(The East Village, Bohemia, The Downtown Scene)
The Losers' Club is a vibrant and hopeful anthem for all of us 'losers' who choose not to wallow (for too long!) in our despair and who find the will to keep searching.”— Heather Lowcock, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington KY*
BOOK SENSE 76 TOP TEN PICK!*
The author, Richard Perez
From Grit to Gloss
Originally published in the New York Times, Nov.13, 2005
By RICHARD PEREZ
The other day, as I stood on the corner of Astor Place and Lafayette Street, two adorable young Japanese tourists stopped to ask me a question: "Can you tell us where is the East Village?"
I was tempted to say, "The East Village is a state of mind, not a place." But these two young women were obviously demanding more concrete directions. Trying to be helpful, I pointed east.
"Over there," I said, almost adding, "Past the luxury high-rise." As they glanced toward where I was pointing, then back at me, I could almost see the disappointment in their eyes.
Afterward, it occurred to me that I should have said something more, perhaps made mention of the raw pre-Starbucks days, recalled historical facts and luminaries who have since died, provided a brief historic explanation of how the notion and myth of bohemia took root in the West Village and spread east to Alphabet City in the 1960's as part of a brilliant P.R. move by visionary real estate brokers. But it was too late: The young women had straggled off and vanished in the crowd of confused Saturday shoppers, curiosity seekers and aimless slackers like me.
Still, their question continued to bother me, particularly as I looked up from where I stood at the Astor Place tower, the 21-story glass-and-steel condominium that opened last month on what had been a parking lot in front of which, in the late 80's, I used to hawk used hipster lit. My wares were mostly transgressive trade paperbacks, and my customers the kindred 20- and 30-something semi-intellectual would-be author/artists who then populated the neighborhood.
"Architectural Lofts for Sale, From $3.4 Million," proclaimed a large sign on the new tower. Another sign bore the words "Sculpture for Living," suggesting that people who bought into this building weren't simply buying real estate, they were buying "art." This promise presumably had something to do with the aura surrounding the area, the mythical East Village of yore, once the center of the art world and, during the early and mid-80's, home to more than 50 storefront galleries, all now vanished.
The young women's question came to mind again as I gazed at the giant bank of posters advertising the film version of "Rent," the scruffy Off Broadway rock musical about squatters in the age of AIDS. It was born and set on these very streets, then quickly moved to Broadway before making its way to the big screen, where it will open Nov. 23. "No day but today!" the posters proclaimed in stylized, fist-pumping glory as they marched along the scaffolding that stretched from the Astor Place Theater and seemed to wrap around the entire block. "No day but today!"
Another memorable lyric from the musical is "Bohemia, Bohemia's a fallacy in your head ... Bohemia is dead!" sung by the show's convert to capitalism, Benjamin Coffin III.
My thoughts exactly, I said to myself as I looked around the neighborhood and felt like a stranger.
No Day but Yesterday
The commercialization of the East Village began long before "Rent" opened in the tiny (150-seat) New York Theater Workshop in February 1996; even during the previous seven years in which its creator, Jonathan Larson, was shaping the show, the neighborhood he described so vividly had begun to disappear. But the earliest and latest versions of the rock musical serve as almost perfect bookends for the neighborhood's increasingly commercialized transformation during the period they bracketed.
When "Rent" arrived at the New York Theater Workshop, much was made of how the world brought to life inside the playhouse was mirrored on the streets just outside. "One of the nicest things about seeing 'Rent' on East Fourth Street," Margo Jefferson, a critic for The New York Times, wrote shortly after the opening, "is that when you leave (Cafe La Mama is right across the street), you feel a genuine link between theater and life."
"Rent" accurately portrayed a neighborhood populated by transgender, gay and multicultural characters, and its subject matter dealt head on with issues related to a community in swift transition: gentrification, displacement, homelessness, AIDS, drug addiction, community activism and homesteading, a k a squatting. The musical also touched on issues that related to me personally as a would-be-artist/loser: hanging on to your ideals and your creative integrity in light of ever more insidious commercial expectations, the absence of low-cost housing and the absence of health insurance, especially in the time of AIDS.
But to look back at the world from which "Rent" emerged, and to contrast it with the world in which the movie will open, is to look at a chasm. When it comes to the issues that were front and center in the little musical - AIDS, drugs, housing, poverty - practically everything has changed.
Epidemic? What Epidemic?
