This week’s special mental health elixir was a walkabout in the East Village. Nearly finished with early punk rocker Richard Hell’s memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I found myself waxing nostalgic for my early, good old, bad old days in New York. I had one appointment on a warm October weekday, around which I indulged going with the flow of memory back into the seedy, dangerous, yet authentic past, with no evading what is the here and now.
I arrived in Hell’s Kitchen early September 1971, and two months later was living with my art school roommate in a fifth floor walk-up on 2nd Street between Avenues A and B. “Home Sweet Tenement!” was how we felt–in other words, ecstatic! On our way to becoming real Noo Yawkers.
Cuchifritos have caved to vegan everything, and the area I explored (below 14th Street and above Houston, from 4th to Avenue A) remains oxymoronic in who and how it nurtures and casts its spell. When I lived there, squatters and junkies ruled. Scattered into the sidewalk cracks were shoots of new growth, spawned by the artists and musicians who could afford no other neighborhood. They would add cachet for future generations–and end up as graphics on T-shirts sold to tourists. I peered into faces that looked to be about my own age, and could almost recognize who they once were. Reflecting who I once was. I looked at the buildings. At the streets. At life. The East Village will always be a symbol of survival. I wonder if it will survive all this.
Sadly, the neighborhood is a construction zone. As buildings come down and the texture changes, I know that tipping points have already been reached. No going back.
Happily, some relics exist, or co-exist with the new kids on the block.
The low-rise tenements on the cross streets contain architectural detail unlike what we will ever see again–exquisite, fragile, tough.
Well, of course, you gotta shop!
Where there’s a wall, there’s a way.
See ya later, East Village!
photos copyright Sharon Watts 2013