The East Village Isn't What It Used To Be... And It Never Was

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    Dusk is settling over Avenue A and Phil Hartman, dog-tired Two Boots founder and punk rock mythologist, is unwittingly acting out a canonical hymn in his church of East Village Preservation. I can’t get the soaring chorus from Television’s famous 10-minute Punk fantasia, “Marquee Moon”—“He’s standing under the marquee moon … hesitating”—out of my head.

    The marquee in question is the small un-illuminated signboard of Hartman’s recently closed Pioneer Theater, not the imposing black-and-white neon that jutted out from Max’s Kansas City’s in the early 1970s. A faint echo of the song’s original symbolist imagery.

    The term “East Village” is of relatively recent origin. Who coined it? Ukranian landlords and café owners carving out an oasis in the teeming slums? Bop-worshipping journalists searching for a racially mixed bohemia? It doesn’t matter. By the time I was growing up there—in the 1980s—the nabe had been embraced by several waves of the counter-culture. At that moment it was about cheap performance spaces opened to counteract the perceived consumerism of the Soho galleries. The squatter movement was in full flower. But it was also the beginning of gentrification.

    For my dad, moving there in the ‘70s meant avoiding the straitjacket of his father’s life in Levittown. His idea of the neighborhood had been forged in the late 1960s: longhairs trying to score acid on St. Marks; hairy mobs of proto squatters—like the Motherfuckers; and the first woman he ever beheld with a see-through shirt and no bra. “Scandalous even today,” he’d say wistfully.

    As the hippies faltered, speedfreaks and junkies at Max’s Kansas City were forging a path directly opposed to social protest. Poets and Warhol Superstars watched the late iteration of the Velvet Underground take to a small stage in leather jackets. Reed’s operettas—about S&M, homosexuality and hard drugs—created the blueprint for a way of life set to a fuzz-drenched thrum.

    Queens-born wiseacres The New York Dolls played there, too. The influences of these hometown groups (along with The Stooges) spawned Punk Rock; in the shadow of Punk’s legacy, the other East Village hipster myths are dim echoes.

    After the 1987 stock market crash, Pete Hamill wrote an impassioned elegy about his “Lost City” in New York magazine. It contained hundreds of memories about the way things were before the late-1960s, when the middle class started to lose its grip on the city. The crack wars were starting to rage in earnest, and his crowd looked back in time to a gentler, safer city. What he missed about St. Marks was watching Thelonious Monk blow at the Five Spot and coming home without getting his wallet stolen.

    Now I miss watching my friends re-enact the modes of their 1970s heroes on stage at the old Continental. Objectively, were the ’90s Punks—with their secondhand ideals—as cool as the Bop cats? Probably not. Did I still have a great fucking time, and do I miss it like a bitch? Yes, I do. It’s a perpetual cycle; people mourn the East Village—and city—that they remember. The rest of a neighborhood’s history becomes a faint echo in the collective unconscious.

    There’s never been so much piercing and tattooing as there are now. Shops—like Trash and Vaudeville—do a brisk trade in cheap clothing stamped with punk iconography. But it’s meaningless—a received idea taken to abstraction. Even post-crash, St. Marks is thronged with thousands of fratty loudmouths staggering from one bar to the next. Mountainous bouncers stand outside The Continental—which was stripped of its stage—checking IDs. The douche throng extends all the way to Avenue C. So I avoid all my old haunts on the weekends. Most of them are gone anyway. Who the fuck cares? St. Marks is the new Bleecker Street, which was the old Upper East Side. You get the picture…

    Who gets the blame? Big real estate and NYU—because the huge glass-and-steel towers blot out the sun. Internet nerds—for draining the cultural pool dry. The Cult of Punk Rock—for holding on too long.

    Hartman—who has prospered by selling Cajun pizzas to college kids—wants to talk about all of these factors, save the last one. Despite the recent closings of his movie theater and the shuttering of Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction (a poor imitation of Max’s Kansas City) in October 2007, the pizza business seems to be going swell. He opened a Two Boots on Grand Street last year and is busy with a Two Boots franchise in Los Angeles and an old theater in Bridgeport, Conn. He’s a fidgety aging hipster (receding hairline, bristly demeanor) wearing a 1950s-styled work shirt. His emotions are hidden behind hooded eyes and a lean face that always looks a little fatigued—after all, he’s the father of three teenagers. Injured feelings flare up in a short whine. He responds to a question tetchily, “What do you mean Punk Rock became an orthodoxy?”

