St. Marks Is Dead and the Complexity of Gentrification

Ada Calhoun’s new book analyzes the gritty, bohemian history—and the yuppified present—of one of New York’s most infamous streets.

Chad Griffith / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

I’ve lately begun collecting old tourist guides to New York City. Most of them don’t even mention St. Marks Place, which may at first seem not so surprising. St. Marks is an unusually tiny street. It runs for just three blocks, between Astor Place and Tompkins Square Park, and you can walk the whole thing in under 10 minutes. Also, it’s located in the heart of the East Village, a neighborhood that was once a nesting place for misfits, knaves, and wanderers. For a quarter of a century or so, from about the late 1960s until the early 1990s, anyone who was visiting from out of town, or who looked like they might be carrying a heavy wallet or a credit card, would have been well advised to stay away.

To less reputable characters, however—to those who were inclined to seek out a bit of debauchery and vice—St. Marks was like catnip. It has likewise been a magnet for the types of artists, activists, outcasts, and oddballs who have greatly enriched New York City’s cultural fabric. Any short list of its luminaries would include Emma Goldman, Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Andy Warhol, Lenny Bruce, Lou Reed, W.H. Auden, Sam Shepard, and the Beastie Boys. St. Marks has served as a location for several landmark films (including Midnight Cowboy, Escape From New York, and Kids), and it has been mentioned in at least 50 copyrighted pop and rock songs (many of them having to do with drugs, sex, and louche living). The Rolling Stones filmed a music video there (“Waiting on a Friend”), and Led Zeppelin used a photo of two adjacent St. Marks tenement buildings for the cover of their album Physical Graffiti.

Nowadays, though, you won’t find many self-respecting bohemians or rock and rollers who feel upbeat about the East Village. They’re mainly upset about the neighborhood’s gentrification, a process that began in the 1980s and accelerated in the 2000s. Glass and steel towers began rising imperiously over old brownstone buildings. Laundromats, bodegas, and dive bars gave way to fancy bistros and upscale cocktail lounges. Many of the street’s beloved establishments, including Coney Island High (a punk rock club), Mondo Kim’s (an eclectic movie-rental store), and Trash and Vaudeville (an outré clothing retailer) have vanished or relocated.

Given all this, it would be tempting to write the history of St. Marks Place as a requiem. But as Ada Calhoun suggests in St. Marks Is Dead—a timely, provocative, and stylishly written book—complaints about the neighborhood’s demise are mostly just clichés. If “there goes the neighborhood” sounds like a familiar lament, that’s because disillusioned iconoclasts have been saying it for years. Meanwhile, St. Marks has withstood a rare degree of cultural and socioeconomic heterogeneity. Danger and discord have remained a part of the street’s distinctive character, even as it has occasionally welcomed more mainstream interlopers, among them Calhoun’s family. She wryly dedicates the book to her parents, the former actress Brooke Alderson and the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, “who looked upon the apocalyptic 1970s East Village and thought, What a great place to raise a kid.”

Only a few brief passages in this book read as memoir, however. Instead, Calhoun plumbs an impressively diverse array of sources, and interviews some 200 former and current denizens, to portray a neighborhood that has never found anything like equipoise. Way back in 1651, the Dutchman Peter Stuyvesant bought a 300-acre tract of land called the “Bouwerie” from the West India Company. Families did not start building homes on the part of East Eighth Street that would become known as St. Marks Place, however, until the early 19th century. It was briefly a fashionable address, but an assimilationist spirit kicked in when, in 1859, Cooper Union began providing men and women with free educations. For decades after the Civil War, the area was attractive to hard-pressed immigrants, including German Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians, and Ukrainians. Many of them were suffused with idealistic zeal, and by the early 20th century, socialists and union organizers had made St. Marks Place their headquarters. Leon Trotsky even spent a few months there in 1917, shortly before he helped lead the Russian Revolution.

