In Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side, Clayton Patterson, ed, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2006.
“Some Habitation Attitudes and Practices on New York City’s Lower East Side, 1982 to 2002”
by Eric Miller (2004)
This essay seeks to portray and discuss some habitation attitudes and practices of people on the Lower East Side, from 1982 to 2002. Before getting to the heart of the matter, which will be a guided tour of a six-mile walk I used to take on the Lower East Side and vicinity, please permit me to give a bit of background about myself. My briefly telling of some prior and subsequent experiences might help to contextualize my points, give some sense of where I am coming from, and perhaps support my view that, as well as being an observer of the neighborhood culture I describe, I am also in my own way a practitioner of some aspects of that culture.
This essay is being written in Internet browsing centres in the small city of Nagarcoil, in the state of Tamil Nadu, in south India. Nearby is a mountainous forest area where I am engaged in a two-year doctoral research project regarding the language and verbal arts of the Kani people, an aboriginal tribe. I am a Ph.D. candidate in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where I did coursework in the winters of 1998-9, 1999-0, and 2000-1. Since 2002 -- that is, for the past year -- I have been out of the USA, in India.
The Kani people are members of the African-Indo-Pacific migratory group. Members of this group were, it seems, the first humans to inhabit this entire part of the world. Now they tend to live in mountain areas, where it is sometimes said they have gone to escape from the more-recently-arrived inhabitants. Some tribal people in India have similar housing and cultural issues that some bohemians had in the East Village in the 80’s and 90’s -- such as being faced with the constant threat of eviction from homesteads that have uncertain legal standing. The Kani people I am visiting with, however, are fortunate in that they are recognized as having the right to live where they are living, which is in a mountain forest region adjacent to a vast wilderness, into which they can travel whenever they wish.
Growing up in midtown Manhattan, a child of two editors of arts-related magazines, I enjoyed a comfortable and very culturally-rich life. In our apartment, however, I at times felt trapped in my room, cut off from the other people of the city. I tell this story from the privileged perspective of one who loves shared and outdoor living, but who has, when I have desired it, been able to have my own space in NYC, however small.
While attending Oberlin College in Ohio, I lived for a time in the hippie dorm: co-ed floors, co-ed bathrooms, and organic vegetarian kitchen. As in many dorms, a long central hallway connected the rooms on each floor. One night I slept on our hallway floor. This was not really roughing it: room and hallway floors were carpeted, and I had sheets and a blanket. I just loved the social activity in our dorm -- people dropping in and out of each other’s rooms day and night -- and I made this gesture to express that I did not want to miss any of the fun.
I dropped out of college and, with backpack and sleeping bag, hitchhiked, zigzagging across the country a number of times.
It was not until I returned to New York -- where I slowly and intermittently at NYU completed my B.A. and did my M.A. -- that I found a place and cultural situation that was as a stimulating and exciting as hitchhiking: the East Village, which became my physical and spiritual home. Although I had attended high school nearby (Stuyvesant, in the old building on 15th St., between 1st and 2nd Aves.), during my high school years (the early 70’s) I did not visit the East Village very much, nor was I particularly aware of its existence. For some reason, it seems I needed to shelter myself from the East Village during this stage of my life.
In the early 80’s, however, I was ready, and I immensely enjoyed ‘the city that never sleeps,’ especially the all-night and perpetually-open spots in Lower Manhattan. Around every New Year’s Eve there was a 72-hour continuous reading of Gertrude Stein’s epic novel, The Making of Americans (at the Paula Cooper Gallery, a half-block south of the East Village, in Soho, on Wooster St.): one year I stayed for the entire reading. On New Year’s Eves there was also an all-day-and-all-night poetry reading (at St. Mark’s Church, on 2nd Ave., near 10th St.). The ‘Korean groceries,’ with their vegetable and fruit shelves stretching out onto the sidewalks, were always open, as were numerous other shops. And of course, there were many after-hour bars, clubs, hang-outs, etc., in the East Village and its surroundings: one often saw people who seemed to be on their way home from such places at around 9am. The presence of these all-night and perpetually-open spots began, in some small way, to satisfy my yearning for togetherness.