    We’ve been talking for over an hour about all the changes going on—with his business, with the East Village, with the world—but there’s more. Just a few minutes ago he thought of an idea for a documentary. It’s going to be about the East Village bohemian holdouts. We’ve been seeing them file through Two Boots all afternoon, with their kids for the after-school pizza special. “I wish we could sit here all day and do this,” he tells me in his nasally New Yawk accent. “But, oh, God, I do have to go.” After all, he’s running a successful business.

    To his pre-Tompkins Square riots-era critics, such as photographer and East Village chronicler Clayton Patterson, Phil Hartman is guilty on two counts: being a gentrifier and embalming radical ideals—Punk Rock and performance art—into a family friendly exhibition through HOWL! Hartman fathered the festival in 2002 with his flair for hyping a museum-ified past. It was the signature event associated with the Federation of East Village Artists (FEVA), an organization charged with providing low-cost healthcare and studio space for East Village stalwarts. In 2006 the entire enterprise faltered after Hartman ended his association (and sizable philanthropic contributions) to the organization and event. Yeah, Hartman is losing his fanbase.

    Outside, I give a cigarette to a crooked old black bum leaning on a metal cane. “My man, is in a rush,” he says, shaking his head. I know, Jesus H. Christ—or should I say Johnny A.

    Thunders? Hartman sure can move fast for such a nostalgic. I give the bum a light and kick an East Village religion around in my head.

    When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Ah, Television, of Hartman’s “Marquee Moon.” In the early ’70s, they built the one, true church on the gray decrepit Bowery—CBGBs—with their bare hands. A new bohemian Eden sprung up around it, dedicated to the words of the prophets: Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.

    Now that its influence is on the wane, it causes guys older than Hartman and as young as myself to get misty-eyed with nostalgia. “It’s always been really important to me that the East Village did need to exist as this mythological place, ‘The East Village,’” Hartman explains. Exist for whom? I ask. “The kids in…In Yokohama, or in wherever.”

    Last week, the rock ‘n’ roll Pharisees—the types that signed Punk bands but didn’t promote their records—reassembled some of CBGB and put it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Soho Annex. They’ve killed the idea off by controlling it. Not that Hilly Kristal—the owner of the club—and his family haven’t done a pretty good job with putting their T-shirts in malls across America (as well as an East Village boutique). The idea dilutes every time another cultural relic closes down. Then there’s more handwringing among the flock.

    The Pioneer—opened in 2000 to simulate old cineaste haunts like Theater 80 St. Marks—was one of those places. Jeremiah Moss, who writes the blog [Vanishing New York], is a typical staunch East Village preservationist. The self-proclaimed recluse “wants to live in the East Village of ‘93.” So, of course, he loved the Pioneer.

    “It seemed like a labor of love, the guy never made any money on it,” Moss tells me from his First Avenue bunker. When I asked if the Two Boots pizza chain had a role in changing his hood into the thing he hates so much, he lets out a heavy sigh. “It’s complicated; he’s [Hartman’s] getting priced out, too. But yeah, unfortunately that generation paved the way for super-gentrification.”  

    Add to this, Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks—the last bastion of a once-feared family-run chain of video and DVD rentals that stretched from Avenue A to west Bleecker and all the way up to Morningside Heights—is on the way to extinction.

    We hope to find a sponsor to make this collection available, to the people who have loved Kim’s for two decades, a large sign on the dusty third floor reads. 

    As owner Yongman Kim looks for a buyer of the 55,000 tapes (many of them illegally pirated) and DVDs, the Internet continues to make him obsolete. The titles he stockpiled defined the downtown counter-culture—Killing of a Chinese Booking, Solaris, La Jetée and Ilsa She Wolf of the SS—but now no one is that interested. And the smaller Kim’s on First Avenue will never satisfy the film students and cinephiles like the earlier incarnation.

    Cinema—especially film noir—was essential to the New York punk movement. I still see the hirsute, demonic looking Merle Allin—G.G.’s brother—at Kim’s. And dig where the patriarchs met. “In ’74, I got a job at a movie book store called Cinemabilia,” Hartman explains as we talk. He grabs a rag to wipe off one of his pizza joint’s Formica tables and adds, “Everybody who worked there—Bob Quine, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine—was like a seminal figure in the punk rock movement. With one exception—me.”

    In the mid-’80s Hartman made a documentary called No Picnic. It’s unavailable on the Internet, and Hartman couldn’t find a copy, but the description he gave of it was tantalizing. “It’s about the dramatic change in the East Village, this was ’85,” Hartman explains, emphasizing the year. “So this has been going on for a long time.” What did gentrification look like back then? “Buildings were being gutted, and being torn down; there were these shoots that were coming out of buildings from abandoned buildings into Dumpsters,” Hartman says, describing a frenzy of art galleries that lasted the blink of an eye. “Before that, it was Dresden.”

