Has Ada Calhoun Just Become the Most Important New Voice on Old New York?

Has Ada Calhoun Just Become the Most Important New Voice on Old New York?EXPAND
Jena Cumbo

St. Marks Place announces itself, at its westernmost stretch, with a veritable block-long bazaar specializing in items that nobody who has celebrated a fifteenth birthday will ever crave. No matter what time of day or era of gentrification, somebody on the block is always screaming, and possibly spitting. "Isn't that man on television?" you ask a friend while traversing the street. "Nah," she responds, "he just looks like Otto the Bus Driver." St. Marks, like its brethren streets around the world, seems a place from which various countercultures of yesteryear have packed up and fled, leaving behind their detritus: profane novelty shirts, bong salesmen, the badly tattooed, roving packs of college freshmen, falafel. When walking around the East Village, it is a fun street to avoid.

Yet as a rule, to shun St. Marks Place is to land on the wrong side of history. Such is the lesson of Ada Calhoun's St. Marks Is Dead, a clear-eyed new book that surveys the street from its time as a Lenape tribe campsite — shockingly, pre–Sock Man — through the present day. In the years between, St. Marks played host to virtually every conceivable wave of bohemian chic. Many of Calhoun's characters are expected guests: Andy Warhol, Bill Graham, Keith Haring, Kim's Video. Still more St. Marks alumni come as a surprise. Leon Trotsky briefly edited a newspaper on the street, in 1917, just before returning home for revolution. A few years earlier, anarchist heavy Emma Goldman opened the Modern School there, instructing students (including a young Man Ray) to prepare for a world without law. The book disinters charismatic skateboarders and radical rectors, W.H. Auden and GG Allin, punks and crusties, Yippies and Motherfuckers.

In examining the street's three blocks, St. Marks Is Dead pans out to survey the East Village and, effectively, American iconoclasm. Calhoun's thesis lies in her title, dosed with New York irony. St. Marks Place — as with New York City and counterculture itself — is forever being declared moribund when in truth it remains in constant flux. Studies of Manhattan cool so often view the city as one might consider a rock band, with a glory-days peak followed by a sad decline. ("And CBGB is now a John Varvatos store," lament a thousand trend journalists.) In St. Marks Is Dead, the city is presented more like a baseball team. Some years are stronger than others. Beloved players move away or retire. But there is a steady stream of hopeful new faces, thrilled to be part of the fizz — which, for the young, never quite subsides.

So scoff at St. Marks Place, that downtown Times Square, with its cheesy bars and novelty shops. But know that if the past is any guide, something wild is brewing on the street at present.

Calhoun grew up on St. Marks Place, but her book is no memoir.EXPAND
Calhoun grew up on St. Marks Place, but her book is no memoir.
Jena Cumbo

Cheerful and mannerly, with blond hair reflecting her Norwegian ancestry and a brand of self-assurance common to the Manhattan-bred, Ada Calhoun, 39, walks east on St. Marks Place. Two feet to her right and three steps behind trails her husband, the creatively restless and often unclothed performance artist Neal Medlyn, increasingly known to the world as the lascivious rapper Champagne Jerry. The couple's son, who is nine, is at science camp across town; Medlyn has just finished teaching NYU sophomores about performance art.

As Calhoun walks, she narrates. "That building, number 10, was Emma Goldman — the Modern School. And that was a German shooting club. Penny Arcade lived over there. People say Lenny Bruce did, too — but I actually never found out anything about that." Calhoun pauses as her words get swallowed by a group of Chinese men loudly imploring passersby to boycott a Chinese restaurant; just as she resumes speaking, an approaching siren drowns out both her and the protesters.

"Before they tore it down," the writer continues, "this was the Electric Circus, Dom, All-Craft, Arlington Hall." In St. Marks Is Dead, the building Calhoun speaks of reemerges throughout different eras, like a city hall for the deranged. In the early 1900s, the Jewish gangster Dopey Benny Fein lorded over parties at Arlington Hall, ordering an ultimately fruitless assassination of rival goons outside the building. In the mid-Sixties, an even more chilling Jewish gangster, Lou Reed, worked out of the same address, as the Velvet Underground starred in Warhol's famed Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows. The psychedelic discotheque Electric Circus — frequented by Sly and the Family Stone, the Grateful Dead, and Mad Men's Joan Harris — followed, as did All-Craft, an inspired complex aiding, among others, women freshly released from prison.