Most of the small amount of money I made in the 80’s and early 90’s was earned through video documentation of performances (which I did alongside my video business partner, Diane Dunbar). I also did a bit of documentation of parades and other public events, but usually this did not pay, and I didn’t contribute very much to public access cable TV shows. My energy for creative/unpaid/community work and play primarily went into creating video art events. (Regarding these activities, please see my article, “Live Video as Performance on New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1980s,” pp. 261-6, in Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side, edited by Clayton Patterson and published by the Federation of East Village Artists in NY, 2003). In short, I was not in the league of people like Clayton, Rik Little, and others, who were constantly videotaping the neighborhood, including clashes with the authorities in regard to the authorities restricting and closing down living spaces. Nonetheless, I brought a documenter’s, as well as an artist’s, eye to the neighborhood.
The East Village, which comprises the far northern section of the Lower East Side, can be said to be bordered by 14th St. to the north and Houston St. to the south; and Broadway to the west and the East River to the east. Some people say that the East Village’s official western border is 3rd Ave. (also known as the Bowery), but to many people the East Village includes the area out to Broadway. Following this latter definition then, the East Village’s nine avenues (running north-south), from west to east, are: Broadway; 4th Ave.; 3rd Ave.; 2nd Ave.; 1st Ave.; Ave. A; Ave. B; Ave. C; and Ave. D. Alphabet City is the eastern half of this area -- from Ave. A. to Ave. D (and on to the river).
In the early 80’s, I lived on 5th St., between Aves. A and B. It was not until some years later, however, when I was living on 2nd St., between 2nd and 3rd Aves., that I developed the habit of talking the following walk: I would walk eastward through the East Village, through Alphabet City, to the East River. Then I would walk southward along Lower Manhattan’s east coast, down to under the Brooklyn Bridge, and westward along the island’s southern coast. Then I would begin up the west coast, on Battery Park City’s promenade along the Hudson River, usually to the World Financial Center. From there, I would make my way back towards the East Village, usually either by subway (from under the World Trade Center towers), or by walk (up to Chambers St., and then eastward through Chinatown -- where there were a number of 24-hour restaurants, by the way).
As I would walk, these are some of the things and people that I would see and think about:
Usually, first I would walk to Ray’s Newsstand (on Ave. A, between 7th St. and 8th St. [also known as St. Mark’s Place]). There I would look around for, and say hello to, friends and acquaintances, and would most likely have a small chocolate egg cream (seltzer, milk, and just a little chocolate syrup), for sixty cents. Ray’s -- open 24 hours, of course -- was the center and anchor of the neighborhood. As mentioned, Ray’s was on Ave. A, the neighborhood’s main strip. It was across the street from Tompkins Square Park (henceforth TSP), which lies within the area, Aves. A to B, and 7th to 10th Sts. Clayton tells me that Ray is from Turkey. It was often difficult for me to get a straight answer about such things from Ray: he was very fond of joking around. Ray hired Polish young women to help him operate the store. It seems these women might have been related to the Polish people who owned the restaurant next door, and who were also Ray’s landlord. What really marked Ray’s as a special place was that almost every night, weather permitting, six or seven people, mostly guys, would be standing on the sidewalk in front of Ray’s, talking, late into the night. They would greet passersby, many of whom were their friends. People would be coming to Ray’s at all hours, emerging from their apartments, their work projects or whatever, for coffee, egg creams, and other supplies, and perhaps for a brief social interaction -- just like how office-workers are said to gather at the water-cooler. People in various altered states of consciousness, and demented people, were also often floating through the scene. In short, it was a casual, ongoing, outdoor party.
One of the men who stood in front of Ray’s night after night, Sidewalk Bob, tended to act as a social manager, a host. He would often introduce people to each other, and he could tell you all about almost any subject. Sidewalk Bob looked like (my fantasy of) Benjamin Franklin, in his late forties. He usually had a tiny earphone in one ear, with which he was listening to police radio reports, and he was always ready to dash off to the scene of a crime. Sidewalk Bob always seemed to have a camera in hand, but I don’t recall ever seeing any of his photographs. In this way, he was different from Clayton, in that the front window of Clayton’s storefront (which was just south of the East Village) was almost always filled with recent photos of neighborhood people and events.
