years later, I graduated from college and moved into an old tenement building across from St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. By then, I associated the street with names like Ginsberg, Warhol, and Zeppelin, and I was determined upon moving in to follow in their footsteps, to live out the East Village in the manner it should be lived out in.
I was quickly disappointed. Unsettled by the contradiction between the gritty neighborhood lore I’d internalized (“An air of vague and unsettling paranoia” hung over St. Marks in the seventies, wrote Patti Smith) and the reality of modern East Village life (Sweetgreen), I spent my first New York summer torn up on the inside, filled with an unshakable emptiness marked by the certainty that I’d been born into the wrong generation. To compensate, I forced anachronistically-themed bar crawls down St. Marks (velvet blazer, houndstooth pants, Doc Martens) upon unassuming friends; I read outdoors, rejecting comfort to brave the intolerable August heat and noise of Tompkins Square Park to prove a point. That summer ended in a literal shitstorm; torrential rain forced the producers of a much-hyped Central Park “Homecoming” concert to cancel the show before any of city icons Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, or Smith herself could take the stage. The symbolism was unmissable. Their New York—the one I was so desperately attempting to revive—was dead.
How dearly I wish I had spent less of that summer pining and more of it with my head buried in Ada Calhoun’s St. Marks is Dead, a delightfully sweeping social history of St. Marks Place, the East Village’s flagship street. Had I done so, I would have arrived earlier at the conclusion Calhoun, in her painstaking and thrilling 2015 work, so meticulously produces: I wasn’t alone.
In fact, with the possible exception of the Lenape natives who preceded Dutch colonialism (the first of the book’s five chronological sections is only slightly ridiculously titled “10,000 BC-AD 1904”), Calhoun’s telling of St. Marks, a three-block street named after the 17th-century church around the corner, demonstrates how difficult it would be to identify a single wave of “St. Mark-ians” who have not in some way lived out an imitation of a bygone era. The radical Black Maskers, a collection of anarchists known for late sixties stunts like firing blank bullets at performing St. Marks poets, had in fact inherited a revolutionary tradition which included a three month period in 1917 when Leon Trotsky, five months ahead of the October Revolution, published the social democratic Novy Mir out of a St. Marks office (the Shake Shack down the road doesn’t stop the “Hail Marx” moniker dated to this period from being tossed around the block today). More obvious mimics were young men like Phil Giambri, an aspiring poet who, after reading On the Road, left home at seventeen “just to walk the same streets” as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Mailer in the late fifties.
You get the point, and if Calhoun had spent the entire book making it, it would have quickly worn thin. What sustains such a broad overview, though, are the riveting character studies the author strategically employs in situations where a less deft historian would wade too deeply into arcane and repetitive argumentation. Thanks to her exhaustive research—the author conducted over 200 interviews, and endnotes are responsible for about a quarter of the book’s weight—Calhoun has no shortage of personalities to work with. There’s Sara “Mama” Curry, who went door-to-door teaching housewives about child-rearing at the turn of the 20th century (“We can’t tie them up like dogs,” she often quipped); Father William Norman Guthrie, the St. Mark’s Church rector who for decades tortured Episcopalian authorities with stunts like the “bare leg, bare-hip” dance he choreographed inside the chapel in 1924; face-tattooed Joel Pakela, 21st century leader of the St. Marks “Crusties,” a group known for their participation in activities like “trash sledding” down the block (skimboarding, essentially, but on a stuffed East Village receptacle).
I’m particularly grateful the author spends about as much time with a character like Amiri Baraka, a neighborhood intellectual whose biracial East Village marriage fell apart amidst the heightened radicalism of Black Power in the mid-sixties, as she does with hagiographic St. Marks icons like Andy Warhol. The latter’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable undoubtedly shaped the street during its sixties heyday, but the choice to highlight Baraka just as brightly both more accurately reflects the bottom-up spirit of the block and slyly subverts the dominant strain of East Village mythicism Calhoun is working against. St. Marks is Dead proves through decisions like these to be a both engaging and properly calibrated social history, one which will hopefully reset much of the neighborhood’s tired folklore.
Most impressive, though, is Calhoun’s adroitness in weaving so many disparate characters together to demonstrate the dizzying ways by which each generation of East Villagers has unfailingly lamented the so-called “lost soul” of the neighborhood’s most famous block. The author seamlessly integrates her research skills, local knowledge, and rhythmic style to ruthlessly expose the folly, the sheer non-uniqueness, of these memorializations.
