St. Marks is Dead. The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street, Ada Calhoun (Norton, 2016)
Every city and town has a street where the action happens or has happened. Be it a cobbled lane with ‘alternative’ shops, a secondhand music store, an arts centre and a basement music venue (Exeter), or a meandering market such as London’s Portobello Road, which sprawls a good mile or more from overpriced ‘antiques’ to jumble spread on the floor or makeshift tables, there are always streets that have witnessed social changes, revolutions, gentrification and abandonment.
In Manhattan, New York, one such street if St. Marks Place in the East Village, which is the subject of Ada Calhoun’s enjoyable and informative volume. She quickly gets through nearly 20,000 years of history in the first section’s 30-odd pages, before slowing down a little to explore the gangster haunts, the strike, and Prohibition in the first half of the twentieth century, but the bulk of this book tells the more recent history of the alternative cultures and societies inhabiting the street from 1951 onwards.
Beatniks, immigrants and the homeless crowd the pages here, closely followed by hippies, punks, hucksters and property developers. Through it all, the voices of the people speak, for Calhoun’s book is fuelled and underpinned by hundreds of interviews she has conducted around the place she grew up and still clearly loves.
If there is one over-arching theme that develops it is that it was always better before…. before the gays took over, before the punks arrived, before it was safe to walk alone at night. This ‘before’ only gets contradicted in the closing sentence, when one long-term resident rejoices in the ongoing now, despite the outrageous rents now payable to unscrupulous landlords and the draconian laws forbidding much of what once went on.
At heart this is both a celebration or and an elegy to what once was: gay bathhouses, alternative music venues, squats and cheap places to live, performance venues, cheap secondhand stores, local grocery shops, punk hairdressers, record and zine stores, piercing and tattoo parlours, local bars and cafes. All now mostly gone, mostly to be redeveloped as expensive housing, but also gone as Gap and other chain stores move in.
St. Marks was until comparatively recently a violent, rough and dirty area, rife with drugs and junkies, a makeshift home to hundreds of homeless and outcast people, many dangerously psychotic or insane, many desperate and uncared for. No wonder perhaps that the many families who had made the place their home cheered as the illegal camps in Tompkins Park were cleared by violent cops, or the all-night psychedelic concert venue were closed down. No wonder they were pleased that their homes were not broken into weekly, or that they and their kids were no longer threatened and abused each time they ventured out. And yet it seems everyone who speaks out here knows the place has changed, and not for the better. The life has in many ways been sucked out of the place, as indeed it has of much of Manhattan. The city may be a safer place to live but it is also a more expensive and over-familiar place, full of the same shops as the rest of the world, with only gawping tourists and trustafarian posers and fashion victims touring what were once mean streets.
The artists, poets and musicians have long gone. Even the author admits she now lives in Brooklyn, which is perhaps where the music, art and poetry have now gone. St. Marks Place is still a mecca for cheap food and secondhand clothes, good bars and restaurants, but something vital is missing. Nostalgia and a sense of what once was, might even be again, lingers. It is an ‘alternative’ part of New York now, not a genuine alternative. There is no need for the revolutionary church and other care facilities that once supplied lifelines to the destitute and broken, for they have been moved on, the city tidied up and policed. Only money, spectacle and greed now flows where communities once existed and celebrated the diversity and possibilities of their lives.
© Rupert Loydell 2016