Another Bob, Povercide Bob, could also often be found stationed on the sidewalk near Ray’s. Povercide Bob seemingly always had with him a shopping wagon full of his belongings, including a stack of photocopied handwritten fliers detailing the authorities’ efforts to destroy the people and his own ideas about how the people could defend themselves. Povercide Bob was perhaps in his late fifties. His white hair was usually cut very short, to a crew cut. A USA flag was often draped over his shopping wagon. Povercide Bob almost had the air of a military man, a drill sergeant. However, his mission was to regale anyone who would listen regarding how the people who operate the multi-national corporations, the government, the CIA, and the military were killing the rest of us -- committing “povercide” against us. He had no doubt regarding all of the conspiracy theories: all of the assassinations were the work of president-approved or rogue CIA operatives. One solution he had to peoples’ economic woes was to add six zeroes to everyone’s bank accounts. This proposal ignored the fact that many poor people do not have bank accounts, but you get the idea. This proposal was part put-on, part serious, and I found it quite amusing and intriguing. I was never sure where Povercide Bob slept at night: it seems that for a while, at least, he had an apartment.
In those days it was often somewhat of a political statement to not have a conventional apartment, to not be paying rent, to be living if not outside the law, then certainly outside the system. Squatters however, were not just outside the system: they were trying to transform the system, and to build other systems. It must also be remembered that East Village squatters were members of the international and historical squatter community, and also, in many cases, of other anarchy-oriented communities. For the entire nation, the East Village -- along with, in a less concentrated way, the San Francisco area -- were the places that people who did not want to join the system could go to join each other. Runaways from all over the country converged on Ave. A, as was attested to by the fliers concerning their missing teenagers that anxious parents posted in Ave. A laundromats.
In the East Village of the 80’s and early 90’s, many people lived in interstitial spaces. (“Interstice: a space that intervenes between closely spaced things; a gap or break in something generally continuous” [Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary]). This was possible in those days in part because there were so many abandoned and crumbling buildings, and un-used or under-used lots, especially between Aves. A and D. One would come upon people sleeping on staircase landings, and roofs; in sheltered sidewalk areas, alleys, and self-storage rooms; and at deserted construction sites: in short, along the edges of civilized, constructed society, in no-man’s-lands, in unfinished, semi-wild, contested, up-for-grabs, in-flux, uncertain, unlabeled, unclassified, ambiguous, and unclaimed places. Sleeping and camping in such places is quite common in many areas of the developing world, but it has not been so in most of the USA in recent years. Maybe it was in the ‘hobo jungles’ of the 1930’s.
One of the people who did die perhaps of a form of povercide was Merlin. After two of the squats he was living in were shut down by the authorities, Merlin decided to camp out on the street. And that is what he did. For almost a year in the early 90’s, Merlin lived on the sidewalk, on the east side of Ave. A, just south of 6th St. The building on this street was a Con Ed electrical station, and thus was not residential or commercial; Merlin camped against the side of this building. He had blankets for protection against the cold, and a tarp for protection against the rain. People would come by and chat, sit for a while, give him food, etc. Finally, he died. The problem involved an internal organ, I believe. It was a mystery to me why the police permitted him to live there for so long. Many people were chased away from similar spots. Perhaps it was because Merlin was so good-natured and polite. It seemed he was always smiling. A saintly smile.
Merlin’s corner was a-block-and-a-half south of Ray’s, on the other side (the east side) of Ave. A. There were cafes on Ave. A with outdoor tables on the northeast corner of 6th St. (across the street northward from Merlin’s corner), and on the southwest corner of 7th St. These outdoor restaurant seats added to the ‘outdoor-life’ nature of the area: but there is a marked difference between paying to temporarily sit (something one may do in someone else’s space), and lying down for as long as one wants without paying (something one may do in one’s own space, or in free space).
Jim the Mosaic Man sometimes dropped by Ray’s at night, but he was really more of a day person. Jim’s long white hair was usually pulled back in a ponytail. He was often full of the blarney, and was often up in arms about something or other. Jim made tile mosaics in the neighborhood, both indoors and out. (An essay I have written about Jim’s mosaic work is, “Festive Art in a Festive Neighborhood: Street Mosaics in the East Village”). Jim frequently lived at his work places: that is, if he was hired to do a large mosaic on and/or in a building that was in the process of being built, he would, if possible, move in and live at the construction site, sometimes for months. Other times, Jim received nearby living space in exchange for the mosaic work, or other work, he was doing. He seemingly never paid rent.