By the middle of the 20th century, a contemporary observer could have plausibly bemoaned the “death” of dozens of St. Marks epochs. The 1811 flattening of Stuyvesant family property—then-bucolic land which would later evolve into the East Village—to accommodate the city’s gridlocked urban design inspired 19th century eulogies (“a beautiful city simply was wasted and thrown away”) which I might have written as a child, word for word, about the Parks Department decision to remove the sprinklers from the Tompkins Square Park playground in the early 2000s. 1950s squabbles between the East Village newcomers calling themselves the Beats (“night people”) and their Eastern European neighbors (“day people” who themselves had supplanted the Germans decades earlier) over nocturnal noise levels mirror the exact conflicts playing out today between the Gen Z-ers who drunkenly uprooted the tree in front of my grandfather’s East Village apartment building on Halloween night and lifelong residents who decry the squalor of today’s youth (I, for the record, was with the day people on that one).
Such skirmishes appear quaint compared to the depravity of the 1980s and 90s, a period which I, for one, am thankful Calhoun resists glorifying as much as many of its participants do (perhaps this has to do with the fact that my then-adolescent mother was most active on the street during these decades). The author’s account of rampant eighties St. Marks pedophilia—and the neighborhood’s subsequent nonchalant response—is particularly gut-wrenching.1 Coupled with an account of the rise of street heroin in the late eighties and early nineties, it is genuinely disarming, in the aftermath of grisly descriptions of double-parked town cars chasing sixth graders down the block, reams of homemade child pornography discovered in street apartment busts, and the suspected dozen St. Marks boys who had been mysteriously trafficked and murdered in the late eighties, to hear writer Marc Spitz, himself a Bennington College graduate who “arrived in the 1990s to play out a junkie fantasy of the Lower East Side scripted in the 1970s” complain about the “hipsters” ruining the neighborhood today. Calhoun’s efficient structure allows her to turn what might otherwise be dismissed as another “back in my day” platitude into a searing indictment of Spitz’s pathetic attitude. It’s comparative comic relief to consider more modern neighborhood strife; in the mid-2010s, James Estrada, a student at Cooper Union, declares the closure of a campus Starbucks—an institution which had opened just a few years before to local cries that it was the “final nail in the street’s coffin”—the death, once and for all, of St. Marks Place. “There’s no room for life to be lived there now,” Estrada says, wistfully recalling the cups of strawberry champagne he’d drink out of the shop’s green paper cups.
In these moments, the author manages both to conjure a “particular brand of St. Mark-ian bohemianism” in her prose—Calhoun herself grew up on the street—and to subtly parody the expressed sentiment (on the 1999 shuttering of nightclub Coney Island High: “St. Marks Place was over—for real, this time”). Her didactic patience runs out at roughly the same point in the book’s conclusion mine did, though, amidst yet another conversation with a middle-aged man mourning the heroin-laced revelry of the nineties; her frustration is palpable as she finally tells the reader what she has so deftly shown over three hundred-plus pages. “There is a remarkable lack of self-awareness,” she writes, “in some criticism of the new East Village.”
The further one peers into history, the more the mythos of the present is destabilized. Not so long before Stuyvesant, Trotsky, and Coney Island High, St. Marks Place was a speck of salt marsh tucked away on an island teeming with the greatest biodiversity known to the Atlantic coast of the North American continent. By some estimates, over a hundred fifty species of bird inhabited the island; millions of fish, whales, seals, and turtles cruised through the East River annually; wolves, black bears, and mountain lions stalked the banks of the Hudson. A few hundred Lenape natives lived, on an island they called Manahatta, alongside ecological diversity which surpassed any of the habitats we now call America’s national parks. How to comprehend a world in which two people, standing on the exact same patch of a paved over, millennia-old salt marsh, can bemoan, with equal doses of heartbreak, the loss of a natural habitat grander than Yellowstone on the one hand and the shuttering of a two-year-old campus Starbucks on the other?
The best historical nonfiction pushes us closer to an understanding of such a universe, forcing us to contend with the sheer illogicality of it all by unchaining us, one link at a time, from the shackles of the present. Like all great works of that genre, St. Marks is Dead demands the reader confront the inconvenient truth that history, whether played out across one street or one planet, refuses to cave to our incessant, primitive demands for trivial categorization. One decade’s gentrifier is the next century’s lodestar, and moral norms are as skittish as a Crusty-mounted wastebasket launching off a stoop and crashing into the crosswalk facing Tompkins Square Park.
Reading St. Marks is Dead gleefully reminded me of my Barney photograph. When I revisited the picture in question this month, though, I was dismayed to discover how utterly inaccurate my initial portrayal of the scene had been. In the real photograph, it is my sister, not I, grinning next to a dilapidated purple dinosaur; “I’M BARNEY, DAMN IT” its chest reads, a far cry from the more profane insult I’d always imagined. Oh, well. I rest assured in the newfound peace that I wasn’t in fact born into the wrong generation, that I instead am just another East Village phony, a snug fit into a long and proud tradition of St. Marks poseurs for whom historicity will always succumb to an impossible yearning, the irrepressible urge to mutter under our breaths, to no one in particular: “Those were the days.”
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Perversely, it seems the Manhattan parents weary of street threats to their offspring today were the ones who were, in practice, most at-risk during their own urban childhoods.