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East Village: 1980s

Like many native New Yorkers, I'm passionate and conflicted about my city. I like to say that I'm not American, I'm a New Yorker, unfairly excluding Queens and Staten Island. I'm proud to be from the Bronx, yet I wish I were raised in nature. (There's no truth to the myth that wolves roam the Bronx.) But since I'm urban to my very core, I am pleased to see a photo site dedicated to New York, and to Manhattan in particular, for which I offer the following observation.

There have been many tributes to the patriotic 1940s, cozy 1950s, and idealistic 1960s. But I'd like to add another overlooked era: the ironic 1980s. This interesting phenomenon occurred in NYC, particularly in the East Village, when the last traces of hippiedom and punk overlapped with disco.

I moved into my railroad apartment on East 6th Street in 1978 while I was still attending Queens College. My boyfriend had been listening intently to a conversation between landlords at Venieros Bakery on East 11th Street, and boldly approached them to ask if anything was available. He was shown several places and chose ours, where after many dramas and relationships I still live today with my husband.

East 6th street was already Indian row but not like we know it today. There was Hiros, a cheap Japanese-American eatery with long wooden benches, where I found a roach in my leafy salad. Going up the block toward 2nd Avenue was The Cauldron, a macrobiotic restaurant founded by Hasidic Jews. Legend has it that Yoko Ono began her career there as a waitress. At the retail store connected to the restaurant I used to buy a delicious highly perishable pink salad dressing made from daikon radishes.

A favorite funky eatery for hangover breakfasts was Binibons, with delicious 3-egg omelets and oversized muffins. The murder of their waiter by Jack Abbott was sensationalized because of the killer's connection to Norman Mailer, but the restaurant couldn't survive the bad vibes and closed soon thereafter.

On 9th & 2nd (now Starbucks) was The Orchidia, a casual blend of Ukrainian food and pizza, which offered tall fluty glasses of delicious Späten beer. This too was gone by the early '80s.

The silver lining of the "Me" decade was the explosion of performance art on the lower east side. The actor Steve Buscemi started out in skits with his pal Mark Boone at venues like St. Marks Church. "Steve and Mark" did hilarious sendups of crazed roommates and other domestic scenes. Eric Bogosian first tried out his material at P.S. 122, as well as Karen Finley—known for stuffing sweet potatoes up her ass and ranting against normalcy. There were lesser known but just as brilliant performers like Mimi Goese and Jennifer Blowdryer who could be seen at offbeat spots like ABC No Rio, No Se No, and Gas Station—a converted gas station at 2nd St. & Ave. B with "works" dropped on the sidewalks. I remember the emcee rollerskating across the shiny floors of a corner space before it became today's 7A restaurant. I was also a participant at these places, reading my poetry and experimenting with drama to lively appreciative audiences.

Then there was the movie theatre on 2nd Ave. near St. Marks where you could see a double feature for a buck fifty. The theater gave way to The Gap—one of the first outrageous gentrifications before we all became numb to it.

Theatre 80 was a very pleasant place to see old movies and hang out in a blue-lit snack bar. It maintained its dignity by morphing into Pearl Theater, a more upscale venue for classical plays.

I unfortunately arrived too late on the scene to experience Fillmore East, but I did get to witness one of its incarnations as The Saint, a mostly gay multifloor disco that had specialty straight nights. Schachts had an anniversary party there. I remember a terrific spread of bagels and appetizing illuminated by the spinning disco ball, and having to yell to my neighbors over the music.

Ah Schachts, an original appetizing store replete with old-style Jews who knew everything about smoked fish and liked to gossip with the customers. Sadly Schachts sold its name but not its personality to a short-lived Korean variety grocery store.

"You don't know what you got till it's gone." There were so many small colorful establishments that eventually couldn't afford the rising rents: fish stores, tailors, fabric stores, and unique cafes like the one on East 4th Street featuring gorgeous hammered brass tables whose shy artist/owner lived on the other side of a curtain.

Right next to my building now is a Chinese massage parlor. It was once an odd goods store then a tea shop run by an exciting amazon of a woman who had one name and dressed only in black and white. Her short-lived establishment was always crowded.

The flower stand on 6th & 2nd used to be an apple stand, run by a cute streetsmart guy named Turk, which I was terribly sorry to see go.

In the '80s Avenues A through D, or "Alphabet City," were progressively scary. No limos on these blocks then, no 5-star restaurants with waiting lists. I preferred it rough 'cause it kept the East Village unpopular. The upside now is that Avenue C, or "Loisaida," retains the good civic feeling EV once had, with community services, fairs, and gardens. It's also heavily Latin and worlds away from NYU-ified Second Avenue.

Who would ever have believed that a high-rise building at Astor place could fetch $3-12 million per apartment, next to a tired black cube that idlers have been spinning for 40 years?

Kudos to "Mosaic Man," whose beautiful work through the years on street poles reminds us of EV's old artistic spirit. Poor Adam Purple, lifelong defender of vegetarianism, lost his wife and then his garden and I'm not even sure he's alive.

The East Village has always been transient, a showcase for whatever's trendy. It's seen Flower Children, Punk Rockers, Goths and Gays. And of all the immigrants only the old-world Poles and Ukrainians remain entrenched, their schools, banks, churches and stores remarkably intact.

I never thought I'd see St. Mark's Place swarming with fast-food and tacky gifts. Or no-risk restaurateurs going faux-pan-Asian. Or the insidious creep of Starbucks, Duane Reade and The Gap. One has to dig deep for the wild feelings expressed at bygone institutions like Electric Circus and CBGBs.

Once poor and marginal, EV is now the mecca of the nouveau riche. Gone are the edgy times in New York when Times Square was seedy, the seaport stank of fish, and the nervous stayed uptown.

About the author

Born in Bronx, New York, Marilyn started writing poetry at age 6. As a young adult she moved to Manhattan and supported herself as a typesetter and proofreader while continuing to write poetry, fiction, essays and drama. She participated in the East Village performance scene during the '80s and '90s and wrote for local arts publications. In 1996 she published her poetry book entitled She Must Have Been a Giant. More mature now but still rebellious, Marilyn is working on several New York-related projects.

Marilyn Recht is a contributing writer for NYCfoto.com

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