During sunlight hours, Lawrence might also be around Ray’s. Lawrence said he was from Montana. Lawrence was quite tall, over six-and-a-half feet. He had the quality of (my fantasy of) an Old Testament prophet. He was often furious at activity that was going on in the park across the street. One thing that really incensed him was guys going about bare-chested. He felt that this was insulting and offensive to women, of whom he considered himself very protective. He had a philosophy regarding boy and girl natures. The spiritual and emotional qualities of colors were also important parts of Lawrence’s philosophy. He would often stalk up and down the sidewalk in front of Ray’s, shouting to others, or muttering to himself, about peoples’ bad behavior. Away from the park activity that he objected to, however, he tended to be very quiet. Actually, people like Lawrence, who do a lot of camping out alone, are quiet much of the time. Lawrence has a fine sense of humor, and is warm, gentle, sensitive, sweet, and sentimental. Lawrence was one of those people who would disappear for months at a time. One did not know if they had gone home, to jail, to a hospital, etc. But in time they would return.
A few doors uptown from Ray’s there was a diner with a large front window. Almost every night, from the sidewalk, through that window, one could see the same group of middle-aged people -- some looked like old-time comedians, labor organizers, professors, etc. They would be sitting there, talking, for hours.
There was a mix of old East Village culture and the new computer technology. I remember once visiting the home of a computer worker in Alphabet City. This was in the early days of the Internet, in the early 90’s. His space was unusually large: lots of stuff was piled up in the darkness on either side of the pathway that led to the far end of the large room. When we reached the far end of the space, I was amazed to see four large monitors, with accompanying keyboards and computers -- all piled up and side-by-side, in full operation! I never learned what he was doing with these computers: website design, software development, hacking, etc.? Such was a typical mysterious East Village computer set-up and lifestyle: a combination of mess and brilliance. There were many people with one-of-a-kind worldviews, people who were at times unbalanced, creative, driven, urgent, obsessive, grandiose, awesome, on-the-edge, delightful, funny, stimulating, mad, and desperate.
Many New Yorkers keep a lot of stuff, too much stuff, in their apartments: this is a story unto itself. Perhaps some do it to compensate for the smallness, the limitedness, of their spaces. Sometimes there is barely enough room to open the doors and walk around. Sometimes, as in the case described in the preceding paragraph, there is a pathway along which one can walk, from one end of the space to the other. In short, many New Yorkers, East Villagers included, are ‘pack-rats.’ This is perhaps one aspect of a larger condition: New Yorkers are, after all, famous for their (psychological, as well as spatial) boundary issues: confusion, or perhaps ambiguity, over where one thing ends and the next begins – me, you; inside, outside; etc.
In the 80’s, many people in the neighborhood survived largely on SSI (social security insurance), SSD (social security disability), veterans’ benefits, or other types of government checks. For some people, it was a struggle to maintain a mailing address to which their monthly checks could be sent. Having received the check, typically people would cash it at a local check-cashing shop. By the 90’s, some ‘together’ people in this situation had a bank account into which the monthly payments could be placed electronically, and then be accessed with an ATM card.
It seemed to me that at the end of each month there was a certain tension in the air, which at the beginning of the next month was replaced by a certain excitement and joy, as people who had received their payments could, however briefly, once again spend extravagantly. In the late 90’s, however, many people were taken off the SSI and SSD programs, and work-for-welfare (also known as workfare) was introduced. People receiving welfare benefits would be seen, in uniform, picking up garbage in the park.
On Friday nights from time to time there were speak outs at the entrance to TSP, at the northeast corner of 7th St. and Ave. A. At these speak outs, people of the neighborhood defined for themselves what they felt was the news of the day, and of course they commented upon this news. The speaker would sometimes stand on a plastic milk crate. Povercide Bob would often speak at the speak outs, but actually every day was speak out day for people like him. John the Communist was a longtime squatter and squatter organizer. John, with his long brown hair parted in the center, was often one of the most eloquent speakers at the speak outs. Speakers would often relate local governmental and law enforcement actions -- especially their restrictions in regard to, and closings of, squats, community centers, parks, and gardens -- to national and international occurrences and trends, including the development of the prison-industrial-military-complex.
At the height of the TSP camping scene (in 1988, before the midnight curfew was imposed, or enforced), hundreds of people were camping out there, in and around the band shell, the grassy areas, etc. I recall that there was one young African-American man who would often be carving wood, working on sculptures that exhibited traditional African as well as modern art styles. This living situation may not have been viable, but it was intellectually and artistically stimulating for the neighborhood in general. One reason that the situation was less sanitary than it could have been was that the public restrooms were often not open.
