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.