JUNE 16, 2016
ST. MARKS PLACE LOOMS large in the New York imagination. Extending from Astor Place through Manhattan’s East Village to Tompkins Square Park, while only a half-mile long, St. Marks holds a vast and storied history that includes the Beats snapping along to jazz at the Five Spot Café in the 1950s; the hippies and Factory girls dancing to Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable in the 1960s; punks hanging out in Manic Panic in the 1970s; artists Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf reinventing Pop Art in the 1980s; and drag queens performing at Boy Bar in the 1990s. With this countercultural legacy, how does a historian even begin to tell the tale of St. Marks Place — one street with an enormous reputation built on legendary figures like Johnny Thunders, Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, and Allen Ginsberg?
In St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street, writer Ada Calhoun traces 400 years of the street beginning with Peter Stuyvesant’s expansive farm to the karaoke bars of today. Born and raised on St. Marks Place herself, Calhoun creates a nuanced, captivating, and thoroughly fun ride through St. Marks’s lineage, celebrating the radical and downright weird nature that has drawn people to it for generations. Combining extensive historical research and around 250 interviews with former and current residents, Calhoun’s book shows St. Marks as a site for the young and the restless to seek out their own creative potential. She explains in the book’s introduction, “This part of the city has always welcomed runaways.” Even I was not immune to the lure of St. Marks Place when I moved to New York in 2003, unironically purchasing Ramones t-shirts at Trash and Vaudeville and flipping through DVDs at the bygone Mondo Kim’s.
Along with St. Marks’s endless attraction for young people, Calhoun reveals the inescapable pattern of older generations continually decrying the death of the street and its heyday. Published last fall, St. Marks Is Dead appeared on shelves just before the disappearance of two major stalwarts associated with the street. Occupying the storefront at 4 St. Marks Place for 41 years, punk haven Trash and Vaudeville moved a few blocks away to 7th Street while St. Marks Bookshop, which left St. Marks Place years earlier but still maintained a deep connection with the street’s literary culture, permanently closed its doors. With these losses, many East Village residents are wondering if this is finally the end of St. Marks. However, as Calhoun observes, “the St. Marks Places of the Beats, hippies, and punks are dead. But this book will show that every cohort’s arrival, the flowering of its utopia, killed someone else’s.”
I met with Calhoun at Cafe Mogador, appropriately located on 101 St. Marks Place. Over Mediterranean country breakfasts, Calhoun and I discussed the definitive declaration that St. Marks is dead, the challenge of writing a history of the street on which she grew up, and how to deal with the enduring nostalgia for certain periods in St. Marks’s history.
EMILY COLUCCI: One of the most significant themes in St. Marks Is Dead is that for the entire history of St. Marks Place, people have declared the street’s cultural renaissance “over” or “dead.” Every new group thinks they’re unique by mourning the loss of the “real” St. Marks Place, but people have said the same thing for centuries. Did you approach the book expecting this pattern or was it something that appeared through your research?
ADA CALHOUN: It’s funny. I originally pitched it as a history of St. Marks Place — just a straight-up chronological history. I said to my editor, “People keep saying that it used to be the center of the world for the counterculture. It started this or that, but it’s over now.” I asked, “How do I prove who is right? This person said the street peaked in 1964, this other person says it was in 1987, and this other person says it was 1945. How do I decide?” My editor blew my mind because he said, “You don’t have to pick. Just talk about that; talk about the fact that everybody thinks their moment was the moment. That’s something really unique about the street.”
As I was writing, I realized that not only does everyone think they nailed it with what they did, but they also think no one else did. The pattern I started to see as I was doing the interviews — and this is what really helped about doing so many — was that everyone saw the people that followed them as idiots. They also saw the people that came before them as invisible. All the punks were saying that no one was here before they came. I interviewed people who grew up in the projects and mentioned that people say no one was there before. One woman said, “People see what they want to see.” What I like about this pattern too was that it was from the very beginning.
That’s what I found so striking — as early as the city’s implementation of the grid plan in the early 19th century, residents have been complaining about the end of the street’s glory days.
I found it very reassuring too. There’s something nice about that. Human beings fall in love with a place. Then they feel that they own it and no one else understands it. Then they get replaced. That happens over and over again. I guess it was nice for me to see my place in history, too. Every time I start to feel that nostalgia for when I was 17, I just remember that people in the 1700s were feeling nostalgia for when they were 17.
