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Posts Tagged ‘East Village’

The day I visited the Nuyorican Poets Cafe the front door was being replaced. The door was old and for security purposes had to go. Still, staff were adamant that they wouldn’t be getting rid of the old one, after all “there’s a lot of history in that door”. For an institution as notorious and embedded as the Nuyorican, even seemingly irrelevant parts of architecture have stories to tell. However, if there’s a lot of history in the front door that is nothing compared to what can be found inside.

 

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in  1976

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1976, New York Times

The Nuyorican has not always been at its current location on East 3rd Street. It was initially set up in 1974 on East 6th Street in the apartment of Miguel Algarín, one of the cafe’s founding members. Popularity soon forced it to expand into an Irish Pub on the same street and in 1981 to where it currently stands. The cafe closed a year later but re-opened in 1988 and since then the top three floors of the building have been given over to its archival collections. It was these collections that were the purpose of my visit but I arrived with no concept of their size. Executive Director Daniel Gallant had told me that there was a lot to see; he was not wrong.

What the collections might lack in organization they more than make up for in content. The walls are decorated with banners from previous performances and coat rails are jammed with costumes. There are countless boxes of recorded material as well as signed photographs and DIY posters from the 1980s. The material spans the entire history of the Nuyorican, from the early days of Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri, through Amiri Baraka and Rome Neal, and into the current crop of new artists making their name at the cafe. In essence the Nuyorican holds an almost complete cultural and material history of the late 20th Century East Village.

Yet the location of the Nuyorican archives has caused problems of its own. Twice the material has been storm damaged

A selection of the Nuyorican archives

A selection of the Nuyorican archives

and there is always a concern that this could happen again. The Nuyorican is not opposed to the material being archived elsewhere but this is often easier said than done. First this would require one of the many archival sites in New York to come forward to accept the material. However, Daniel Gallant explained to me that in order for the vast collection to be properly understood it would need the input of someone familiar with the history and current work of the cafe and this is constrained by both time and money. I would be surprised if numerous other non-profit institutions in New York do not also encounter the same problem.

I have often found it interesting that we make such clear distinctions between hoarding and collecting, often only allowing the former to become the latter when practiced by someone of notoriety. Yet if there is a distinction to be made it is surely in terms of organization. Any individual or institution may keep hold of material from their past but it is when that is transformed into something accessible and understandable that it becomes a recognizable collection. The case of the Nuyorican shows how difficult this can be. The East 3rd Street building will soon be renovated and the top floors will becomes artistic and theatrical studios. When this happens the material will have to move; it would be a tragedy if it did not find the home it deserves.

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The East Village is often viewed as a younger, edgier sibling of Greenwich Village. A depiction that is accurate considering that the neighborhood is quite new as far as New York City neighborhoods are concerned. Throughout much of New York City’s history the area located east of 3rd Avenue between Houston and 14th Street was simply known as the Lower East Side. By the mid-20th century, however, the neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village began to merge, and as boundaries changed the area’s population transformed as well.

The term East Village first appeared in the early 1960s when artists from Greenwich Village started moving east to escape the rising cost of rent. This move to the Lower East Side was partly tied to the destruction of the Third Avenue El in 1956 that had served as a physical and social divide between the two neighborhoods. As the artist community spread east, real estate brokers followed closely behind hoping to cash in on the areas’ growing connection to the bohemian scene. Relators began referring to the neighborhood as “East of the Village” or the “Village East” and hippies began flocking to the area. Indeed, the first mention of the East Village in The New York Times came on Feb 7, 1960, and even at this early stage the article remarked upon real estate interests in the neighborhood.

At the same time East Village had begun experiencing other serious demographic changes. The older immigrant community largely of Eastern European descent was being replaced by the city’s rapidly growing Puerto Rican population. Between 1940 and 1970 the city’s Puerto Rican population exploded, growing from a minority of about 100,000 to over a million. Many of the new immigrants settled in the Lower East Side, and by the time the hippies arrived there was a large Puerto Rican presence in the neighborhood.

Screen shot 2013-09-29 at 4.06.21 PM

Through the influence of hippies, artists, and real estate agents the name East Village had become common among New Yorkers by the late 1960s. In a June 5, 1967 article titled “The 2 Worlds of the East Village” the Times pointed to the general acceptance of the term noting that the area had already “come to be known” as the East Village, but it also hinted that some New Yorkers were uneasy with the changes in the neighborhood. Referencing clash between city police and about 200 hippies, the article claimed that there was a large divide between the officers and residents of the “seething streets”. The author, which tellingly only interviewed police officers, declared that cops in their “trim, blue uniforms and highly polished shoes find it difficult to understand the world of the unkempt, long haired hippies, the Puerto Ricans with their strange language and customs, and the Negroes.” Indeed, for this author and the officers he interviewed, the residents of the East Village did not conform to what he called “middle-class society and values”. One of the officers described hippies saying, “You feel like vomiting,” while another complained of Puerto Ricans that they “like to congregate on the streets,” and “play their guitars at all hours of the night”. These descriptions did not represent everyone’s view of the East Village, but for the author and his clean-cut cops, the neighborhood seemed like an unfriendly place.