Continuing east, Calhoun points toward a stretch of buildings beset by dollar pizza, body piercing, dicey seafood, and one of the area’s many “vape” establishments. "Abbie Hoffman lived over there. I think he was at number 30, but some people say he was at 28."

Calhoun looks up triumphantly, as if preparing to expose yet another site burning with historical import. "And here," she declares, "is where the 7-Eleven was. It closed." Indeed, the convenience store, decried as the Grim Reaper of East Village civilization when it opened a few years ago, has skipped town.

"It didn't last very long," Medlyn notes.

"Neither did the Pinkberry," Calhoun says. "That was across the street."

The day's tour stops just short of the writer's most personal St. Marks landmark: her childhood home, where as a girl she gazed out upon the street's disorder from her bedroom window and festooned the building's stark rooftop with a tidy garden. St. Marks Is Dead emits barely a whiff of memoir. Yet Calhoun's history with the street informs the book deeply. She draws on roughly 250 interviews, interlacing family and friends along with the famous. The sections dealing with the Nineties are particularly vivid, as she writes of the street functioning as "a playground for a wide array of beta species," with stores specializing in books, comics, records, and esoteric movies.

Mostly, Calhoun's perspective brings empathy. Her book covers not only the groovy "night people," with their culture and drug habits, but the less romanticized "day people," with their children and grocery habits. "All the books that I had read about the Village and bohemia were about these heroes," Calhoun says. "These wonderful guys who show up and bestow poetry on coffeehouses. And everybody is like, 'Thank you so much for bringing us your bongos!'

"But in truth, people hated them," she continues. "These were often people who fled communist countries. They wound up here and were building up this life, trying to make money and sweeping their stoops. And here come these filthy hipster people, lecturing them about free love. I was trying to show the perspective of the invaded. It wasn't just heroes. It was also the guy who worked at the deli and served them food."

In neighborhood lore, the westernmost block of St. Marks is crazy, the middle block is nice, and the final block, leading into Tompkins Square Park, is funky. Calhoun grew up on the nice block, in a charmed fifth-floor walkup where her parents still live. One hot afternoon Calhoun's mother, former actress Brooke Alderson, is upstate while her father, Peter Schjeldahl, hangs out at home, smoking cigarettes beneath a Susan Rothenberg drawing. An art critic of unusual grace and clarity, Schjeldahl has written for the New Yorker since 1998; before that, he was with the Voice. Like many characters in St. Marks Is Dead, he is an unshowy individualist, at once an intellectual and a rascal.

Schjeldahl grew up in North Dakota and Minnesota, where his father was a well-regarded inventor. You have Gilmore Tilmen Schjeldahl to thank for the air sickness bag, as well as more glamorous airborne devices such as NASA's Echo 1 and 2 balloon satellites. "They sold the barf-bag patent for a dollar," Calhoun explains. "That's why we're not rich."

"Well, my dad was a terrible businessman," Schjeldahl says. "He had no sense of money. I mean, he would have done it for free. At one point he had a lot of money on paper, and I grew up being regarded as a rich kid. But it just went [away]. I kept being regarded as a rich kid, and then I wasn't."

"That's the worst," Calhoun says.

Schjeldahl arrived in New York in the mid-Sixties, moving into the St. Marks Place apartment when he coupled with Alderson in 1973. "It was $225 a month, or $250 if they had to paint it," he recalls. "So we painted it. People were fleeing the city then. East of Avenue A was burning down — every morning, there were literally clouds of smoke. Some mornings there were rats running up St. Marks Place, coming west. We had one burglary here, maybe two. But burglary fell off when crack came in. Heroin junkies can keep their wits about them and do something that requires planning. But somebody on crack can't deal with fire escapes and shit. So burglaries went down and street robberies went up."