I also thought it was quite a sympathetic view of the city’s constant evolutions, particularly as tensions over gentrification are so strained in New York and other cities. St. Marks Is Dead shows that although some yearn for whatever era they thrived in, there will always be newcomers seeking out St. Marks Place to live out their fantasies.
Just look in the eyes of the teenagers who are waiting in line for Kenka or buying bongs. They are in their moment. These are their glory days. For me, that’s what made it almost a religious book. That’s the human condition. Louis C. K. had this statement on Terry Gross that I loved so much, talking about young people and how he’s kind of intimidated by young people. There’s this episode of Louie where he’s scared of this young person. He was talking about that episode later on the radio and he said, “It’s part of your responsibility as a human […] to get old and die, get out of the way.” Basically if you think everything that is happening right now is so exciting or is about to be the best time ever, you won’t want to die. Part of getting old is that feeling of, “Oh, that music today is terrible,” because it’s easier to let go. I thought that was so smart. You can recognize that as part of your development; that feeling of, “They can have it. It’s all theirs. It sucks now for me.”
This relates to your New York Times op-ed, “My City Was Gone (Or Was It?),” which you published in conjunction with St. Marks Is Dead. In the article, you pose that when someone says a street, neighborhood, or city is dead, it really means that it’s over for them personally. You write, “My theory is that the neighborhood hasn’t stopped being cool because it’s too expensive now; it stops being cool for each generation the second we stop feeling cool there.” How did you see this play out during the writing of St. Marks Is Dead?
Everyone had a story about when the city died. As I said in the Times piece, it was when they got older and stopped feeling cool in the neighborhood. If they stopped going out, then they said there was no nightlife. But there is nightlife. Talking to younger people, for example, the drag scene has totally taken off. Someone told me there are more drag queens in the city now than ever in the history of the city.
It’s so easy to slip into that. It’s hard to live in the city. It takes a lot of effort because the change is so fast. New people are coming in all the time. It takes so much work and energy to stay on top of it. It would be easier to think that it was over. It takes a load off.
Even though you focus on St. Marks Place, St. Marks Is Dead in many ways becomes a history of the East Village, as well as the city as a whole. Why did you choose St. Marks Place as a microcosm of the city’s history?
I thought that it had been done before. When I saw that it hadn’t, it seemed like such a natural boundary to put on it. I don’t have the same warm feelings about the Village as a whole, or even the East Village. St. Marks Place is just an interesting and very delineated region of the city. Because I grew up on this street, I feel I have a little authority here. It’s a place that people know all over the world. I remember being in Varanasi at a youth hostel and people were talking about St. Marks Place. It’s a major street in the world.
St. Marks Place has an almost mythic reputation, which has attracted generations of artists, musicians, and even people with extreme political views and ideas. Likely owing a lot to the long lineage of songs and films featuring the street, which you list in the back of the book, St. Marks becomes this imaginary site of artistic possibilities. Why do you think St. Marks developed into this centuries-long hub for radical creativity?
People have set out all sorts of reasons to me. New Age-y hippie people always say there’s a ley line under it. There’s all this magical energy coursing through it. I never went for that stuff, but I do think architecturally it’s set up to be a gathering place. Astor Place is at one end — obviously, it’s the subway — but even before, it was a good meeting spot. Then you have Tompkins Square Park, which is a great hangout spot. A half-mile connects them and it’s a wide street. I think there’s something conducive to, “I’ll see you on St. Marks Place,” and there has been since they started in the 1830s.
As for a site for crazy stuff, I think it’s been that way since the late 1800s. You had riots there in the 1870s. Tompkins Square Park was a real hotbed for riots. Then you had the union headquarters as a meeting place for radicals and activists. In 1906, the Modern School opened so you had anarchists early on. Then gangsters used Arlington Hall. I think starting in the early 1900s it became a place where interesting people came to do weird things. Once anything gets that reputation, it’s hard to shake. Then you have people hear about it and think, “Oh, I want to do some crazy things. Guess where I’m going to go? Where I hear crazy things are done all the time.”
I was so impressed by the 1929 newspaper article I found in South Carolina’s News and Courier, which I used to frame the second part of the book. It was so interesting to me that the street was the same in 1929. Here’s this writer who shows up and walks around the whole street, saying, “People are doing totally ridiculous things. They have all these crazy religions. There’s drunks. There’s all these eccentric characters.” I just imagine people reading that story and thinking, “I’m an interesting character — or I’m an aspiring interesting character — I’m going to go there.” I think since then people come to perpetuate the myth.
You were born and raised on St. Marks Place, living at 53 St. Marks. While your knowledge undoubtedly aided your research, this intimacy with the street and parts of its history must have presented its own challenges. How did you find a balance between including your own memories and acting as an objective historian?
