Born and raised on New York City’s iconic St. Marks Place, author Ada Calhoun chronicles the street’s history and evolution in her brand new book St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street.
Calhoun, who graces the cover of the Village Voice this week, interviews 200 characters offering one-of-kind stories that involve the ever-changing area from the 1800s to present, from the area’s tony inception to the onrush of immigrants like outlaws and bootleggers during Prohibition, and later when the area became ravaged by drugs and crime, but also flourishing with art and creativity, to today’s rapidly developing real estate and retail mecca.
And she writes that complaints about St. Marks selling out are nothing new. “Disillusioned St. Marks bohemians—those who were Beats in the fifties; hippies in the sixties, punk in the seventies or anarchists in the eighties—often say the street is dead now, with only the time of death a matter for debate.”
We spoke to Calhoun about her personal thoughts on the continually evolving area; the most noteworthy things she has witnessed there; and how it now compares to others in vibe and quality of life.
In the last few years, which stores/restaurants in the area were you saddest to see go and why? Kim's Video I'd bet.
I was sad to lose Kim’s, and Sounds. Also DeRobertis. But the main blow for me was Odessa. When I was in high school, we drank coffee and ate pierogi there and fantasized about the place serving booze, and then when we came back from college they’d dimmed the lights and turned the counter into a bar. We cried for joy and drank there every night for ages. Also they still served food. So you could sit in the window booth and look into Tompkins Square Park and have a cocktail and kielbasa. It was as perfect a restaurant/bar as has ever existed.
What are the biggest changes on the block and in the area? What has changed for the better?
People are nicer. I think that really is the hugest difference from when I was a kid. People used to have this angry edge. Now you see a woman trying to get a stroller up her stairs and 12 people stop to ask if she needs help.
What would you like added there?
I like outdoor spaces, so I think more patios like Café Orlin and Mogador has.
Tell me your craziest story about what you have personally witnessed there.
I watched the riots out my window as a kid, and I’d say cops on horseback, anarchists knocking over garbage cans, and choppers flying overhead are hard to beat.
What are some of your best celeb sightings on the block?
Everyone I know has seen Daniel Craig and Helen Mirren but me. I got to hang out with [blogger] E.V. Grieve when he was still anonymous. That was pretty thrilling.
You grew up on St. Marks and your parents still live there. Can you tell us a bit about how they got their apartment?
They’ve lived between First and Second since 1973. They rented their place for $200 a month and then they bought it when it went co-op. They had the chance to buy the whole building for, I believe, $100,000 in the ‘80s, but didn’t want to be landlords.
On your book jacket it says, "Born and raised on St. Marks, she now lives with her husband and son a subway stop away—not because St. Marks is dead, but because Brooklyn is cheaper."
I live in south side Williamsburg, and I love my neighborhood so much. My husband and I moved there, to a tiny apartment we heard about from friends of friends, about 10 years ago from further north in Williamsburg. It’s a lot like the East Village of my youth, really—largely Puerto Rican and Dominican, a mix of new young people and older families, only more social than the East Village of the ‘80s was for me.
We know a lot of our neighbors by name. They’ve watched our son grow up. We joked that as a little kid he thought his name was “Que Lindo” because that’s what the ladies on the stoop down the block always called him.
The other night, this handyman-fixture in our neighborhood caught a raccoon and kept it in a cage for the kids to see on their way to school that morning before someone drove it to the country. We found a possum once and a runaway chicken another time. The neighbor kids knock on the door and ask to come in and feed our fish. In the winter they pull each other up and down the block on sleds and in the summer they play in hydrants. It’s the greatest.
There are several mentions of real estate in the book that stand out: How the Village Voice revolutionized the way people got their rental apartments (True story: I found my own first sixth-floor walkup in Hell's Kitchen via the Voice and paid a shady broker $5,000 to get it!) and the emergence of "key money" which was sort of a bribe to the landlord—perhaps the original version of the broker fee. Can you discuss a bit more about the role of real estate and its effect on St. Marks?
Real estate of course is a massive part of life in New York, no matter what neighborhood you live in or how much money you have. St. Marks Place in the mid-nineteenth century was an elite address, only for the richest of the rich. Then a hundred years later it was practically empty. And now it’s rich again.
That’s the major tension in the book: who wants to live there, who can afford to live there, and who thinks they deserve to live there and others don’t. It’s fascinating to me how proprietary people can feel over places where they’ve only just arrived. I’ve had people complain to me about gentrification and then when I talk to them for a little while I learn that they moved here three years ago. I hope my book provides a little perspective on the “it was great before X” cliché.
It changes all time but there’s no objective golden era. If it was great for you, it probably sucked for someone else.
You name-check everyone's favorite East Village blogger, EV Grieve, who discussed the new developments that have popped up in the area and cites, "Between 2000 and 2012, the Lower East Side's average rent increased by 42 percent. In 2014, on St. Marks Place a typical two-bedroom, one-bath was listed for $3,450 per month, a 650-square-foot storefront for $11,500." How did these rapid increases change the vibe of the area?
I think they’ve changed the vibe of St. Marks Place less then they’ve changed other places. You still have drunk teenagers out there every night. You still have bongs and $1 pizza. People who might like to live on the street can’t now afford it, but the sidewalk is free, and you have just as many young people hanging out there as ever.
Jimmy McMillan, known for coining the phrase "The rent is too damn high," is also mentioned as a St. Marks resident and is quoted as saying, "Rent is the cancer—1,000 percent of the problems we all face today." In speaking with him, what else did you learn?
Jimmy McMillan graciously let me ride around with him in his tricked-out Honda. I learned that he’s a Vietnam vet and has PTSD and amnesia from injuries sustained in combat. He’s very passionate about the neighborhood and the city. And he’s beloved. Hanging out with him, I must have seen a dozen people stop to talk to him and hug him. The East Village still has a lot of these adored figures—Jimmy McMillan, Jim Power, Jimmy Webb. Oh my God, are they all named Jimmy? And how did I never notice that before?
Calhoun drove around town in this car with Jimmy McMillan, one of her 200 interview subjects. David Shankbone
Yes. I know that’s sacrilege in some quarters, but I love the street now. I feel happy and safe there in a way I didn’t as a kid. I can take my son to Tompkins Square Park, where I was never allowed to go as a child. It helps that I did more than 200 interviews for this book and so know a lot of people and that makes it feel like a real community to me.
Do you have any advice for a newcomer to the St. Marks area?
I’d say just walk up and down St. Marks from Third Avenue to Tompkins Square Park and back. Have some dumplings. Get a drink. Get an egg cream at Gem Spa on Second Avenue or Ray’s on Avenue A. And please buy my book.