Despite the critics, the East Village continued to grow in popularity and became a large draw for tourists in the 60s and 70s. One young hippie described the appeal of the neighborhood the best simply stating, “You go where the action is.”

Sources

 
Edmond J. Bartnett, “‘Village’ Spills Across 3D Ave.” New York Times, February 7, 1960: R1.
 
Sylvan Fox, “The 2 Worlds of the East Village,” New York Times, June 5, 1967: 63.
 
Paul Hoffman, “Hippies’ Hangout Draws Tourists,” New York Times, June 5, 1967: 63.
 
Ira Rosenwaike, Population History of New York City (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1972), 174.

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Photograph of interior of McSorley’s Old Ale House taken by Kerry Bridget Heimer, 2012.

McSorley’s Old Ale House, established in 1854 by Irish immigrant John McSorley in the East Village of Manhattan, has been open and thriving now for over 158 years.  Throughout the course of its long and colorful history, McSorley’s has been home to camaraderie and controversy, a meeting place for the workingmen of New York, and a shameless force of opposition against the 13-year period of Prohibition in the United States.  Though alcohol consumption itself was never explicitly outlawed, the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in January of 1919 prohibited the “…manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States…”

Prohibition faced strong opposition nationwide, particularly in major cities such as New York, and even more so upon the advent of the Great Depression.  Bootleggers and speakeasies became commonplace, and there was simply not enough federal staff to adequately enforce the law.  Many private bars continued operating with great discretion out of fear of facing raids; peephole doors were installed, protections were paid to local law enforcement and officials, and business continued for many in a stealthy manor.

Bill McSorley the son of John McSorley and then owner of their family pub following John’s death in 1910, however, paid no mind to Prohibition.  Being that many Tammany politicians and police officials were among the regular crowd of patrons at McSorley’s, immunity from raids did not need to be bought.  An inconvenience was all it was to Bill McSorley, as Fidelio Brewery located on First Avenue, the place from which McSorley’s Ale came since its opening day in 1854, was forced to close.

In the interest of staying open, and without a brewery to procure their ale from, “McSorley’s ale was produced mysteriously in rows of barrels and washtubs in the cellar by a retired brewer named Barney Kelley.”  (Mitchell, pg. 10)  It is said that Kelley’s ale was particularly strong leading Bill to take it upon himself to weaken the brew creating what he referred to as “near beer.”  Somehow Bill’s generally surly attitude and shameless weakening of the ale at a time of increased prices (the rate for ale at McSorley’s during Prohibition was fifteen cents, or two mugs for a quarter, while over a decade later in 1941 it was sold for a dime a mug) still managed to amuse and draw the customers.

McSorley’s blatant disregard for Prohibition even became the subject of major works of art.  John Sloan, a member of the Ash Can School of art, a group who utilized their art as a means to depict the reality of their time, took inspiration from his visits to McSorley’s and created a series of five works illustrating the environment of the saloon.  Two of these works specifically portrayed McSorley’s Old Ale House during the prohibition period, “McSorley’s Cats” painted in 1928 and “McSorley’s Saturday Night” painted in 1930.  Each of these paintings speaks volumes of the continued patronage of McSorley’s as well as its “business as usual” mentality against the force of Prohibition.

Image

McSorley’s Saturday Night painted by John Sloan, 1930.

Works Cited:

Mitchell, Joseph. McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. Pantheon Books, Random House, Inc., New York 1943.

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On the evening of February 2, 1913, a crowded audience enjoyed a moving picture show at the Houston Hippodrome, a movie theater in the East Village. During the movie a small fire erupted in the projection booth. The fire was quickly put out, but not before it was noticed by members of the audience. A frightened boy in the balcony shouted “Fire!” and unintentionally started a panic that took the lives of two and injured many more.

Headline about the Houston Hippodrome fire, New York Tribune, February 3, 1913, page 1.

Headline about the Houston Hippodrome fire, New York Tribune, February 3, 1913, page 1.