Soon after moving in, the couple were offered the chance to buy their apartment; for just a little more money, they could have snapped up the entire building. "But they didn't want to be landlords," Calhoun says. "So they just bought the apartment, which I actually don't think was a bad idea. Bless their hearts, but my parents would not be good landlords."

Calhoun was born in 1976. "There was a baby bust," her dad says. "But I wanted a New York kid — and I got one." By American rite, children of her generation whose families hustled to suburbia as cities crumbled came of age envying those like Calhoun, with their cool parents and street smarts. Naturally, she had the opposite experience, writing in a New York Times Magazine essay about coveting the empty sidewalks and Dairy Queen Blizzards she encountered while visiting relatives in the Midwest.

"You have to rebel somehow," she says. "So if you have these rebel parents, what do you do? I became the super trying-for-straight-A's good girl. My mom would be like, 'Where the Boys Are is on television. Put your homework down — this is way more important!' I'd be doing my homework on the bus the next morning, 'cause she made me watch this old beach movie."

Through her father, Calhoun gained a rare vantage onto the art world, like a black-clad Eloise. "Cindy Sherman was so pretty," she says. "I wanted to be her 'cause she was so beautiful. Lucas Samaras was really creepy, and David Salle gave the best Christmas presents. That was the Eighties art world as seen from the point of view of a little kid." Indeed, this is the stuff to induce salivating in legions of art-school graduates. Calhoun hated it. "The gallery openings were boring, 'cause I would be the only kid. There would be cheese and wine, and I would have my ginger ale and sit under a table reading Nancy Drew."

More enticing was her father's other main area of interest. That would be fireworks, which Schjeldahl covets as if he were not an aesthete with a New Yorker column — admiring Picasso's "small bronze of a cubistically fissured, ridged, and whorled vessel" — but rather a pre-teen boy teetering toward juvenile delinquency. Every summer, at the family's place in the Catskills, he plots his spectacle as if preparing a military campaign. In a teaser from an in-the-works documentary about Schjeldahl's pyrotechnics, directed by Calhoun's friends Carmine Covelli and Adam Horovitz (the Beastie Boy), the fireworks appear both lo-fi and grandiose, home-baked and terrifying.

"My father loves art and his job and writing," Calhoun claims. "But he really loves fireworks. He basically blows up a whole mountain. He might stop it for now, though, 'cause this year 2,000 [spectators] came. They trashed the place and people almost died."

Calhoun is speaking the night after visiting her father, walking, once again, down St. Marks Place. "I always say my dad's motto is safety third," she continues. "I used to be on the crew for the fireworks. I would be on the mortars line, which is the most dangerous job. You have a cigarette, a pile of bombs, and a cardboard tube, and you light them one after the other. The last time I did it, the guy next to me was a rookie. The moment things got intense, he panicked and knocked over his tube. The things were shooting out at me, but I knew I couldn't stop. I would have been disowned."

It is approaching midnight, and as she speaks of fireworks, Calhoun ignores a fight developing across the street between a guy gripping a guitar case and some associates. The group stands across from the famed punk-wear emporium Trash and Vaudeville and a stone's throw from the Cooper Union Great Hall. "Let us have faith that right makes might," Abraham Lincoln declared at the Hall in 1860.

"Get off the fucking stoop!" the guitar guy shouts in 2015.

"I'm tired of your bullshit," counters his acquaintance. Then the guitar guy's friend suddenly raises his voice, like an overeager actor in a bad play. "You've LOST IT!" he bellows.

Calhoun graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1994 and delayed college for a year of travel. Although she had interned at magazines during high school (including at peak-era Spin), she had decided that her fate was in permaculture. And so the child of St. Marks Place cut down trees in Switzerland, hiked around Ireland, and toiled on a cousin's farm in Norway. After obtaining a list of Indian farms from a hippie organization, she reached out to thirty, heard back from ten, and spent a few months in India. She worked at Mother Teresa's mission and, on her final night in Calcutta, was blessed by the celebrity do-gooder.

