Thursday, August 14, 2008

East Village Then And Now






Twenty years ago, I marveled at the footage of the Tompkins Square Park Riots on television. The city was shamed by the sight of radicals smashing the lobby of a nearby condominium and hurling bottles at the police, and by the sight of police officers covering their names and badge numbers while they indiscriminately beat people. The police took down homeless encampments that had taken over large parts of the park.

The battle was, on the surface, waged over a curfew that may or may not have been legal. But it was an episode where East Village regulars rebelled against oncoming gentrification. Looking at the East Village and Lower East Side today, there’s no doubt that gentrification won.

More than 20 years later, I stood outside Manitoba’s on Avenue B and watched as police closed the park promptly at 1 a.m. The greenery of Tompkins Square Park is surrounded by iron fencing now. While people often jump over this to actually enjoy the park’s greenery, they never spend the night.

Our public parks cannot be open-air camps for drug addicts, the homeless and mentally ill, but neither can the character of the city survive if artists and musicians are replaced wholesale with stock brokers and lawyers. And there is no doubt that city government wants the rapidly increasing gentrification to keep happening; it increases property taxes which mean more revenue for the city. Also, many city political figures are in the pockets of developers.

And the authorities continue to Case in point: an open can of beer at a Tompkins Square Park punk show earns one a ticket, an open bottle of wine on the Great Lawn of central park during an orchestral performance does not warrant a second glance by New York’s Finest. This same selective enforcement was in vogue well before the Tompkins Square Park riots of 1988.

I remember going to the East Village when I was in high school. It was a scary place. Along St. Mark’s Place and The Bowery, homeless men sold junk and trinkets on blankets. It’s unreal how much the area has been transformed since then. Expensive hotels and wine bars permeate where destitute people once congregated. CBGB is now a store that sells overpriced designer clothing. While it’s good that the homeless aren’t crowding our sidewalks and the open-air heroine markets and rubble-strewn lots have gone, gone also are music venues, record stores, real artists’ lofts and a sense that the neighborhood was distinct. The Lower East Side looks more like the Upper East Side every day and I can’t stand it.

There have been some survivors in the yuppiefication of the East Village, and those were people who were working and creating things while others threw bottles at the cops (or at least between throwing bottles at the cops). C-Squat, a squat on Avenue C populated by punk rockers, endures, as does Umbrella House, a wrecked building that was taken over by squatters in the 1980s and renovated (it had been named “Umbrella House” because of its leaking roof). It was recognized as legal by the city in 2002.

This is the story of New York City today: a sense of great cultural loss that accompanied some welcome reductions in crime. It’s great that there are not homeless junkies crowded every other inch of sidewalk between Broadway and Avenue D, but a law-abiding person should be able to drink a beer on a park bench, and a small studio should not cost $2,000 a month unless it comes with a functioning glory hole attended to hourly by Scarlett Johansson.

3 comments:

Elefante said...

"I remember going to the East Village when I was in high school. It was a scary place. Along St. Mark’s Place and The Bowery, homeless men sold junk and trinkets on blankets. It’s unreal how much the area has been transformed since then. Expensive hotels and wine bars permeate where destitute people once congregated. CBGB is now a store that sells overpriced designer clothing. While it’s good that the homeless aren’t crowding our sidewalks and the open-air heroine markets and rubble-strewn lots have gone, gone also are music venues, record stores, real artists’ lofts and a sense that the neighborhood was distinct. The Lower East Side looks more like the Upper East Side every day and I can’t stand it."



You spoke my mind for me.
I have to pass through the St. Marks/Bowery area a lot and it depresses me. This is a place I used to love to go just to walk around and see real life... to see my city, good or bad, and maybe spot Joey Ramone shopping in a record store. Now I feel like an outsider in my own home town. Im viewed as lower class in a clearly upper class neighborhood where people meet at the Bowery Hotel for a nice wine and some schmoozing.
I'd love to let loose a few of our best and brightest from Rikers and Sing Sing and see if we cant scare these yuppies back home to the mid west or wherever they came from.

Elefante said...

"I remember going to the East Village when I was in high school. It was a scary place. Along St. Mark’s Place and The Bowery, homeless men sold junk and trinkets on blankets. It’s unreal how much the area has been transformed since then. Expensive hotels and wine bars permeate where destitute people once congregated. CBGB is now a store that sells overpriced designer clothing. While it’s good that the homeless aren’t crowding our sidewalks and the open-air heroine markets and rubble-strewn lots have gone, gone also are music venues, record stores, real artists’ lofts and a sense that the neighborhood was distinct. The Lower East Side looks more like the Upper East Side every day and I can’t stand it."



You spoke my mind for me.
I have to pass through the St. Marks/Bowery area a lot and it depresses me. This is a place I used to love to go just to walk around and see real life... to see my city, good or bad, and maybe spot Joey Ramone shopping in a record store. Now I feel like an outsider in my own home town. Im viewed as lower class in a clearly upper class neighborhood where people meet at the Bowery Hotel for a nice wine and some schmoozing.
I'd love to let loose a few of our best and brightest from Rikers and Sing Sing and see if we cant scare these yuppies back home to the mid west or wherever they came from.

Matthew Sheahan said...

I have that same urge. The human abominations that populated the Bowery during its Skid Row days are less offensive to those that are there now. I didn't think I would hate wine bars more than crack dens, but I think I do.