“How many East Villagers does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Rob Hollander, an East Village resident of some 31 years, asks us as we settle onto a bench in Tompkins Square Park. “Two,” he tells us. “One to screw it in, and one to tell you how it used to be better!”
Rob’s joke nicely sums up how many of the East Village ‘old-timers’ we’ve been talking to feel about the gentrification of their neighbourhood and its takeover by yuppies and NYU students. It’s not just the high rents they object to, but also the cultural change.
“Warhol wouldn’t recognize it now,” Rob says. “Many of the galleries and bookstores have gone. The old bookstores used to be so different, sprawling mazes with shabby chairs, used books, and some vinyl. All day long, locals would drop by to talk to the owner. You’d sit there with Thelonious Monk in the background, listening to these weird guys talk about what was happening in the neighbourhood.”
The ’hood may have more bars and restaurants than any other in New York, but for many locals it’s lost its grittiness, edginess, and the bohemian vibe that made it so appealing in the first place. What’s worse, many of the new residents are ignorant of the ’hood’s rich history.
“The East Village was the home of the Beat poets, Bebop jazz, the counter-cultural movement, and the birthplace of punk rock,” Rob tells us. And over the course of several hours, as we half-watch a community ball game, Rob will recount the colourful history of our current ‘home’ and more.
We could write a book based on those three hours of conversation, but as this is the Internet, we thought we’d organize Rob’s riveting tales under ten neat headings (our own) that make a compelling case for experiencing New York’s most fascinating neighbourhood. We’ve provided the organizing structure but the words below are all Rob’s.
1. The East Village is a dynamic neighbourhood with history
“By 1900 this was the most densely populated place on earth,” Rob says. “The European immigrants didn’t want to stay so they moved out. The Beat Generation moved in. Then the Puerto Ricans. People came for a scene and then changed it. Twenty years ago it was very edgy. Professionals came for the theatre or galleries but they didn’t stay. Talk to the kids from the buroughs now and they say they come for the nightlife, not the galleries. It’s interesting to see the shifts.”
2. The East Village is a mixed, multicultural neighbourhood
“People still have a devotion to the East Village because it’s a mixed neighbourhood. Although the Germans immigrants left a century ago, and most of the Eastern Europeans are gone too, people of colour are still here. Sadly a lot of black folks were pushed out by gentrification. Latino families had more staying power, but many black folks were not in extended families. Just like the marginal white folks who lived here, the black folks were here either to get out of the mainstream or the mainstream would not have them. Today, the housing projects keep it real.”
3. The East Village has been a hotbed of anarchy and activism
“The revolutionary anarchist Emma Goldman lived here. The Modern School, a free intellectual centre using anarchist educational principles, was located here. Europeans immigrants arrived with all sorts of radical political and cultural ideas. It was a hot bed,” Rob tells us. “And anarchism still thrived in the 1980’s. People felt that the space belonged to the people who lived here, not the absentee slumlord or the city. So there were murals on the walls everywhere, and graffiti — people felt like they owned the place. The police fought with the anarchists for years and there was no love lost between them. People remember the ’88 riots, but there were many riots and demonstrations leading up to it and after.”
4. Alphabet City was a dangerous place in the East Village
“Drug dealers controlled the neighborhood for a while there, openly selling drugs. It could be dangerous. Then the homeless occupied the park — they actually made it safer. But the neighborhood divided over it — some wanted to reclaim the park. The police evicted the homeless from the park a couple of times, but they always returned — the homeless, like everyone else, want to be where it’s happening,” Rob laughs. “So in ’91 the City ‘renovated’ the park — they removed the bandshell and widened the paths so the police cars could drive through. It was all just to remove the homeless and pave the way for gentrification.”
5. The squatters movement set down its roots in the East Village
“The squatters movement was focused on Alphabet City — there’s still C Squat on Avenue C between 9th and 10th Streets, and Umbrella House. They’ve created theatre spaces and galleries. Giuliani evicted a lot of squatters, especially on 13th Street. One day the police brought out their tank and barricaded the streets. Squatters escaped over the roofs. The neighborhood was occupied for a couple of days. Years later, at the end of his term, Giuliani relented and gave some of the squatters their buildings.” (See this post for more on the East Village squatters-turned-‘homesteaders’.)
6. The East Village has always been edgy
“The neighbourhood has always attracted lots of crazy folk and marginal characters. We had a lot of veterans who were homeless or semi-homeless, who were on the fringes. They were a distinct type of character. There wasn’t a lot of money — people bought loose cigarettes, not packets. That says a lot about people. When I moved here, nobody worked — except the drug dealers. We still have ‘crusties’ with dreadlocks. They don’t bathe and they eat out of garbage bins, but they’re harmless. It’s funny because the old-timers who used to look like them now have no respect for them!”
7. The East Village has always had an arty, avant-garde vibe
“The East Village used to be full of artists,” Rob says. “Man Ray studied at the Modern School. In the 1950s, Ginsberg lived on 7th Street when Monk and Coltrane were creating Bebop jazz. Charlie Parker lived on Avenue B, between 9th and 10th. Joan Mitchell lived on St Mark’s. Warhol was there. We had the Charles movie theatre where the owner allowed people to bring their own films and put them on. It was more crazy and avant-garde then. There’s still some filmmaking going on, still actors, but the musicians and artists have moved to Brooklyn and just come here to socialize. It’s still fun, just not as intense.”
8. In the East Village ‘anything goes’
“When I first came here, I went to one of Warhol’s theatres on 4th Street to see a transvestite musical with Divine, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling. That was 1971, way before anything like that was acceptable. The photographer Clayton Patterson got started photographing the Pyramid club, where any kind of experimentation was welcome, cross-dressing, transvestites, you could do anything crazy and not fail. The original Wigstock drag festival on Labor Day in the Park, started at the Pyramid. Everyone in the audience had to wear a wig. There were these guys in cut-offs with hairy legs and big hair. It was…unique!” Rob laughs.
9. The East Village is the home of the Mosaic Man
“The East Village has always attracted eccentrics. Mosaic Man, Jim Power, is one of our local characters. He’s a tough guy. He’s been homeless and a squatter. He’s made all these beautiful, crazy mosaics. You’ll see them on the light poles. They were totally illegal — many of them have been removed — but just he keeps on making them. You’ll see him around.” (And we did — see the images above.)
10. The East Village is still cool — and chilled
“In the last 15 years younger people have been moving in — not your usual gentrifiers! — so we’ve had a younger and livelier population than other upscale neighbourhoods,” Rob admits. “We still have dozens of bars of all kinds. There’s still a music scene, though it’s not what it was. It used to be the heart and soul of punk! Everyone praises the restaurants. You can’t walk 20 feet without finding somewhere to eat that won’t put a huge dent in your pocket. And it feels like a neighborhood here — it’s not glass and steel skyscrapers hovering over you, like Midtown!”