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Monday, July 11, 2016

St. Marks Is Dead

When I worked in New York City during the '80s and '90s I always enjoyed a trip to St. Marks Place, though it wasn't very often. Usually I met my friend Steve at a dive bar called the Grassroots. We would get a pizza from a place on the corner and bring it to the Grassroots where we would order pitchers of Rheingold. Good times.

Upon reading St. Marks Is Dead, by Ada Calhoun, I'm glad to hear Grassroots is still open, as so much of the street is gone. Although Calhoun, who grew up on the street, doesn't mention, the life of the street is very much parallel with 42nd Street, which has also lost much of its grimy character to gentrification and wholesomeness. St. Marks was tawdry, but in a much more bohemian sense. As Calhoun notes in the subtitle, it was American's "hippest street."

St. Marks Place runs for only three blocks in what is now called the East Village (a map would have been nice for those who have never set foot there). Roughly, it runs from Astor Place in the west to Tompkins Park in the east, and one can think of it has being a replacement name for Eighth Street, which continues west and east of each of those points. It was once an Indian trail, and then part of Peter Stuyvesant's land, the Dutch governor. The name appeared first on maps from the 1850s, though it was known as that long before, named for the church St.-Mark's-in-the-Bowery. Early residents included Alexander Hamilton and his wife.

Over the years the street would change complexion, continually reflecting the new. Immigrants, of course, were a key factor. For a time at the turn of the 19th century, Jewish gangsters controlled the streets, and many tunnels and hidden back rooms show what life was like during prohibition. Later German, Polish, and Ukrainian immigrants held sway, and even as late as my time in the city many restaurants, such as Kiev (now closed) were still a testament to those days.

It was during the depression and on through the post-war years that the street changed. Political revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky and Emma Goldman were around. Rents were ridiculously cheap, so it became a haven for artists and writers. Frank O'Hara and W.H. Auden lived there. In the surrounding streets, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Koonig had studios. Then came the Beats.

"The word 'Beat' was a carnival term, referring to to carnies' poor income, an a drug term, meaning one who has been cheated in a deal. Itinerant writer, poet, and drug addict Hebert Huncke, thinking the word evoked the state of having been beaten by the world, introduced it to some writer friends, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg."

St. Marks became the "Champs-Elysee of the counterculture." The best jazz could be heard at the nearby Five Spot. Gay culture, as much as it could, was abundant. The old-timers resisted, but eventually were pushed out. That has been the pattern ever since, as the Beats gave way to the hippies, the hippies to the punks, the punks to hard-core, and now, alas, to corporate America.

Calhoun lists many oddballs, mad geniuses, and important businesses that lined the street. Musicians like the New York Dolls and the Beastie Boys got their start there. Fillmore East was around the corner. The Electric Circus was a nightclub that flourished in the '60s, and Kim's Video, also now closed, was the place to go for the cineaste (the clerks were snobs). During the '70s, when New York was in dire straits, it was a place of danger and drugs, and many who declared the street dead (from whence the title comes) are nostalgic for something that no one should be nostalgic for--it's like missing the peep shows on Times Square. When the Gap moved in in 1988, most heard the first death knell. Rents have gone way up, and now, perhaps truly St. Marks is dead.

While I enjoyed the anecdotes and facts (when Calhoun mentions a building she gives the street number) I also found it a bit of a laundry list and not well tied together. The book is more like a snack than a meal. I can't tell you why this particular street became the place that it was. A lot of names are mentioned, sometimes the book is not chronological, and again, a map really would have helped (some places nearby are mentioned, which is totally okay, but we don't get much more help than "a few blocks away").

Still, this is a fun book for those who like New York cultural history. At least I got a taste of the street when it still had St. Marks Comics, the St. Marks Bookshop, and the Astor Place cube (which will be returned to its stand in August--I learned that the actual title is Alamo. Who knew?)

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