Leonard Quart: Past and present in East Village

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NEW YORK >> As I began writing this column, a horrific gas explosion occurred, causing a seven-alarm fire that leveled three of a row of buildings into piles of rubble not too far from where I live. Sitting in Washington Square Park I could, from a distance of a half mile, smell the acrid smoke and hear the clang of fire engines and emergency vehicles rushing toward the blazing inferno in the East Village's heart.

A friend living nearby went up to his roof to see where the fire was and thought snowflakes were falling on his head — it was debris from the fire. His wife working across the street said her ears rang for 10 minutes from the explosion. Some residents in the affected tenements precariously lowered themselves to safety on fire escape ladders. Two people died, a number were injured, and small fires smoldered in the ruins for days.

Ready to explode

In the 1980s, years before the East Village became the high-rent district it is now, this terrible accident would have been a perfect metaphor of the apocalyptic, debris-and arson-ridden East Village ethos. It was violent and crime-infested, and drug wars were commonplace.

In a memoir of that period, "Alphaville," Mike Codella, a plainclothes detective who patrolled its streets, wrote: "Even though it was January and one of the coldest days so far that year, there were dope deals taking place on nearly every corner. Junkies and dealers shivered together, exchanged dope and money and parted company. A group of users followed one after the other into an abandoned building being used as a "toilet" or designated spot to shoot up indoors. He saw it as a neighborhood where something was always about to explode.

Besides the drug dealing, it was a neighborhood, especially walking east toward Avenue D, of abandoned lots, and tenements with broken and boarded-up windows, omnipresent trash and graffiti. Some streets emanated an eerie calm because there were no people to be seen.

Squatters renewed some of the discarded buildings and land with sweat equity, often living without heat or hot water, turning buildings abandoned by their owners for insurance into viable apartments. Still, many longtime East Village residents, who viewed them as merely looking for adventure and cheap housing, resented them. Developers perceived them as an obstacle to gentrification and city officials were disturbed by the chaotic nature of the squats.

Ken Schles' "Invisible City" and "Night Walk" provide another view of the neighborhood in the '80s. Amid the deprivation and despair that the streets conveyed, there was also a burgeoning art and club scene. Schles' books provide intimate images of serene domestic life and lovers embracing, but also of club revelers trying too hard to enjoy themselves, and solitary men and women lying in drunken and drugged stupors.

For all its excess, the bohemian world did leave a legacy of artistic work. Nonetheless, the neighborhood itself was viewed by Schles as an unambiguous "wreck." His work contains striking photos of desolate blocks filled with rubble and trash, lit by glaring streetlights, and one of a Hispanic boy pointing a toy gun at the camera while sitting in a grocery cart.

Affluent moving in

Little of that ominous wasteland survives in today's East Village. On a recent Saturday afternoon as I walked toward Avenue D, the neighborhood no longer feels like Codella's "volcano" where uniformed cops might queue to buy drugs in the middle of the day. There is less crime, and the streets, if far from beautiful, are now clean.

On almost every street three or four dull, overpriced apartment houses have been built (a one bedroom on Avenue B can sell for as much as $1,395,000), and sometimes one sees a building with a touch of architectural uniqueness. Many of the area's tenements have been renovated to appeal to younger, more affluent residents — close to 70 percent of the population is now white — and a variety of first-rate restaurants have popped up to serve them.

As one moves east past Avenue B the neighborhood becomes more diverse, with bodegas, more black and Hispanic people on the street, decaying tenements ready to be demolished, and clumps of the homeless gathering on benches. Still, East Village gentrification doesn't stop at Avenue B. New, high-priced buildings are in the process of being constructed on empty lots even there — only ending when one reaches the sometimes violent giant housing projects on the east side of Avenue D.

A significant residue of artistic and bohemian life and institutions in the neighborhood remains — from the avant-garde theater La MaMa on East 4th St. to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on East 3rd between B and C. But it's no longer either a center of artistic ferment, as few artists can afford to live there anymore, or a world of desperate streets. Gentrification, with its mixture of moneyed sheen and greater security, is where, for better or worse, much of the East Village's future lies.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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