The Houston Hippodrome had been opened in December 1909, in a former Protestant Church at 141-143 East Houston Street. The proprietor, Charles Steiner, and his partners renovated the church to convert it into a theater, turning the pulpit into a stage and the organ loft into a projection booth, but retaining the wooden pews as seating for the audience. Though the building was not originally designed to be a movie theater, Steiner and company also made changes to meet all existing theater safety regulations, such as adding fire escapes and enlarging doorways. However, the Houston Hippodrome received citations from the Fire Department on multiple occasions for filling the theater beyond its mandated 299 person capacity. With the huge population in the Lower East Side at the time, it was easy to draw a large audience to enjoy moving picture shows and vaudeville acts.

Charles Steiner, proprietor of the Houston Hippodrome.

Charles Steiner, proprietor of the Houston Hippodrome.

But the New York theater regulations did nothing to prevent the deadly 1913 panic. When the cry of “Fire!” was raised, the audience members rushed to the exits, ignoring or unable to hear the theater staff members’ attempts to calm the crowd. The patrons in the balconies hurried down the stairs, where some people fell and blocked the stairways. Those on the main floor rushed through the too small theater exits, which led out into the lobby that was full of patrons awaiting the next showing. As the doorways became clogged and people became more frightened, many lost their footing and were pushed and stomped. Two women were crushed to death in the confusion and 32 others were injured.

Image of the Houston Hippodrome, New York Tribune, February 3, 1913, page 1.

Image of the Houston Hippodrome, New York Tribune, February 3, 1913, page 1.

Irving Steiner, the projectionist and brother of proprietor Charles Steiner, was initially taken into custody and held on the count of criminal negligence, and the owners and proprietors were questioned by police and fire officials. But Irving Steiner was soon released, and no charges were brought against him or any others. When the Fire Commissioner examined the scene afterwards, he found that the building was in compliance with all safety regulations then in place, and that, despite the hyperbolic headline, the audience was not over the 299 person capacity (though other patrons waiting in the lobby for the next showing would have added to the total number in the crowd). But he also noted that similar fires and dangerous panics were common in small theaters throughout the city, suggesting that the current safety codes were insufficient. In an article about the fire, a New York World editor wrote pessimistically that “without change it [the theater] may be used for more performances, may witness more panics, may gather fresh stains of blood. It is deadly but legal.”

But the Houston Hippodrome panic did help persuade the city’s Board of Alderman to pass new legislation on theater regulation. The fire safety requirements were increased and the Houston Hippodrome underwent a $7000 renovation in the summer of 1913 to meet the new codes. The Hippodrome remained in operation until 1917, when it was demolished and a larger theater was built in its place. Today the Sunshine Cinema still welcomes audiences for movie showings in the space.

The Sunshine Cinema today stands where the Houston Hippodrome once was.

The Sunshine Cinema today stands where the Houston Hippodrome once was.

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Arguably one of the world’s most famous rock clubs was opened in December 1973, when musician/actor/nightclub manager/concert promoter Hilly Kristal took over the Palace Bar.  CBGB’s or CBGB OMFUG which stands for “Country Bluegrass Blues, Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizer (a voracious eater of, in this case, music)” was located at 315 Bowery at Bleecker Street.

Hilly Kristal was a lifelong lover of folk music and originally intended his club to feature its namesake musical styles.  Instead, amusingly, it quickly became a forum for American punk and No Wave bands such as the Ramones, Misfits, Television, The Voidoids, The Cramps, The B-52’s, Blondie, Swans, and Talking Heads.  Within months after CBGB opened, local musicians and poets became curious about the bar.  Tom Verlaine persuaded Kristal to book his band, Television, and others followed suit, including Patti Smith and her band, which had a seven-week residency in 1975.  Record executives soon joined the neighborhood punks.  Hilly Kristal was quick to recognize the new scene’s potential even though he professed a dislike for some of the music.  From the beginning, Kristal decreed that bands had to perform original material and, while this policy fostered creativity, it was also a way to avoid paying performance royalties.  By early 1974, as Richard Hell later wrote in the New York Times, CBGB “housed the most influential cluster of bands ever to have grown up – or to implicitly reject the concept of growing up – under one roof.”  Beginning in the early 1980’s until its later years, CB’s would transition from the Punk scene and become known for its Hardcore punk bands such as Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law, and Cro-Mags.

Adjacent to his club, Hilly Kristal established, the “CBGB Record Canteen” (record shop and cafe) which was open for many years.  Eventually, in the late eighties, the record store was closed and replaced with a second performance space and art gallery, named “CB’s 313 Gallery”.