That was really hard. There were 10 different versions of the book that were totally different. What I did was weigh my stories against all the other stories and think, “If I’m treating myself as a character, I don’t deserve more than a paragraph.” If Emma Goldman [the anarchist co-founder of the Modern School] gets a page, I think a paragraph is even stretching it for how interesting my stories are. It was a lot harder to write about the 1990s. I didn’t have as much perspective on it. It was hard for me to decide what was historically important versus what was personally important. I was a big zine person. Because I grew up on it, I thought, “I’m going to make it all about that.” But, I don’t think people who want to read a history of St. Marks Place necessarily want to read 20 pages about Bikini Kill fanzines. I trusted my editor a lot about what was interesting and what wasn’t.
Related to your struggle with your own objectivity, I notice that the incredible current nostalgia for specific eras in New York history becomes problematic for research. For example, I co-curated the exhibition Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980, which focused on the intersection of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and nightlife from the 1980s to the present that included some artists like Keith Haring and Scott Ewalt featured in St. Marks Is Dead. During the preparation, I found that the scenes of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s are so heavily romanticized now that it’s difficult to find critical distance. How did you deal with that nostalgia in St. Marks Is Dead?
I tried to fact-check those things more rigorously because there’s so much people think is true that isn’t. People talk about Andy Warhol being there forever, but he was only there for six months or something. I relied on people’s stories a lot. There’s a lot of anecdote in the book. It’s more mythic than The Wall Street Journal, but I tried to look at what actually happened as much as I could — not so much of the way people remember it. It’s hard to parse it.
The way I think I was able to do it at all was to find people around the scene who didn’t think it was awesome. I found this guy whose family had been on the street forever and he hated Andy Warhol. He’d see Warhol on the street and say, “You ruined my neighborhood.” That’s what helped me get some perspective and not play into this nostalgia. And I was that — I was the kid trying to fall asleep when Club 57 was blaring downstairs.
I think the way you transcended this romanticism was also to trace the entirety of St. Marks’s history rather than begin when the Beats arrived in the 1950s.
All the books start there! Part of me thought that it was a natural place to start originally, but then the stories were so good going back. You had the General Slocum Memorial in Tomkins Square, which was the biggest tragedy in New York City before September 11th. I never even heard of it!
As I kept going back, I saw the same attitudes over and over. People were saying the same things. When I saw all the complaints about the grid destroying the city in 1811, it sounded the same when the building they call the “Death Star” went up in Astor Place in 2013. It’s the same conversation: “That’s it. It’s done; nothing interesting is ever going to happen again.” I just think if everyone has always been wrong about the city being dead, maybe they’re wrong now. Maybe not. That’s the thing too — maybe they’re right and this is the end of history. Whatever the last thing they thought was cool is going to be the last thing that will be cool for anybody. I just don’t think so. I think one of those NYU kids is going to show you something that you’ve never seen before. It’ll totally change the culture.
That’s why I like the story that Carol Rosenthal — a professor at Pratt University — tells about seeing her former student Artie walking down the street. She thought, “It’s so embarrassing that he’s such a degenerate now. He was such a sweet boy.” Then she finds out about the New York Dolls [Artie transformed into Arthur “Killer” Kane, bass player for the glam rock and early punk band New York Dolls].
There have been some recent substantial changes on St. Marks Place. The last weekend in February, St. Marks Bookshop closed and iconic punk clothing store Trash and Vaudeville moved out of their longtime St. Marks storefront. How do you understand these recent changes in the street’s cultural landscape in relation to its history in St. Marks Is Dead?
Those were both huge. For the punks, Trash and Vaudeville was pretty much the last thing they had. That was the headquarters for teen punks. That’s a huge tragedy for them. Even though St. Marks Bookshop hadn’t been on the street for a long time, it was honorarily in the area. That was a blow for the literary community on St. Marks Place. I think what you’re seeing is there are a few St. Marks Places going on at any given time. The literary one and the punk one are not really there so much now. You have these kids walking around with Mohawks occasionally and I always think of them like Civil War reenactors. Have you been to Gettysburg and you see a Confederate general and his lady? It reminds me of the punk kids. I like it — you almost want to pay them.
Emily Colucci is a New York–based freelance writer and co-founder of Filthy Dreams. Her writing has appeared in Salon, New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery, Art 21, and the exhibition catalog for artist Dotty Attie’s The Lone Ranger at P.P.O.W. Gallery.