My first exposure to 2nd Avenue was in the late 60’s. I didn’t live in New York but I visited a few times to see concerts at the Village Theater, between 6th and 7th Streets, next to the legendary lower east side restaurant Ratners. My first experience was in 1967 – I saw a now-legendary show with Richie Havens, the Soul Survivors, Canned Heat and the headliner, Eric Clapton’s Cream in an early American concert. The “10:30” show didn’t start until after midnight and ended at 4AM with Clapton saying sweetly “Thank you indeed.” No one had left and in the pre-dawn light the audience filed out onto 2nd Avenue. Perhaps some went into the 24 hour Ratners for their famous cheesecake or the amazing mushroom barley soup. The theater later became the Fillmore East and the rest is history – which you can study here, a site which has photos and details about the building’s life story. With its Corinthian-columned interior, it was built in 1925 as a Yiddish American vaudeville theater and film space called the Commodore Theatre.
In 1973 I was looking for a space to live in New York and scouring the Village Voice classifieds, the Craigslist of its day. One place I looked was a share with a woman and her child in a very cool attic loft space with a skylight, at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 3rd Street. I liked the situation but felt that the immediate neighborhood was creepy, and moved instead to a share on Waverly Place just off the park. In the meantime I met a fellow photographer and 9 months later he invited me to take a room in his loft on 2nd Avenue, practically across the street from the place I didn’t like and I decided to take a chance, and stayed for 23 years.
Second Avenue between Houston and 14th Streets is a unique area in which many of the buildings originally had stores on the 2nd floor as well as on the ground floor. What I know of my 2nd floor place is that a rabbi lived there in the 1930s and in the 40’s it became a tuxedo rental shop which became the first Hare Krishna temple in the late 60s and then an Artist-In-Residence space.
When I moved in the block was a center for white winos with red pockmarked faces who bought pints of Midnight from the liquor store 2 doors away. The derelicts were there because the NYC men’s shelter was around the corner on 3rd St. (between 2nd Avenue and Bowery), and the Bowery flophouses were nearby. This was post-speed and before crack. I was there through the worst of the crack epidemic and left when NYU was encroaching from all directions. I survived more landlords and housing court battles than I can recall. My hand-made imprint of a Hindu peace slogan is still in the concrete sidewalk facing the front door, from when the 2nd Avenue subway construction halted for the umpteenth time, probably in the late 70’s, and new sidewalks were made.
In the early 70’s there were few places to eat and the only active theater was LaMama on 4th Street. In the next 10 years that expanded to at least 6 theaters within 2 blocks, including an opera house. A friend in the neighborhood had been told by her grandmother that when she was a youngster in the lower east side, on Saturday nights they would “dress up and go strolling on 2nd Avenue.” It was for a while a major entertainment center and was called the “Jewish Rialto” in the 1920s, with a cinema at Houston Street and live Yiddish theaters across from my loft at 2nd and 4th (the Anderson Yiddish Theater), at 12th Street, and what later became the world famous Fillmore East.
In my early years there, one of the only venues with live shows was the 82 Club at 82 East 4th St., just east of LaMama. In a below-ground space there were small tables with white tablecloths where patrons watched cabaret acts in which all the performers were men in drag. Much more on the 82 Club can be found here. On Saturday nights buses with Rhode Island plates would park in front of my building. Out would come white middle class middle aged couples, and they filed down the steps into the 82 Club. After a few hours they would file back into the buses and leave.
That block of 4th Street was a stroll for transvestite prostitutes, and when I went out for pizza way after midnight they were the patrons, and I became familiar with several who were on the block every night. In the 70’s there were some streetwalkers on Bowery but the only other regular stroll in the Village was on 13th St. between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, centered around a hotel on 13th Street, which is where Martin Sorcese shot the scene in Taxi Driver where DeNiro goes to rescue Jodi Foster’s character from a life in prostitution. More info on that is here.
Today the Commodore/Village/Fillmore East theater building has become condos, upstairs from a bank, and Ratners is a super market below NYU’s Tisch performing arts school. Only Bloch Drugs, at the corner of 6th Street, is the same as it was in the 70’s. On the next block uptown, the B&H Dairy Restaurant and Gem Spa on the corner are all that remain from the Yiddish Rialto, along with Yonah Shimmel Knishes on Houston Street.
Finally, the web site “Legendary Rock Clubs” has good profiles of many of the rock clubs of the village in the 60’s and 70’s.