This iconic venue became famous not only for the bands that played there but also for its grimy decor with walls covered in band stickers and flyers and its notoriously foul bathrooms.  The club’s interior served as both a relic of rock history and a kind of living museum of graffiti.  In some ways CBGB ended its life as it had started; in its original location and with its original floor plan complete with uneven floors and peeling ceiling.  A virtual tour of the venue can be found here.

Already big names, such as Pearl Jam, Green Day and The White Stripes made appearances at the club in the last few years but the club had lost some of its luster.  In 2005, a dispute arose between CBGB’s and the Bowery Residents Committee, which claimed Kristal owed $91,000 in back rent. That was the beginning of the end for the this loud and trashy mecca, which had played host to an estimated 50,000 bands.  Despite several attempts to save the New York landmark, Patti Smith played the final concert ever at CBGB’s on October 15, 2006, ending its 33-year reign.

Following the closure of the music venue, CBGB Fashions (the CBGB store, wholesale department, and online store) stayed open until October 31, 2006 at 315 Bowery.  On November 1, 2006, CBGB Fashions moved to 19-23 St. Mark’s Place, but it too closed in the summer of 2008.

Although the physical venue has been closed for several years (and several of its contents, such as a wooden phone booth and the outdoor awning can now be found in New York’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex) and Hilly Kristal died on August 28, 2007, CBGB’s is still part of the music world in New York.  In 2010, CBGB Radio was launched on the iheartradio platform and in 2012, the CBGB’s 4-day music Festival was born with free concerts in Times Square and Central Park along with events hosted in more than 30 bars and music halls around Manhattan and Brooklyn.   The festival follows Hilly Kristal’s ideology of showcasing emerging artist and also includes music business conferences, rock and roll film screenings, industry panel discussions and more.


 Sources

“A Virtual Tour of CBGB’s – NYC on October 13, 2006 which is now closed.” http://360vr.com/CBGB/  Accessed November 25, 2012

CBGB. “The History of CBGB by Hilly Kristal”, http://www.cbgb.com/history.php  Accessed November 25, 2012

Hell, Richard.  “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” New York Times, October 14, 2006, Opinion section, New York edition.

McKinley, James C., Jr. and Stephen Rex Brown “CBGB Is Dead. Long Live CBGB” New York Times, May 7, 2012, Music Section, New York edition.

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Day of the Dead, figure of a bride

Viene la muerte cantando
Por entre la nopalera
En que quedamos, pelona,
Me llevas o no me llevas?

(Death comes singing
Between the nopales (prickly pears)
What have we decided, bald one,
Will you or won’t you take me?)
– Popular Verse

Day of the Dead or los Días de los Muertos, is one of Mexico’s most important festivals.  Death is a prevailing theme in Mexican popular culture and according to this belief, the souls of the dead have divine permission to return each year to earth, on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (1 and 2 November).  In most regions of Mexico, November 1 (also known as día de los inocentes “day of the innocents” or día de los angelitos “day of the little angels”) is to honor children and infants, whereas deceased adults are honored on November 2 (día de los Muertos).  This is not a somber occasion but a time for feasting and reunion.  It is a time for families to gather and welcome the souls of the dead on their annual visit home.  Revelers build altars and adorn them with Cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, burn copal incense, and leave fresh bread, pan de muertos, candles, sugar skulls, photographs and mementos of the departed.  In Mexico, Day of the Dead is celebrated over an entire week with the preparation of altars, foods, dance, music and special offerings for people who have died.

Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders is a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating Mexican culture and promoting the understanding of Mexican traditions.  Every year, they host an annual Day of the Dead festival at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery (10th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan).  Thursday, November 1st to Sunday, November 4th, 2012 marks their tenth anniversary and a variety of events and workshops will be offered in the churchyard of St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery.

Assorted Day of the Dead figurines

Although All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are determined by the Roman Catholic calendar, pre-Christian beliefs and practices still play an important role in these celebrations.  Death, for the ancient peoples of Mexico, signified not an end but a stage in constant cycle, a cycle, which paralleled the yearly sequence of the seasons.  The Aztecs, who rose to power after 1325, regarded life and death as complementary.  Their worldview was based on dualism, a system of balanced opposites. The Aztecs were not alone in their religious beliefs.  As the inheritors of cultural traditions that were many centuries old, they shared their cosmology and their pantheon of gods with the other inhabitants of ancient Mexico.  In New Spain, the feasts of All Saints and All Souls’ combined cultural traits from Europe with pre-existing traditions. This cultural fusion has since been so complete that it would be difficult to determine today which aspects of the festival were introduced from Christian Europe and which aspects characterized the indigenous cult of the dead.