Lack of access to restrooms never seemed to bother the ‘crusties,’ as they were known. In the years following the imposition of the park curfew, crusties would often sleep in packs in the park together during the day. When they woke up they would sit around in a circle, leaning on each other, holding a council. Sometimes they lived in squats. They had a uniform of sorts: they all seemed to wear cloths that were green and brown. Earth colors. Perhaps it was just that their cloths were colored with dirt. As they would not wash their cloths or bodies for long periods of time, they developed a distinctive odor. Their look and smell were, it seems, badges of honor and identity among them. They just were not going to buy into the system. They wouldn’t even go in for fancy tattoos: a number of them had homemade designs on their faces, made with permanent black markers. As most of the squats were closed down and many of the squatters left town or blended into the rest of the city population, it seems the crusties did too. By 2002, crusties no longer roamed the East Village in large numbers.
For years, Jamaican and other West Indian men often played soccer in the afternoons in the band shell area of TSP. This has dwindled. Spontaneous drum circles, especially composed of Hispanic people, used to occur in various places in the park. This has also dwindled, as more and more Hispanic people have been forced by high rents to leave the area; and also perhaps because they simply did not feel the park was theirs anymore, culturally speaking.
One of the contributing factors to the dwindling of life in the park was the relentless busting of people for smoking marijuana there. At first just tickets were given, but by the late-90’s people were routinely handcuffed, taken in, put through the system, and held at least overnight. The police generally lived in the suburbs and often seemed to view East Village people as weirdoes and jerks. Once I overheard an undercover policeman say with a smirk to a young person he was arresting: “You know you can’t smoke pot in the park. Do that at home.” To do things like smoking pot in one’s home, behind closed doors, is a middle-class, suburban approach: many East Villagers wanted to do such things out-of-doors, in nature, and with each other.
By 2002, although it was now certainly simpler on certain practical levels for children and their guardians to make use of the park’s playground areas, the park was much less the social and cultural center that it had been years earlier. The imposition of the midnight curfew in 1988 had marked the beginning of the end of the East Village’s unique outdoor lifestyle and culture.
On my way to the river, I often walked along 9th St. from Ave. B to Ave. C so as to pass by La Plaza Cultural. This was a garden and amphitheatre area, with huge willow trees, and other trees. The beautiful scenes of nature were in dramatic visual contrast to the many ruins of buildings in the area. Charas, the community arts center in an old public school building, was also on this block. Charas was evicted a few years ago, and La Plaza Cultural has been fenced off so that although one can always see it, one can only enter the space when its managers have opened the lock on the gate.
WBAI radio -- 99.5 fm -- was also an important part of the cultural milieu of the period. WBAI featured a lot of talk, much more so than the other Pacifica stations. People from the East Village often used to speak on WBAI, especially on Bob Fass’ late-night program. In the late 90’s, when WBAI was commandeered by Pacifica’s national board, numerous WBAI people were locked out of the station office and/or fired. This national board was eventually reconstituted and some of its policies were rescinded, but I don’t know how things are developing at WBAI these days.
Bob Fass’ program on WBAI, and the scene outside Ray’s Newsstand, were for many years central to the neighborhood’s public sphere, unlike the sham public sphere of television (with the exception of certain public access cable TV programs), and the very limited and unsatisfying public sphere that was available via the Internet.
To reach the East River, one had to cross over the East Side Highway on the walk-bridge either at 7th or 10th St. (The 10th St. walk-bridge was removed in 2002, making access to the East River Park more difficult for many people.) Usually, I would take the 7th St. walk-bridge.
The East River Park is located between the East Side Highway and the river. This park is not very wide -- only wide enough for a ball field. In the years before encampments were removed all over the city in the mid-90’s, there was a sizeable colony of people living in one section of the East River Park, between two of the ball fields. I was told that the people of this group had HIV/AIDS. It was like a lepers’ colony, a community of outcasts, literally living on the edge of society, with no further to go other than into the East River. I heard that some of these people were learning reiki and other forms of health maintenance, and healing. I remember seeing these people and thinking, “What a tragic shame it is that sometimes it takes something like getting HIV/AIDS to get people to the point of learning methods of improving health, and of practicing them together.”