    In 1987, around the same time Kim starting amassing his collection of VHS, Hartman opened his first Two Boots Restaurant on East Second Street and Avenue A. It’s hard to see why it was such a lightning rod. But it was. “Kids Friendly” meant, “Skels Keep Out.” But the junkies, whores and homeless were neighbors, too. Hartman gets upset when I mention the old-time freaks that still hold a grudge against him. “Some people just can’t stand if you’re a success.” I describe when my dad took me to the restaurant the first month it opened because we lived only a few blocks away. “Just about everyone was glad to have someplace to go,” Hartman says, visibly calming down.

    Nearly a decade after the restaurant, the Two Boots Pizzeria/Video Store opened. Snaps of Cleopatra Jones and Mr. Pink were on the menus, and the walls were decorated with movie posters—antiseptic kitsch. Despite the alarm of the late ‘80s, not too much had changed. The nabe was about coke bodegas, dive bars and punks. I greeted it with a shrug. The simulacra seemed harmless. The joint had a nice bathroom, and it was a good place to meet girls. I never had too much love for the scary dudes in the park anyway. But there was still plenty of seediness left in the hood. Who of us recognizes the harbingers of our culture’s obsolescence? “When I was shooting No Picnic, I thought it was the dying days of punk,” Hartman explains, wearily. “But it turns out that punk kind of lived on.” I ask Hartman if his generation had to take some responsibility for that. Did the continual celebration of the Cult of Punk Rock—as represented by the Pioneer and Kim’s—contribute to the stagnation of the East Village? “Hey, before we got here, it was an empty lot.”

    “Mythology of the old East Village? Phil Hartman, the guy that owns Two Boots?” Robert Christgau, “Dean of Rock Critics,” growls at me over the phone as if I just told him Kiss was the greatest band ever. He went from laughing to menacing. He knows the score. Since 1969, he spent decades in CBs and Max’s with his notebook; filing serious copy about rock ’n’ roll for the old $1-a-copy Village Voice. He lives on East 12th Street—in the nexus of the NYU behemoth, where he teaches—surrounded by wall-to-wall CDs on every conceivable genre.   Yeah, that guy, I tell him.

    “What a load of horseshit,” Christgau says. “I’m not putting him down. I like the theater, and it’s all fine with me, but he’s not protecting anything.” I’ve touched a raw nerve in the old curmudgeon—who maintains a “militant anti-nostalgia” stance—and he presses on. “That kind of bohemian territoriality is always nonsense. People who lived in the Village in the’20s were actually nostalgic about the Village of the pre–World War I period. Look it up.”

    Then Christgau nails it. “No, I’m much more interested in real estate than I am in this mythology shit.” He wants the mom-and-pop stores back, the newspaper and coffee in its blue Greco container. “The economy, absolutely,” he says. Believing the crash might help bring things around, he adds, “But Marx is my man, and that’s what I believe.” He produces a grumbling laugh. I hear: Hartman can have his silly Punk Rock myths; I’ll stick with mine, thank you.

    So what was good about the good old days? “There were a shitload of good bands,” Christgau says matter-a-factly. “It was CBs itself, which was the great symbolic place and vital up to, I guess, ’79 or ’80.”

    Then the old guy makes another really good point when he reminds me the “East Village” wasn’t even in the East Village. “We’ve been talking about almost nothing in the East Village, certainly speaking, because it’s either a little north of 14th like Irving Plaza, or Max’s, or south like the Mudd.”

    Talk turns to the guys he saw from the old days. “I used to see Fred Smith [from Television] because he lived on my block; but he moved away,” he says. Christgau’s wife, Carola Dibbell, is in the background and claims she had just seen Tom Verlaine in The Strand bookstore. “I see Richard Hell,” says Christgau. “I don’t really actually see him because he almost never leaves his apartment. We used to go to Washington Square Park and play with our kids.”

    In the early ‘70s Richard Meyers rechristened himself Richard Hell. He wrapped himself in a few archetypal signifiers (one part 1950s Brando, mix with Highway 61 Dylan and then shred). He copped a heroin habit, and his vocals became a vaguely menacing howl. That style defined the East Village—musically, at least—through The Strokes. That’s all the dead, old nabe needed to shake it up in the 1970s. And not just his aesthetic—their melodic, jumpy riffs and Casablancas’ stoned yelp is just highly polished Junk—err Punk Rock a la the Voidoids. I slide a pack of cigarettes into my black leather jacket, look down at my boots and get a shiver—I’m wearing the outfit right now. The look is fucking everywhere.