A large component of this tradition is the altar, which embodies the four elements of nature.  Earth is represented by crop (the souls are fed by the aroma of food), wind is represented by a moving object (tissue paper is commonly used), water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst after the long journey to the altar, and fire is represented by a wax candle (each lit candle represents a soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul).  Families also leave toys for dead children (los angelitos, or “the little angels”), bottles of tequila, mezcal or pulque or jars of atole for adults, foods such as candied pumpkin and sugar skulls.  Pillows and blankets are also left out so the deceased can rest after their long journey.  In some parts of Mexico, such as the towns of Mixquic, Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, people spend all night beside the graves of their relatives.

A common symbol of the holiday is the skull (calavera), which celebrants represent in masks, called calacas and caricatures of skeletons (usually painted clay) depicting everyday life.  The engravings of Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) are deeply rooted in the Mexican national culture and this tradition.  From 1888, Posada supplied images to the capital’s journal and book trades.  Since the Mexican Revolution, La Calavera Catrina (“skull of the rich woman”, a parody of a Mexican upper-class female), and perhaps his best known image, has become linked with the festival of the dead.  Some people believe possessing Day of the Dead items can bring good luck. Many people get tattoos or have dolls of the dead to carry with them.  They also clean their houses and prepare the favorite dishes of their deceased loved ones to place upon their altar or ofrenda.

Day of the Dead diorama

Sources:

Sayer, Chloe.  Fiesta: Days of the Dead and other Mexican Festivals. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009

Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders, “Day of the Dead”.  October 27, 2012. http://www.manoamano.us/en/day-of-the-dead-12.html

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Ask any area resident about the cemetery in the East Village, and most will know it- “the one on Second.” What they may not realize, is that there are actually two cemeteries “on Second” in the East Village. They are the New York Marble Cemetery on Second Avenue, and the New York City Marble Cemetery on Second Street. Well, that isn’t confusing!

New York City Marble Cemetery
Image courtesy of http://www.nycmc.org

The author visiting the New York Marble Cemetery.

The New York Marble Cemetery was founded in 1830, and became functional in 1831. Civic legislation at the time prohibited burial directly in the ground below 14th Street, after a particularly virulent yellow fever epidemic. The solution was to inter the dead in underground marble vaults, large enough to hold a family group. The concept proved so popular that a second cemetery was established around the corner from the first, on a different “Second.” This unaffiliated location was named the New York City Marble Cemetery.

Despite being separate entities, the two cemeteries share much in common. Beyond the names, locations and time period, each cemetery was founded under very similar auspices. They are the first two non-sectarian cemeteries in New York City. Prior to 1830, burial grounds were owned and operated by a particular church, and membership in that church could be a prerequisite for purchasing a plot. As non-sectarian foundations, both of the marble cemeteries were unaffiliated with a specific church, and plot allocation was driven more by social capital than religious ties. These cemeteries were intended as “A Place of Internment for Gentlemen,” and the vaults were expensive. Starting at $250 in 1830, such a vault today would cost many thousands of dollars, not including accoutrements such as the headstone or even a casket.

As the nineteenth century progressed, it became more popular for wealthy families to invest in elaborate burial plots at “rural” cemeteries, especially Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. At the same time, the social class for whom the marble cemeteries were built was moving further Uptown, and the East Village became a center of various immigrant communities. In the 1890s, there was pressure to close both cemeteries, move the remaining dead to other cemeteries, and re-purpose the land for community use. A playground was suggested for the New York Marble Cemetery site. In both cases, trustees and remaining vault owners were able to form committees and raise endowments for continued maintenance of each cemetery. The last internments occurred in 1937 at the New York Marble Cemetery and 1941 at the New York City Marble Cemetery, where remaining heirs were buried in family vaults.

Through the twentieth century, preservation of the sites, and the deteriorating marble plaques and statues became of concern. Tuckahoe marble from Westchester County was used at each site, and the material is highly susceptible to weathering. The brick or stone wall surrounding each site also began to crumble. In 1969, the New York City Marble Cemetery was designated a “Landmark Site” by the New York City Landmarks Commission, and in 1980 the New York Marble Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. With such recognition, each site was able to undertake repairs for preservation, which continue to this day.

While the Marble Cemeteries are common sights “on Second,” neither is open to public access. They each hold a number of “Open Days” throughout the year, but generally remain locked behind their iron gates. This is a result of limited staff/ volunteers, even more limited funds, and the need to preserve the already-delicate sites. Historical records for the New York Marble Cemetery are available for view at the New-York Historical Society, while documents related to the New York City Marble Cemetery remain only in the hands of current trustees.

For anyone interested in seeing each site, they will be open this weekend as part of Open House New York, October 6-7, 2012.

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