When I think about "Rent" and about another theatrical classic of the era, "Angels in America," I often wonder, "What happened to the issue of AIDS?"
Was the subject displaced in the news media by the seemingly more urgent threat of terrorism? Or does the presence of new drugs that can prolong life make this illness less of a public issue, despite the fact that nearly a million Americans have been mortally afflicted, more than 500,000 have died, and according to Avert, an international AIDS charity, an estimated 40,000 new HIV infections occur in America each year?
In "Rent," no fewer than four major characters are infected with the disease: Tom Collins, the anarchist turned New York University instructor; Angel, the transvestite street drummer; Roger, the aspiring punk songwriter; and Mimi, the dancer in an S-and-M club whom he loves. The script has references to AZT breaks and Life Support meetings, and the specter of the disease hangs over much of the musical, like a dark cloud waiting to unleash its misery. When the characters sing "No day but today," the words ring in many ears as a cry of desperation.
In real life, the stigma of the disease was so great by the mid-90's that most people kept it secret, even with the first signs of emaciation and the lesions that were a telltale sign of Kaposi's sarcoma, a skin cancer linked with AIDS. Only drug addicts who hung out along the Bowery and in the fringes of Alphabet City were unable to conceal, or were beyond concealing, the ravages of the disease.
At restaurants where I sometimes worked, rumors floated and people dropped out of sight. When people failed to show up for shifts, for days on end, there was true cause for alarm.
Today, subway kiosks are plastered with posters that depict young men and women with glowing expressions and affirm the life-giving properties of the new AIDS cocktails. These days, to mention the disease in a trendy Avenue A martini bar is to attract the kind of looks you might get if you mentioned TB. Especially among a younger crowd, they have no clue what you're talking about.
Another hot-button topic in the East Village in those days was addiction. Whether crack cocaine (in the 80's) or heroin (in the 90's) or alcohol (always), drugs have played an important part in bohemia, both as self-medication and as buffer against the disappointments one faces when pursuing the creative life. In "Rent," two main characters are afflicted: Roger is in recovery, and Mimi, as she confesses in the haunting song "Light My Candle," still likes to "feel good" now and then.
During the 90's, as crack cocaine gave way to the cheaper and more refined heroin, it was impossible to walk more than two blocks in the Lower East Side without being accosted by seemingly ordinary individuals hawking items with names like "Pachunga," "Benny Blanco" and the ever popular "Hellraiser." There followed an avalanche of new and reissued books, like Linda Yablonsky's "Story of Junk," which involved heroin addiction followed by spiritual redemption.
Now and then, in a throwback to the crack cocaine days, shivering addicts could be seen in the twilight, waiting to hoist a bucket up the side of a dilapidated tenement building: first the money floated up, then the scag dropped.
Snort it, smoke it or shoot it up; for a time, heroin seemed part of the local landscape: as you looked north from the Bowery, the Empire State Building loomed like a huge, hot syringe.
Now, of course, the whole scene has changed. Former addicts are "maintaining" or dead. Whispered offers of "double-sealed works" are no longer heard in the neighborhood, nor is it common to see someone tie off between parked cars or at the foot of shadowy basement stairs or in the bathroom of Tompkins Square Park. Former addicts and even dabblers have gone the way of the Bowery bum; I haven't heard the drug mentioned seriously for years.
Changing the Locks
"Everything is rent!" sing the characters in the musical's anthem title song. And today, even more than in the 90's, many New Yorkers find themselves deeply troubled by the growing lack of affordable housing in the area. The Real Estate Board of New York, commenting this year on sales of condominiums south of 14th Street, noted that "prewar condos surged to a median price of $1.275 million." For the first time since the organization started tracking prices over all, median sale prices for condominiums downtown, the group noted, "have been higher than both the Upper East Side and West Side."
At a moment when living expenses in the neighborhood are stratospheric, I often ask myself: Who can still afford a place to sleep in its precincts, let alone risk taking the artist's path? Or, as The Real Deal, a magazine that tracks New York real estate, put it: "The gentrification sweeping Astor Place, a bridge area that was once the inviolate dividing line between the East Village and Greenwich Village in the late 1970's, now means condominium conversions are driving out the urban grit."
In my eyes, the Astor Place tower is the most potent symbol of the absence of urban grit. The developer is the Related Companies, which helped to develop the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. The architects, Gwathmey Siegel, have created buildings for celebrated figures like Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, coincidentally one of the earliest supporters of "Rent" and the first to arrange for the musical's cast recording.
