Local Knowledge: Rob from the East Village, New York City
Connecting with locals in New York hasn’t been hard at all — we’ve used the same strategies we apply in every place we visit and we’ve found New Yorkers to be really responsive. They’ve been friendly, accessible and easygoing, and have been happy to meet for a drink to divulge their favourite spots and share advice on how they think we should best experience their home. See author David Farley’s tips here. But we needed more specific tips for the East Village, New York City.
Finding the right person for our Local Knowledge series — someone who can really help us get beneath the skin of the East Village, New York City specifically — has been a tad trickier and taken us a bit longer. Yet after a week of being in the city, whenever we asked a Lower East Side-r if there was a person they could suggest who had lived in the ’hood for a long time and knew it intimately, one name kept cropping up…
A linguist, author, researcher, historian, community activist, preservationist, and in recent years an actor, Rob Hollander has lived in the East Village since 1978. In his spare time, Rob leads walking tours around the Lower East Side. I email him and tell him we’d love to pick his brain about our current home and he suggests Terence and I meet him near the Joe Strummer mural, pictured above, from where we stroll across to Tompkins Square Park for a chat.
Unlike many New Yorkers we meet, who all seem to come from somewhere else, Rob was born in Manhattan — that “narrow slip of an island between New Jersey and Long Island” which he says he thinks is “crassly overdeveloped”.
Rob’s folks were also born on the Lower East Side. “Their parents came from the Old World,” he says. “The family worked in jobs like the garment industry where they’d copy expensive uptown dresses and illegally reproduce them at a knock-off, meanwhile railing against the capitalists exploiters of the sweatshops. That was one side of the family. The other side owned a brothel, which was also common.”
“My parents somehow found respectability as a Freudian psychoanalyst and an economist. Of course the Freudian was the son of the whorehouse owner, and the economist the daughter of the Marxists in the illicit garment trade,” Rob reveals. That makes sense.
Thirty-two years is a long time to live in one place. We ask Rob what makes the East Village so special for him. “New York has lots of neighbourhoods, but they are mostly exclusive in some way, either exclusive ethnically or financially or linguistically,” he explains. “The East Village is mixed in every way.”
“If you take a look at Tompkins Square Park, you see it all: the Chinese practicing Tai Chi in the mornings, the middle class sunbathers in the afternoons, the homeless playing chess at the tables, the tattooed, dread-head crusties hanging out with their dogs, every ethnicity playing at the handball and basketball courts.”
“And the neighbourhood has kept its low-scale tenements with the old fire escapes,” Rob continues. “It just looks like New York to me, it feels like New York — the real New York, not the glass and steel New York that’s no different from any big city except bigger — it’s the New York where people actually live and hang and kickback and socialize and enjoy their own neighbourhood.”
Has he never thought to travel or live elsewhere, we ask. “When I was younger I travelled, but not the sightseeing-for-three-days kind of tour. I spent two months living in Florence, for example, in one super-cheap place where I struck up a close friendship with the clean-up guy who was actually a student from Spain — although I didn’t know a word of Spanish or he a word of English. We ended up travelling together to Venice and Padua, along the way meeting a couple of brothers who joined our junket. That’s the way to travel,” he says. We completely agree.
Q. What do you most love about your work as a linguistic?
A. I honestly don’t know why everything about semantics fascinates me, but it does. Maybe I like it because to everyone else it’s dull as dirt.
Q. Why should people come to the East Village?
A. Great restaurants of every type that won’t dent your pocket. And the place feels like a neighborhood — not crowded or rushed.
Q. 3 words to describe the East Village?
A. Young, lively, unpretentious.
Q. And its residents?
A. All types from funky to hipster to utterly ordinary.
Q. Your top tips for visitors?
A. Take in an avant-garde performance at P.S. 122 or Theater for the New City on 1st Ave between 9th and 10th Streets, or the little theater district on 4th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues (La Mama, DUO and about a dozen more), or the Newyorican Poets Cafe where the poetry slam was invented. Have a drink afterward at KGB bar, the bar Lucky Luciano once owned, or at the Museum of the American Gangster, a former notorious speak-easy back in the day.
Q. Quintessential East Village souvenir?
A. Get a tattoo from a parlour on nearly every street.
Q. Must-do eating experience?
Q. Essential thing to know before coming here?
A. Don’t try to park in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse on East 3rd Street. They don’t play around.
Q. Most important phrase to learn?
A. “NYU”. N-Y-U — that’s New York University, the expanding school that’s taking over the neighbourhood. You’ll see their purple flag everywhere. Not loved among the residents. Don’t smile when you say it.
Q. Any other advice?
A. That ornery, ranting, homeless old man with the dog and cane? That’s the best-known artist in the neighbourhood, who gave it its trademark mosaics on the lampposts.
You can book walking tours around the East Village, Alphabet City, Lower East Side, and Chinatown/Five Points with Rob by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Lower East Side History Project website. See this post for a taste of what Rob has to offer.