FEVA Dream

The East Village's Howl festival collapses amid mudslinging, debt, and broken promises

Angel-headed hipsters looking for their fix of East Village fun were disappointed late last month by the abrupt cancellation of the fourth annual Howl festival. The signature event of the Federation of East Village Artists (FEVA), Howl would have arrived in the 50th anniversary year of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, the canonical Beat generation text that inspired a famous obscenity trial and gave a name to the week-long festival—one that hosted the likes of Wigstock, Art Around the Park, the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, and the Bluegrass Ball.

Not only has Howl been called off, but FEVA is, by many accounts, in shambles. The brainchild of Philip Hartman, the local entrepreneur behind Two Boots and Mo Pitkin's, FEVA began with an ambitious mission: to promote the countercultural legacy of the East Village and secure affordable health care, below-market studio space, and other resources for denizens of its fabled art scene—one that's been transformed and depleted by rapid gentrification. Thus far, however, FEVA has put virtually all its efforts into Howl, and now faces debt, personnel changes, and mudslinging between past and present factions within the group. Doubts and accusations also persist regarding its financial dealings and a management style that could be kindly characterized as chaotic.

"We need time to shore up the organization so we can come back with a bang next year," says FEVA executive director Joseph Pupello. Artist and curator Marguerite Van Cook speaks more bluntly: "There is no there there." Van Cook, a member of FEVA's board and, as of late August, its new director of development, says, "It's like peeling an onion—you keep peeling back layer after layer until you finally realize that there is nobody in charge."

Wigging out at Wigstock during the 2004 Howl festival in Tompkins Square Park
photo: Aaron Lee Fineman
Wigging out at Wigstock during the 2004 Howl festival in Tompkins Square Park

Some of the artists and patrons who devoted time, money, and energy to the FEVA vision now feel disillusioned, with several suggesting that Hartman capitalized on nostalgia for the area's gritty glory days to further his own business interests. The conflict over FEVA's future is part and parcel of the battle over who owns the rights to the dream of the East Village, that rough-and-tumble bohemian utopia of art, sex, and cheap rent that melted into air sometime late last century.

An East Villager for 26 years, Phil Hartman opened the first Two Boots restaurant on Avenue A in 1987, the same year his first and only feature film, No Picnic—a black-and-white ode to a neighborhood that even then seemed locked in a turf war between bohos and brokers—played the U.S. Film Festival (the precursor to Sundance). Business proved to be his true calling, however: Hartman grew the Two Boots pizza franchise throughout the '90s, making forays into Brooklyn, Grand Central Terminal, and Rockefeller Center. Meanwhile, the Avenue A location added a video store, a performance space called the Den of Cin, and a small cinema, the Pioneer Theater.

"Everything I do, whether it's in or out of the East Village, feels organically East Village to me," says Hartman one August afternoon at Mo Pitkin's, the multipurpose, retro-themed venue that opened across the street from the Two Boots flagship on Avenue A during last year's Howl festival. "Even as we expand out of the neighborhood, we feel we're trying to export the East Village sensibility. The spirit of the counterculture is behind everything we do." The fear that rapid development might extinguish that spirit, Hartman adds, is what provided the spark for FEVA.

When FEVA was first coming together, "Phil said he wanted to find ways to support local arts venues, to help artists who were being gentrified out," says photographer Clayton Patterson, a former member of FEVA's Artists Advisory Board.

"From the get-go," says performance artist David Leslie, who served as artistic director of Howl during its inaugural year, "I pointed out to Phil that he had to have the blessing and support of the elder statesmen, certain Lower East Side people like [performance artist] Penny Arcade and Clayton Patterson. If he wanted to seem legit, he had to achieve a collective vision with the core of the Lower East Side art scene, or the ones who are left at any rate." That vision produced Howl, which, according to Hartman, each year hosted some 1,000 artists and performers in 250 different events for an audience of 100,000 people in and around Tompkins Square Park.

But Howl and FEVA also left in their wake a litany of complaints about slights, mismanagement, broken promises, and unpaid debts, recorded in a 10,000-word grievances report compiled by former FEVA Artists Advisory Board member (and longtime Voice contributor) C.Carr. Artists and curators claim that they were encouraged to undertake books, exhibitions, and other projects with the benefit of FEVA's patronage, only to end up footing the bill themselves. In the report, there are also complaints that FEVA was slow or ineffectual in responding to crises that the organization seemed born to address—when octogenarian Warhol star Taylor Mead was facing eviction, for instance, or when musician Carrie Beehan suffered serious leg injuries last year while setting up a Howl event in a community garden. And numerous associates of Howl say that their goodwill toward a fledgling enterprise was stretched to the breaking point.

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