Does the mirrored glass tower, hard by the historic Cooper Union brownstone and the landmark Public Theater, look wildly out of place? Or is it just me?
The original production of "Rent" was not only set in the East Village, it was performed there as well, and visually, the show perfectly jived with the area's grunginess and romanticized seediness; the set resembled a thrift-store patchwork quilt of the neighborhood, filled with the ragtag clutter of downtown.
That ragtag clutter, characterized by posted fliers, Xerox art/collage and graffiti art on St. Marks Place and elsewhere, was an important part of the raw aesthetic of the place. Most of the shining lights of the East Village art scene - Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer - had begun their careers as graffiti artists. Street posters and the stylized, expressionistic scrawls across a wide range of surfaces were more than an advertising tool; they were a kind of subversive art.
These days, as the neighborhood seeks to make itself ever more attractive to high-end businesses and developers of luxury housing, that kind of expression is strictly contained. Cleanup squads are assigned the task of removing pesky signs of local color, and virtually every light pole and the rare boarded-up storefront are routinely scraped of anarchic artwork and local political announcements or manifestos. Anyone caught posting handmade fliers can be charged with a "quality of life" infraction. Seediness is no longer to be relished.
And what of the local landmarks that defined this neighborhood? One by one, I see them tumbling down.
Variety Photo Plays, the neon-lit theater in front of which Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle parked in "Taxi Driver," was recently demolished. The Polish diner on First Avenue that was the site of a famous breakfast scene between Jodie Foster and Mr. De Niro is also gone, as is the building on 13th Street where the shootout near the end of the film took place.
Disappeared, too, is the complex of neo-Federalist houses at 23 St. Marks Place that served a trio of culturally significant uses; it was the home of the Dom, where Andy Warhol created the Exploding Plastic Inevitable; it was where the Velvet Underground first performed; and it was home to the Electric Circus. In recent years, the complex served as a drug-treatment and community center; the space has been replaced by condos.
Nearby, at 15 St. Marks Place, stood a nondescript two-story building that housed a bar frequented by Allen Ginsberg and other Beats, one that dated to the pre-Stonewall days, when, by order of the State Liquor Authority, it was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals. That space, too, has been replaced by condos.
And CBGB, the temple of punk? Stay tuned. The club is embroiled in a messy dispute involving money and is hanging on by its fingernails.
On the Bowery, where I used to see staggering derelicts of all stripes, I now see freakishly upscale restaurants and million-dollar lofts. And coming soon - amid the restaurant supply stores and commercial businesses between Stanton and Rivington Streets - is the 60,000-square-foot, seven-story building for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, for which ground was broken Oct. 11.
Space 2B, at Second Street and Avenue B, could have served as a set for "Rent." The building, also known as the Gas Station, was a scrap-metal sculpture garden and industrial, avant-garde performance space that played host to some the area's wildest bands and performance art. In March 1996, a month after "Rent" moved to Broadway, the outdoor art was bulldozed, and the performance space was replaced by a Duane Reade and luxury apartments.
The Palladium, the famous dance club on 14th Street, was bought in 1997 by New York University and replaced by a high-rise dorm.
That brings me back to Astor Square. The last time I sold my books on the sidewalk, on Thanksgiving 1989, my small inventory was confiscated by the police when I misguidedly included samples of my hand-drawn art. (At the time, books and printed matter were protected as freedom of speech; art was not.)
A few weeks later, I moved my wares down to St. Marks Place, in front of the old Deutsch-Amerikanische building, site of the old St. Mark's Bookshop. In my youthful, earnest folly, I was selling a self-published book of poetry, "Idealism and Early-Wishfillment," which despite my modesty in printing 2,000 copies proved to be an immediate flop.
Not long after that, booksellers
who had been protected by the First Amendment found themselves the subject
of new municipal restrictions on where and when they could set up shop, and
thus, under the guise of public safety, were essentially barred from the streets.
“I was hooked. I couldn’t put it down until I finished…. I was simply impressed that these were real, instantly recognizable people…poor lonely bastards of every stripe resorting to utter humiliation and personal endangerment in the barest hope of hooking up with a kindred spirit.
It’s a brave book with a great deal of heart.”
Poppy Z. Brite
“A very beautiful valentine to
a time and place almost faded from existence.”
Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To
“Funny and endearing—and
wisely not so hip as to avoid
a good grab for your heart.”
Safe in America, Tales of the Master Race
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