Having reached the East River, I would walk through the East River Park and proceed in a southerly direction on the promenade along the water’s edge. In 2000, from 12th St. down to around Delancey St., a ten-foot high wire-mesh fence was erected along the eastern edge of the East River Park. This fence blocked access to the 10-yard-wide promenade along the water. The word was that the concrete promenade was in danger of eroding and falling into the river. However, no work schedule or projected completion date were ever included in the notices that were put up, and I never saw repair work being done. Many local residents saw the construction of this fence as one more instance of the Giuliani (mayoral) administration’s predilection for control and restriction of public movement. This fence made me feel claustrophobic, hemmed in: for one thing, one could no longer imagine freely jumping into the river and swimming to Queens on the far side.
Down near Grand St. there was a deserted open-air amphitheatre. Only the massive stage and backstage areas were covered by a roof: there was a great deal of trash in these areas. There were also holes in the fence, and signs, such as mattresses, of people living inside in cleared-away spaces. In the late 90’s, the city reclaimed this amphitheatre, and -- with the assistance of a non-profit arts group -- cleaned it up, and fenced it off thoroughly.
Under the Brooklyn Bridge (on the Manhattan side), there was a genuine beach -- complete with sand, pebbles, rocks, and driftwood -- running approximately 200 yards. This was one of two beaches that I was aware of on the Lower Manhattan coastline (the other was beside the East River, near 20th St.). At these beaches in the early and mid 80’s, numerous people lived just above the littoral zone (the shore area between high and low tide watermarks). Here, at the top of the beach, they built encampments, using tarps and found materials of all sorts. Some of these makeshift homes looked like rural huts, or caves (if they were adjacent to walls), and had a mythic, primeval, and haunting quality to them. In ancient days, whalebones were perhaps used in the construction of such homes. Much riverside camping also occurred on the Brooklyn side of the East River, in under-used industrial areas, and in areas that would eventually become parks. By the late 90’s, the beach encampments were long gone, at least on the Manhattan side, but I am happy to report that the beach area was permitted to remain under the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. One could still walk on that beach in 2002.
Beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, I would come to the Fulton St. Fish Market -- in fascinating full swing at four in the morning in those days (now mostly relocated, I believe). And then, as I would proceed westward, I would enter the ‘sanitized zone’: beginning with the tourist mall area which is the South St. Seaport; and following that, the Wall St. area. I would pass the Staten Island Ferry terminal, often wishing I could take a ferry to some far, far away, wild and adventurous place! But, shaking myself from the daydream, I would usually head back northward on the west coast of Manhattan Island, walking up the Battery Park City promenade, along the Hudson River. This promenade, being part of the very upscale Battery Park City neighborhood, was always beautifully kept: it was patrolled by Parks Dept. guards, unlike the East River Park riverside promenade, which was patrolled by police.
Then, near the northern end of the promenade, I would come upon the World Financial Center, which faced the river. The WFC was a huge building with a massive glass-enclosed atrium, with palm trees and picnic tables inside. This style of architecture, like domed cities, produces space that is, in a sense, a mixture of inside and outside: that is, the enclosed space, with its sunlight and vegetation, almost seems like it is outdoors. Many homeless people slept here, sitting at the picnic tables, until the space was closed at night in the mid-90’s (previously, it had been open 24-hours). Finally, I would return toward the East Village, either by subway (the E train stopped under the nearby World Trade Center towers), or by walk, via Chinatown.
If I still had more energy after this six-mile walk, I might head back to Ray’s, to see who was still there, and perhaps to have another small chocolate egg cream. There certainly were nights when some of the same people would be out there both before and after my coastline walk.
In 2002, East Village streets were filled with people who had been attracted by the neighborhood’s artistic and bohemian flavor. College students, for example, were present in ever-increasing numbers. But much of the actual artistic activity had vanished. Where were the people on the streets going? To bars, to drink? If they had dared to sit on the sidewalks, the police would likely have ordered them to move. Aside from TSP, which was closed at midnight, one could for the most part only exist in public if one were in transit, or sitting someplace for a price. This is why it was so important that people had been standing in front of Ray’s, talking. They had not been there to consume anything, but rather to produce and to share. They had not been on their way to anyplace else. They had arrived. They were at the center of things. Other people came by to see and visit with them.