After her adventures overseas, Calhoun enrolled in college, ultimately landing at the University of Texas at Austin. She began working for the Austin Chronicle, the city’s alt-weekly. While she was filling out her W-9 form, she read the line "doing business as" and stopped cold. "I was like, 'Huh — you can just be anybody,' " she recalls. "Just like that, I dropped my last name and started writing under [middle name] Calhoun. I instantly felt better about writing. I didn't have to compete with my dad."

Newly christened, Calhoun was off and running. Her CV can seem as though it were cobbled together from the résumés of three ambitious journalists. She has edited the sex website Nerve and its parenting site, Babble — publishing the book Instinctive Parenting in 2010 — and covered theater for New York magazine. When she began conceiving St. Marks Is Dead, in 2011, she was employed at the New York Post's city desk. ("If a guy killed his mom with a samurai sword, I'd track down his best friend," she says. "I broke bad news to a lot of people.") She has completed fellowships (reporting on such eat-your-vegetables topics as the child welfare system) and published a string of evocative personal essays in the Times. Her next book, growing out of a recent "Modern Love" column about being annoyed at her husband, will be composed of essays on marriage.

For years, Calhoun, who allegedly sleeps every night, has also maintained a sideline as a ghostwriter and co-writer of books by the famous. She has collaborated on three with fashion consultant and reality television personality Tim Gunn — whom she repeatedly calls "the nicest man in the world" — and recently assisted comedian Colin Quinn with The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America. "Nobody works at her pace," Quinn gushes. "It's unbelievable. She's like one of those writers from the old days, you know? She's like a real Scandinavian."

Calhoun's most valuable assignment came late in 2000, while she was working at the Austin Chronicle. She had attended a bizarre performance in a park, involving amateur puppetry. Besides her roommate and a drunk who had wandered into the proceedings, she was the only audience member. But Calhoun was captivated by the performance's strange star, a proud nerd cut from the cloth of Devo, and pitched an article about him. "I'll give you the assignment," her editor said. "But you have to promise me that you won't be alone with him. He seems dangerous."

Prophetically, Calhoun's profile was titled "Will Anybody Ever Love Neal Medlyn?" By the time it ran, the writer and subject were romantically involved.

Fifteen years later, the couple eat eggs at Café Orlin, a popular St. Marks brunch spot. The previous night, Medlyn played a Champagne Jerry show at Joe's Pub — a nightclub that, for nearly two decades, has served as a two-word retort to anybody suggesting the St. Marks area has been drained of adventurous culture. At the concert, Medlyn made his entrance walking through the crowd with a rolling suitcase, like a disoriented tourist. Throughout the show, one of his band members was smeared in blood — the Ghost of Champagne Past! — while another impersonated an aloof businesswoman. At one point Medlyn wore a mask decorated with a curtain of dangling gold chains; handmade for Prince, it was gifted to Medlyn by the designer Todd Oldham, a deviant's talisman.

If Calhoun is a New Yorker by birthright, her husband is one by necessity. Say what you will about contemporary New York, but in other cities, one does not flourish as a performance artist rapper dressed in Prince's discarded bondage gear.

Medlyn grew up attending Pentecostal church in rural Texas, as close to the East Village, culturally, as are the Galilean moons of Jupiter. With a cinematic flair, he was swept to the city just weeks after meeting Calhoun; he likens the experience to having stepped onto a roller coaster. He recalls greeting his new girlfriend's father as the car idled on St. Marks Place, marveling at the un-dad-like dad, with "his manic energy and big glasses." In the apartment, Medlyn sat on a couch, transfixed by a Sherman photograph and the unexpected novelty of hearing people screaming outside the window. "Everything about the experience was blowing my mind," he says. "I remember thinking, 'I've never been in the city before. I don't know who these adults are. I barely even know this woman who I'm with. I'm just going to sit here and say no words.' "

Medlyn and Calhoun moved to New York the following year, settling in Williamsburg. Since then, he has collaborated with Karen Finley, Kathleen Hanna, and Horovitz. Between 2008 and 2012, he co-hosted, with Bridget Everett and Kenny Mellman, "Our Hit Parade," a berserk Joe's Pub series featuring various miscreants covering Top 40 songs. The show was created after Schjeldahl told Calhoun and Medlyn about watching the old Your Hit Parade program in his youth. (Schjeldahl and Calhoun are credited among its creators.) Even as "Our Hit Parade" grew in popularity and minted Everett a star, attending performances felt like being let in on a secret.