    “Richard is a difficult person, but yeah, I’ve known him for a long time: 30 or 40 years,” Hartman says. “It’s one of the great things about the East Village, is you can kind of not run into people. He lives next door to one of my best friends, and he never sees him. They share a wall, right? Literally, they share a wall.”

    A kind of roundtable of old East Village holdouts has gathered around Phil Hartman while we’re sitting in a booth at Two Boots. Others just tap on the window and wave to him. Fifty-year-old Rachel Amodeo—who directed Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone and Hell in What About Me in the late 1980s—has stopped by to chat.

    Her film is a naturalist document of pre–Tompkins Square Park riot days. Filmed in black and white—and set to a score by Thunders and Bob Quine—Amodeo’s East Village is a claustrophobic, small town of decrepit storefronts, graffiti, peeling paint; cons, hookers, junkies, lowlifes. The kind of people Travis Bickle wanted the rain to sweep away. Her character is conned, raped, thrown out of her apartment and run over by a motorcycle; but somehow it’s believable. The East Village is seen as something to escape—not buy into.

    She smokes crack with Nick Zedd in an unheated apartment and hangs out with bums warming themselves with trashcan fires. During filming, they tried to find real crack for the scene, but Zedd couldn’t find any, according to Amodeo. “That’s what the ’80s was about: dark lighting, and no electricity, experimenting with drugs,” Amodeo tells me in her hoarse voice. Hell plays a more tentative version of himself: a moping punk who can’t pick up girls. The figure on screen looks uncomfortable on camera, like he feels strange in his own body—he looks more like a tortured writer than a rock star.

    Amodeo lives in two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment near Avenue A with her boyfriend, gallery owner M. Henry Jones. The rent is cheap enough that she refuses to specify it. Hell has rent-controlled turf a block west, that he—in her words—is “so, so grateful for.” But most of the rest of her friends have vanished from the nabe. “I think, some of them had families and they all lived in one-room studios, and they had to move, others just vanished,” she trails off as if she wasn’t too sure. “It’s kind of scary.”

    I ask her when the hood started to feel different for her, and she replies: “I think when Johnny [Thunders] died, it felt like a different place. Stuff was starting to open up.” Thunders died mysteriously in New Orleans when the film was in post-production. In other words, by the time the film was released it was already a relic of another time. “God,” she adds, “people used to live in the storefronts.”

    I email Hell to tell him that he keeps coming up in my conversations around the dusky old town. What’s the deal man, are you up in your rent-controlled apartment with just your memories and Rimbaud? Have you withdrawn from the street and all humanlike zones? He politely replies that he doesn’t want to be bothered. It reads, in part: “Sorry to be a disappointment, I can’t work up much fresh to say on the subject.” When the cultural embodiment of the East Village can’t work up a single quote about his neighborhood, it’s in a lot of trouble.

    Hartman and I are going back and forth about what the East Village meant when a man with mutton-chop sideburns topped with a Panama hat wanders in with a tow-headed boy clasping his hand. He and his son interacted like equals: In the old Beatnik tradition, the boy called him by his first name. “Look at that. He was one of the last of the old East Village eccentrics. And they are so great,” Hartman says, referring to the father-and-son duo. “He works by two names,” Hartman whispers to me, gesturing the man over.

    I show him the recorder, and he gives me a look of serene calm. “Oh, OK. Oh, hi,” he says dreamily. Then he takes me back in time. “My name’s Kim, I came here many, many years ago. It was the summertime, walking down St. Marks Place for the first time. It was the most colorful, aromatic experience.”

    I would have thought he was in a fugue, but he’s not completely ignoring his 10-year-old tugging at his sleeve.

    “OK. I’m getting inspired. I’ve got to do a documentary about these people and their kids. Look at this kid,” Hartman says excitedly. Kim reminds me of the guys that I used to see all the time when I was a kid. They’re all gone now. He’s the type that can match a flash of brilliance with an utterly incomprehensible statement. “If you have access to a computer, there’s a thing called the Fillmore East.” Kim winds me through the 1960s for a few: health food stores, Beats, hippies, Hassids. He projects a swirling psychedelic Casbah—the opposite of Rachel Amodeo’s dark, godless ravine.

    Hartman interjects to tell him that I’m more into Punk Rock and what came after it. “Oh, that whole picture,” Kim says, his icy blues dulling a bit. He lays his Zen on me again: “I feel both good and bad [about the East Village]. You know. Everywhere, the whole world is changing.” Then he looks at his kid playing by the window and adds, “He will take over our apartment. But, for him to live in the East Village, he’d have to be working a job making tons and tons of money. That’s sad.”