But by 2002, the scene around Ray’s had dwindled. Many nights, the old regulars were just not there, even in good weather. Ray talked about having to close down due to his rent being raised astronomically. When the restaurant on the corner was refashioned (from a Polish diner to a ‘hip’ bar), this was an ominous signal of the end of the old ethnic and personal style of the neighborhood.
What had happened? A combination of things: First and foremost, there had been an increase in public-space management by the police and by city authorities in general. Regulations of all sorts had been tightened up and enforced. (This was prior to 9/11; the situation became only more extreme after that date.) It had become increasingly difficulty to get, and to continue getting, SSI, SSD, and welfare. Rents had risen greatly, and rent-control protections had been weakened. Many gardens had been confiscated by the city. Artists could no longer afford outdoor lots -- or, in many cases, indoor studios. With fewer performers and painters present, there were fewer performance spaces and galleries; for in the old days, in the mid-80’s, Lower East Side performers had performed primarily for other performers. There had been a real community of artists, living and working in close proximity to each other.
By 2002, a global evolutionary trend was also affecting the situation: there were just fewer and fewer people engaged in the old-fashioned physical activities of performance, dance, theater, painting, and sculpture. Instead, more and more people -- including artistically-oriented individuals -- were spending much of their time working with computers, using computers as their primary medium. Due in part to the state of computer technology at the time, this meant that many people were now working indoors, and alone. Working with computers and the Internet also made it increasingly difficult to function outside the mainstream economic and legal systems, without, for examples, a credit card and bank account, for such things are often needed for dependable and high-quality electrical, telephone, and Internet connections.
Over the past 20 years, a number of social and cultural shifts have occurred in the East Village. The numbers of Hispanic and Eastern-European people, artistic people, ‘progressive’ people, and poor people have diminished. It is not clear to what extent this has been willed and planned, but city authorities are well aware of the East Village’s historical role as a national and international center of radical thought and action, and it seems that some of them have been only too happy to see some of the East Village’s traditional people and culture dispersed. It also seems that some politicians may have been guided by landlords and real estate owners in this process. Nomadic and independent-minded people everywhere tend to have a difficult time in civilizations, as civic authorities naturally tend to seek to establish pervasive administrative grids.
One could see the old East Village being transformed with every locally owned store that closed, and with every huge ‘convenience store’ (Duane Reade, etc.) that opened in its place. One type of product that the convenience stores specialize in selling is processed and preserved foods that have very long shelf lives. These convenience stores are like huge truck stops, helping to reduce neighborhoods to non-neighborhoods. There are ways to promote local arts and crafts -- even in this era of national and international franchises -- but sadly, it seems that such ways have not been developed and applied in the East Village very much to date.
It is a shame that the residents of the East Village and city authorities have not found many ways to work together to channel East Villagers’ vibrant energy and creativity into productive projects. I have always felt that there should be arts, health, spirituality, community building, and other types of workshops (perhaps with the use of folding tables), on the sidewalks of Ave. A. (especially between 7th St. and St. Mark’s Place), every single afternoon and evening (weather permitting).
It should be noted that the squats, most of which were in Alphabet City, were no utopias. Stories abounded about nasty behavior by squatters toward each other, about how squatters had been forced out, or victimized by each other in other ways. Neither should one romanticize the outdoor living that occurred in and around the East Village near the end of the twentieth century. Every animal likes to have a quiet, safe, comfortable place she or he can retreat to and relax in, and many people living outdoors in the East Village did not have this. Many people had no choice but to put up with uncertain and difficult living conditions if they wanted to stay in the East Village, near each other, in this cultural milieu. Many people grew to depend on each other, for they were undergoing an ordeal together. Some people may not have had much, but at least they had each other -- and the outdoors, including some precious parks and gardens. There was a sense -- however evanescent and illusionary -- of everybody in the neighborhood being in this together.
Yes, many East Village street people were a little unbalanced and short-tempered, and many of them could turn on you very quickly and surprisingly. But this did not happen too often or seriously, at least in my experience. The point is, there was a community of independent thinkers who would hang out together. What is a community anyway? What is a neighborhood? Common styles, customs, inclinations, ways of seeing and doing things. In the case of the East Village, it was a special neighborhood: an art-making and experimental-thinking capital of the nation and of the world, going back to the 60’s, the 30’s, and earlier. For many people, it was a place to meet people, get high, and listen to music. A place to enjoy ‘wine, women, and song’ (or the equivalents). A place for variants of those near-universally-sought-after complementary pleasures: intoxicants, love and sex, and art. And, of course, for many generations the Lower East Side has been an interface between the rest of the USA to the west, and to the east, the rest of the world.