Greenwich Village bohemians began migrating eastward in the 1950s. “They redefined the neighborhood as a literary scene,” Calhoun writes, “creating an idea about the East Village—as misfit refuge, as proudly un-American, as the most modern place on earth—that would last for decades.” Then in the 1960s, hippies began colonizing St. Marks Place, although unlike their West Coast equivalents, some of them projected angry vibes. An anarchist street gang known as the Motherfuckers became infamous for endorsing a militant politics of confrontation with the police, and in late 1968, they battled the music impresario Bill Graham for community control of New York’s hippest rock club, the Fillmore East. Later, punks gravitated to the neighborhood, but just as soon as artists like Patti Smith, Television, and Blondie started garnering acclaim, St. Marks spawned No Wave, a far more abrasive and less marketable subculture.

St. Marks was especially rife with mayhem in the 1970s and 1980s. Calhoun evokes an era when glassy-eyed winos occupied nearly every doorway and park bench. Prostitutes and psychotic panhandlers commandeered street corners. Muggings were commonplace, and petty criminals fenced stolen goods out in the open. Residents of St. Marks Place lamented that the street was never quiet, not even in the middle of the night (especially not in the middle of the night). Empty lots, pocked with trash-can fires and makeshift shanties, looked like Civil War battle camps. Used condoms, crack vials, and filthy needles rendered parks unusable. Children faced special hazards. “They were groped in movie theaters,” Calhoun writes. “Their parents taught them to carry their keys poking out between their fingers, in case they needed them for self-defense, to look both ways before entering vestibules, and to avoid walking too close to the buildings, lest they be grabbed into a darkened doorway—but also not too close to the parked cars, in case someone tried to throw them in the back of a van.”

In the summer of 1988, a motley assortment of squatters, activists, and “crusty punks” clashed with police who tried to impose a curfew in Tompkins Square Park. The riot carried on for two hot nights, during which time both sides—the cops and the demonstrators—behaved badly. Amid the tumult, the phrase “Die Yuppie Scum!” was born—and it lives on in the grouchy contrarianism that often fuels anti-gentrification fervor these days.

Lately, the leading opponent of gentrification in New York City has been the pseudonymous Jeremiah Moss. He’s the author of the popular blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, as well as the galvanizing force behind #SaveNYC, a grassroots social-media campaign that aims to stop developers and national chain retailers from edging out locally owned small businesses. While it’s understandable that many New Yorkers would want to preserve certain aspects of their beloved city, Moss’s writings often elide the complexities of urban renewal. “What’s more destructive than AIDS, crack, or crime?” Moss asks. “Gentrification.”

Calhoun’s book serves as a welcome corrective to that rallying cry, and to the tendency to romanticize New York City in the 1970s, when the city was far more riotous and permissive than it is now. (The recent upticks in homelessness, quality of life offenses, and violent crimes during the short period since Mayor de Blasio was elected may soon have a similar effect.) A narrative that hews closely to the three blocks that make up St. Marks Place is bound to overlook the broader forces contributing to gentrification in New York City, and Calhoun probably didn’t set out to rattle anyone’s convictions on topic. Her aplomb, in fact, is precisely what the discussion needs. Her portrait of neighborhood resilience might suggest more temperate proposals for an increasingly polarized debate.

Far from being “dead,” St. Marks Place—which, as Calhoun writes, “will probably always elude true respectability”—remains a lively site of tremendous cultural mixing. Young people still gather there, whether to watch soccer, sing karaoke, or revel in what’s left of its gritty mystique and low-down allure. Quirky specialty shops abound, and immigrants hock their wares on the sidewalk. A recent influx of Japanese restaurants lends the neighborhood a “Little Tokyo” vibe, and rumor has it that the St. Marks Hotel still offers hourly rates on its rooms. None of this is likely to mollify gentrification’s most strident opponents, but then again, they probably didn’t grow up on St. Marks when it was characterized by such misery, dysfunction, and human wreckage.

Toward the end of the book, Calhoun describes recently hosting a Harry Potter-themed birthday party for her son at Tompkins Square Park, just a block and a half from her old apartment. She evokes a scene that would have been unimaginable less than a generation ago. “Joggers and dog walkers chuckled at the small army negotiating St. Marks Place in Hogwarts robes,” she writes. “And then, not far from the park’s nineteenth century temperance fountain, World War II commemorative flagpole, and General Slocum memorial, the wizard children played as sunlight streamed through the trees.”

By Ada Calhoun

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