St. Marks Is Dead abounds with stories of young misfits landing in the East Village from parts unknown and conquering town. Medlyn seems the quintessential example. From the moment he arrived, he says, "the city made me feel like I was cooler and smarter and better than I actually was."

For our first interview, Calhoun arranges to meet at Astor Place's newly installed Haring sculpture. It depicts a large green man who seems to be shaking his fist — the eternal "you crazy kids!" pose — at some troublemakers at the edge of St. Marks, across the street. Calhoun is coming from an O, the Oprah Magazine photo shoot designed to accompany an essay she contributed to the magazine about having changed her surname. Oprah's minions have even gifted her a necklace spelling out "Calhoun." When she arrives at the Haring sculpture, the writer is accompanied by an older man whom she has bumped into coming off the train: her dad. Throughout her book, St. Marks functions as a place where people come to forge a new identity. Rare is she who must flee the street to escape hers.

Calhoun wants to talk outside the St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, longtime home to the celebrated Poetry Project and, not coincidentally, the venue for her parents' wedding. First built by Petrus Stuyvesant in the 1600s, the lefty church is the city's oldest site of continuous religious practice. Again and again in St. Marks Is Dead, it pops up in colorful ways. In the 1800s, graverobbers removed the body of a rich man from its vaults, holding the corpse for ransom. "St. Mark's Church and its surroundings were no longer safe for rich people — even dead ones," Calhoun writes. (Naturally, the corpse eventually moved to Long Island.) One Sunday, under the radicalized spell of 1969, a group calling itself the "Black and Brown Caucus" interrupted services to read a list of demands, notably "that the whites of this parish cease and desist this WASP service." A pregnant church secretary had vowed that, if need be, she would kill the church's beloved rector. "It was the Sixties," Calhoun notes. "Which was basically people's explanation for every crazy story."

When Calhoun arrives at the little square outside the church, she finds all of its benches occupied by street people in varying states of decrepitude, so she continues east, to Tompkins Square Park. The park was off-limits to her as a child, a place engulfed by scoundrels, riots, even a cannibal. Now she claims the park to be so pleasant — with its glaring lack of prostitutes and drug dealers — that it seems surreal.

Leaving Tompkins, Calhoun heads west on St. Marks. She pays no heed to the tenements that flirted with stardom on Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti cover and reappear on the cover of her own book, and makes her way into the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. After being closed for a few years, the storied bar reopened a few months ago with a smart redesign. Like many spaces downtown, it has been rehabilitated with a meticulousness once reserved for other matters, such as brain surgery; it seems at once a piece of a long-ago past and chicly contemporary. As Calhoun sits down, "99 Problems" cedes to an even more universally beloved song: "The Passenger."

Whatever one's cultural interests, the Holiday holds something of note. Novy Mir, the newspaper that employed Trotsky, was based next door, and it is widely assumed that he frequented the bar. In his autobiography, the Russian wrote of gazing out the office window as a hobo fished a crust of bread from the garbage. (The episode "did not in any way interfere with the plans of the ruling class," the Red Army founder and historical killjoy reasoned. "War was inevitable.") Allen Ginsberg and Madonna also frequented the bar (separately); people claim, unconvincingly, that the latter recorded "Holiday" in its honor. The Beastie Boys drank there as well, before they were legally supposed to be drinking. In St. Marks Is Dead, Horovitz notes that the Holiday's legal drinking age was "confidence." One door south housed Harold Hunter, a flamboyant skateboard fixture of the Nineties and one of the stars of Kids. One door north and a few generations prior lived Auden: fabled poet, neighborhood institution, alleged mensch.

Calhoun orders a pinot grigio. "In Christianity, they have this thing that the Eucharist is a table that connects everybody," she says. "Everyone is sitting at the same table, the holy table. I always think of St. Marks Place as being like that. It's this one big table, and everybody is sitting around it. It goes through the ages. It seems almost religious. And everybody is connected by this one thing — this one crazy piece of land."

St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street hits bookstores November 2.


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