    I can’t help but think about the tiny brick walkup my dad moved into—First Avenue and East 10th—when I was 10 with a tinge of jealousy. Jesus, Dad, why didn’t you buy it? Right next to Rose’s Pizza and gleaming douchepit Ko, it had three floors, a fucking backyard and he paid less than my rent now. Vanishing New York just announced Rose’s would be closing. It’s amazing it lasted so long; it seems like it’s been empty since the ’80s. There used to be a lot of places like that: Lanza’s and John’s. Mob fronts. All gone.

    Back in the mid-’90s, the streets were flooded with dope. And that shit was good. Looking across the street, I catch a gust of cold air as I pass the supermarket on East Fifth, and I’m hit with a heightened sense of awareness. Think now. Fuck, that’s where I bought my first bags of dope—on the street. On Fifth between A and B; the street was piled high with fresh snow in the middle of January.

    We called them “Spots” as opposed to house connections, or guys you’d page and meet on Astor Place. I was 18, and my friend Pretty Boy Jim was wearing a black motorcycle jacket and a silk scarf like Keith Richards—he seemed so old but was younger than I am now. He kept paging dealers and not getting calls back. Paging them—from pay phones. We walked to the well-known places—Bag and Bag and Laundromat—but kept coming up empty, freezing. He pointed to some guys in red and black North Face parkas in front of the church. “They look open, but Puerto Rican kids always think I’m a cop.”

    I walk East on Seventh, past Avenue C, and things begin to get more old school. Later tonight they’ll be plenty of frat kids screaming at the tops of their lungs and gnawing on greasy slices of pizza as they walk down C. But now—even though there’s a precinct on the block—it has that small-town feel, about the same as when two desperate crackheads tried to mug me in broad daylight. The Puerto Rican flag still flies over a neighborhood garden. The side of a building reads, La Lucha Continua—an old anarchist slogan—in Spanish and English: The Struggle Continues.

    The street is deserted except for a squat old mamá with her daughter—and a friend. Mama’s upset about something. She’s yelling up at a tenement window, “Mira, Eduardo, Eduardo, mira, la poca, la poca.”

    Huh, I’m thinking, clutching my notebook, about to ask her how the Loisaida has changed. She takes out a few glassine bags, no stamp now—the dealers are more careful—and shows it to her friend. “Mira, poca?” Look, it’s short! She’s been shorted a bag.

    It leaves me cold, and I wonder what was ever so thrilling about dope. It seems squalid, small and ugly. Definitely not some Eucharist; certainly not the stuff of leather-clad heroes that used to roam these parts. I find another fatter, older woman walking and ask her if she’s seen a lot of changes around the nabe. “I live here 46 years, and I never get in any trouble,” the Puerto Rican woman says in tortured English. “I like it here, if someone messes with me, I hit him in the face.”

    After spending all this time with him, it pains me to tar Hartman with the gentrifier brush, while shoddily made towers are blotting out the sky over the East Village. His earnest, sincere attitude toward the neighborhood he’s lived in for close to three decades, raising a family and dedicating his life is evident.

    I miss the place where the hipster bourgeoisie didn’t rule. I miss feeling safe to fuck around to my own lights, discover myself in the dilapidated darkness: an adult playground where you could delay growing up, all set to a thrash-punk soundtrack. Were there harsh consequences sometimes? Of course. Ask Thunders. Or Nick Zedd. Ask my friends who are dead or anyone who really lived in the East Village—to the fullest—through the mid-1990s. If they’re honest, they’ll tell you about some times when they were scared. But hey, we’re all adults here. At least we used to be.    

    When we discuss how back in the 1980s there were hardly any kids in the neighborhood, Hartman perks up. “When that place [Two Boots] opened, I had a 3-year-old, and there were virtually no kids in the East Village,” he explains, seemingly amazed. “I was out here the other night for Halloween—I’m not exaggerating—there must have been 500 kids out here. It was crazy.”

    Despite his attempts, it’s obvious Hartman can’t make up his mind about what the neighborhood means to him. So he stands under the marquee moon … hesitating. One foot is in its dilapidated adult-playground past and another toward its continual evolution into a streamlined theme park.

    Hartman’s certainly an entrepreneur, and it’s easy to label someone who’s making money off the idea of a bohemian past as hypocritical. But perhaps Hartman should be labeled something gentler. He seems to have already decided what it should be, from the name of his failed cinema: Pioneer.