A common chant when spaces would be closed down, torn down, or restricted, was, “US out of the Lower East Side!” The Lower East Side was the only place where many people felt comfortable in those days: for such individuals, the prospect of going north of 14th St., beyond the ‘liberated zone,’ was daunting. There was a feeling that, on some level, East Villagers were a separate people (with mystical links to like-minded individuals of all places and times). NYC in general is different from most of the rest of the USA. Most USA people don’t care very much for much of NYC's people and culture: note the still-popular Christian preachers who hailed the 9/11 incidents as God’s just punishment of New Yorkers.
In the 80’s and early 90’s, there was a sense in the East Village that here, just as at Woodstock, people were in the process of making a new culture, a utopian civilization, of making history. In that East Village, there were many social connections to the Woodstock scene: in a sense, the East Village and Woodstock were sister art colonies. (The town of Woodstock is less than a three-hour drive from New York City.) Of course “Woodstock,” the rock concert and social experiment, actually occurred in Bethel, some miles away from Woodstock, but the town of Woodstock has been, and remains, an important arts center, and many people of the old East Village had connections to this and countless other arts colonies and individuals around the world.
There were also many connections to the rainbow gathering scene. There are numerous legends regarding how rainbow gatherings began. One is that a few years after Woodstock, in the early 70’s, some people wanted to gather annually in the Woodstock spirit. Thus they meet in national parks around each 4th of July for a week or so. Electricity and money are done without. People cook, lead workshops, make music, and just enjoy nature and each other. There are also smaller regional gatherings, and gatherings outside the USA. Many rainbow gathering people stay in touch throughout the year, and chances are if one visits an organic food store or restaurant in most USA cities, one can find rainbow gathering people. Many rainbow gathering people used to live in the vicinity of Ray’s. The old East Village almost seemed to be on the verge of being a perpetual Woodstock, a perpetual rainbow gathering. This was especially so on the days when Jerry the Peddler and other squatters would facilitate cultural festivals in TSP.
I have written most of this essay in the past tense because many of the things and people described herein no longer exist on the Lower East Side, although many still do. Because I have been out of the country for a year, I do not know exactly what remains, and how things have changed. There are some positive developments: Lach has built the music room, known as The Fort, of the Sidewalk Café into a major cultural institution, featuring what he calls “anti-folk music” (this is on the northeast corner of 6th St. and Ave. A, just uptown, across the street, from Merlin’s corner). The Bowery Poetry Space and DV (Digital Video) Dojo (on the west side of 3rd Ave., north of 1st St.) are doing wonderful poetry and computer-video work, respectively. Some gardens survive. The Federation of East Village Artists has come into being. A few years ago the city permitted a small number of the remaining squats in Alphabet City to go legit: that is, residents of the squats were allowed to purchase the properties from the city. I am most interested to learn how this experiment is working out.
However, friends tell me via e-mail that the old cultural life of the East Village has dwindled drastically in the year I have been away, and that I will be shocked when I return. Although I hope to visit and interact with the people of the East Village perpetually, I am planning to settle in Chennai, the capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Chennai, formerly called Madras, faces Singapore, and seems to be a good spot from which to collaborate on artistic, academic, telecommunication, and other projects with people around the world. There is still a strong sense of wilderness in this part of the world.
The speak outs, the conversations in front of Ray’s and those in TSP: these were public sphere activities that are very rare in modern society. Certainly, I have never found so much public sphere space, discussion, and socializing in any other part of NYC, or in any other USA city. I wish Ray’s, and the sidewalk in front of Ray’s, could be recognized as an historic site, as a cultural treasure. There is not another spot like it in the world (although there is much more street life in places like India than in the USA). While living in the USA, I, for one, only felt truly at home, at peace, centered, and in the bosom of the public sphere, when I was standing in front of Ray’s.
No matter where I am -- even in the mountain forests of south India -- in the evenings I sometimes get the urge to get up, get out of my personal space, and wander over to Ray’s, to see who is around, say hello, and discuss the day’s news.
Eric Miller, Nov. 2003.
Nagarcoil, Tamil Nadu, south India.