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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 festivalone 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 sceneone 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 onionyou keep peeling back layer after layer until you finally realize that there is nobody in charge."
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 Picnica black-and-white ode to a neighborhood that even then seemed locked in a turf war between bohos and brokersplayed 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 addresswhen 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.
"The first year was like, 'Let's put on a show, kids!' " Van Cook says. "The organization wasn't there because it was so spontaneous. My friend's son wanted to be an intern, and the next minute he's running the film festival. Decisions were made based on whoever was in the room at the time. Of course things went wrong."
"The spirit of the festival was so great that the people running it deserved a lot of the benefit of the doubt," says Leslie McEachern, owner of Angelica Kitchen and a former Howl patron. "But after a while, there seemed to be a pattern evolving of disorganization and carelessness." McEachern enlisted the Angelica florist to do work at cost for a FEVA benefit gala at Capitale, only to discover that he still hadn't been reimbursed a year latera story that's all too familiar to FEVA's bevy of creditors. "I talked to Joseph Pupello on the phone. He says, 'I'm writing this check right now,' " McEachern recalls. "I wait a week, I don't get a check. I call again, he says, 'I'm writing it right now, I'm walking it over to the restaurant.' Well, he must still be walking around, because that was a month ago. They're supposed to be representing the community, and this is how they behave?"
These kinds of frustrations are echoed many times over in the grievance report. "We would have a lot more sympathy with the mess over there if we were given an honest explanation of their ability to pay us what was agreed to, rather than offering up different explanations, or simply ignoring us each time we billed them," says Wigstock co-founder Scott Lifshutz in the report.
By all accounts, the FEVA member who lost the most is Phil Hartman himself. Hartman says he put $250,000 of his own money into FEVA in 2005 alone, the year he stepped down as executive director in favor of Pupello, former president of the New York Restoration Project. "We were an upside-down pyramid, because we started with the philanthropic efforts of one individual," Pupello says. "Now we need to get the corporate support behind it, and we need a diverse portfolio."
Board member Bob Perl of Tower Brokerage says that, after Pupello's appointment, "Our hope was to find alternative funding sources." And how has that gone? "Poorly."
"Pupello came on as a fundraiser and he didn't raise a dime," David Leslie says. "All he did was fire the [Artists] Advisory Board and cancel the festival." Pupello retorts that it was Leslie who was in charge of the March 2005 Capitale benefit that, according to Pupello, unbenefited FEVA to the tune of $80,000. "All of our debt stems directly from that," Pupello says.
Officially known as the 1st Annual FEVA Pantheon Gala, the Capitale benefit honored local legends including Jonas Mekas and Tuli Kupferberg at what's arguably the gaudiest private-party space on the Lower East Side. It also produced the episode that, to many observers, summed up FEVA's organizational bedlam: the Case of the Missing $52,500. Two members of the East Village Community Coalition, Michael Rosen and Aaron Sosnick, chipped in this combined sum to underwrite the gala; a week after their donation, FEVA's bank balance stood at $125, and no one can explain exactly why. "Phil put the money toward another debt," Van Cook said. "Which one? I don't know. We had so many debts."
When the Voice asked Hartman about the money, he wrote in an e-mail that, of the $250,000 he contributed to FEVA last year, $50,000 was a loan. "About $47,000 was repaid, and the rest I forgave," he writes. Asked to clarify, Hartman explains, "[T]he money went into the general fund and was used for staff salaries, overhead, benefit expenses . . . and payback of the loan."
Of course, why the finances of a public organization are so unclear to its own patrons and organizers is something of a mystery in itself. And some observers say that FEVA isn't the first Hartman venture characterized by extreme disarray. Hartman's cinema, the Pioneer Theater, has been a veritable assembly line of disgruntled ex-employees and associates since it opened in 2000; one local filmmaker and curator who has shown her work at the Pioneer jokes about her $6.20 cut of a well-attended screening. "They were always trying to cut corners, always trying to cut people's wages, always trying to get one person to do three jobs," says Moira Tierney, a former projectionist at the Pioneer. "Their whole East Villagebohemian thing is so hypocritical. They want to seem like they're down with the people, but they show a total disregard for the people who actually work for them."
"It was rough going the first few years," says Todd Verow, a former manager at the Pioneer. "I think it was an organizational problemthey had a really hard time getting all their paperwork together. They didn't really know what they were doing. Their hearts were in the right place."
Hartman would concur with that sentiment as it applies to FEVA. "Most of the FEVA staff who were underpaid or, in my case, unpaid did the best they could, and most of them are incredibly proud of what we accomplished," he says. Though he remains on FEVA's board of directors, Hartman indicates that he has distanced himself from the organization's day-to-day operations, while new branches of the Two Boots franchise are in the works on Grand Street and in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "It's time for others to carry on," he says.
Leading the charge is Pupello, who downplays the significance of pulling the plug on Howl this year: "The festival hasn't been canceled; it's only been postponed," he says. But his talk of corporate backing and diversified investments leaves some former FEVA dreamers coldthough they're troubled by the various money disputes and snafus, the disaffected are perhaps more concerned that the gritty identity of their iconic enclave has been co-opted as a clean, tourist-friendly brand by business interests. Howl traded on nostalgia for the mean streets of yore, and so does Mo Pitkin's, whose website describes the vibe for its upstairs performance space as "a room that feels like 1959 and Lenny Bruce is about to jump onstage and insult America."
"By year three [of Howl], people were getting up onstage to thank McDonald's, Chase Manhattan, big developersin other words, the very people Howl and FEVA were formed against," Leslie says. "They can't keep using the name 'East Village Artists' to lie to people and partner with fast-food joints and skyscraper developers." (As of this month, four of the 10 members of FEVA's board of directors could be characterized as artists: Van Cook, poet and Bowery Poetry Club proprietor Bob Holman, poet-critic Greg Masters, and author-musician Rebecca Odes.)
"The original mission [of FEVA] was partly to stop this flood of expensive bars and restaurants coming into the area," says Patterson. "But then Phil builds Mo Pitkin's, and the contradiction was clear. Phil turned out to be the gentrifier."
One thing that all sides share is a tendency to refer to both FEVA and the East Village itself in the past tense. Talk to enough FEVA compatriotson either side of the contretempsand one begins to envision Howl less as an arts festival than a commemorative ceremony for the neighborhood that was and the Epcot pavilion that replaced it. Michael Rosen recalls reading Frederic Jameson on the concept of simulacra years ago: "That was the first time I understood Disneyland as an ahistorical force that takes this stuff that was rich and gritty and beautiful and nasty, cleans the whole thing up, and throws it at you as some kind of pablum of a Bavarian village. That's what Mo Pitkin's is. . . . It's a Disneyland version of the East Village," Rosen continues. "It's probably a very smart thing to do, and it's beautiful and sad at the same time."
Hartman also strikes a bittersweet note: "I think the best we can do at this point is try to preserve as much of the past as we can, and I'm doing my share with [Mo Pitkin's] and with the Pioneer." He adds, "I have three kids, I raised them in the neighborhood, and I want them to know what it was like."