The Village, when we first came there to live, was undergoing a crisis. People were talking about the good old days of 1916. It seemed unlikely that they would ever return. —Malcolm Cowley, 1934
The talk uptown is once again that the Village is dead and Bohemianism a thing of the past. —The Village Voice, January 1, 1958
Downtown is dead. —Michael Musto, 1987
The East Village stopped mattering years ago. It stopped feeling like an artists’ community. It stopped being an adjective attached to a sometimes dubious aesthetic. And even longer ago, it stopped being a life on the cheap. Trattorias have opened where there were once open-air drug bazaars. The last Loisaida squats are hanging by threads. The homeless? Rudy must have shipped them away, along with the rest of those “Die Yuppie Scum” T-shirts. Hardcore activists like the aggro band Missing Foundation are now merely missing, though their logos are still visible on many a neighborhood wall: an upside-down martini glass with a line through it, signifying (and it’s become all too true) “the party’s over.”
So those who’ve spent years in Alphabet City may see a certain irony surrounding the new MTV cartoon series Downtown, the first show about East Village culture to ever reach television (as opposed to East Village crime, on NYPD Blue). Downtown illustrates the truism that by the time something’s deemed fit for mass consumption, its moment has passed. This innocuous cartoon feels like an epitaph to the whole idea of the East Village.
Not that it was ever intended that way. In fact, the show is something of an accident. Downtown‘s creator, 27-year-old Chris Prynoski, used to be an animator on Beavis and Butthead. The MTV brass asked him to pitch some new shows, so he storyboarded several “wacky surreal ideas,” adding an image from a student film “for variety.” That frame of kids spraying graffiti is what caught management’s eye. Prynoski explained it as “kids hanging out downtown telling stories.” The end result has been praised in TV Guide (“enjoyably hip”), Time (“remind[s] one of Slacker“), Time Out (“a light-hearted and unique urban soap opera”), and the Daily News (“a more bohemian version of Friends or Seinfeld“).
In a way, Downtown is more authentic than a show like Friends will ever be. Prynoski and his crew spent hundreds of hours on the streets of the East Village and Lower East Side, recording people’s stories about the neighborhood. Prynoski’s original idea was to take that material, “cut together a track, and animate to the track.” After nearly two years in development, however, Downtown became fully scripted around an ensemble of recurring characters. Still, many of the story lines come from what Prynoski and company originally recorded. And some of the people they met on the street were hired to read the parts and encouraged to improvise a bit. (In what seemed a bid to add another layer of irony to their boho project, MTV allowed me to interview Prynoski only via a conference call monitored by a publicist.)
The two main characters in Downtown are a brother and sister, Alex and Chaka. Alex works at a copy shop, collects action figures, and has just moved from his parents’ uptown apartment to his own squalid pad. He’s a nerd. Chaka’s a party animal, constantly annoying him, using him, and failing him. MTV is describing the show as “an insightful observation of how young people deal with modern urban life.” Actually, it has more to do with the ancient battle between hipsters and squares— as embodied by its two main characters. In next week’s episode, the neighborhood bar below Alex’s apartment turns into a hot dance club. Chaka keeps trying to get into it; Alex tries to ignore it. As a friend of his says, “We have to stop these trendies before they take over.” Now there’s a lost cause and an old East Village theme and something you don’t hear on MTV every day.
But speaking of “shows about nothing,” as Seinfeld was so often described, this one is r-e-e-e-a-l thin, authentic dialogue and all. Or maybe it’s just typical of the times we live in. We’ve replaced real rebellion with the signs of rebellion. Now it’s a role to play— with appropriate costumes. Leather, tattoos, electroshock hair— or some combination thereof. And none of it means a thing.
I realize that i’ve brought a mountain to a molehill. I don’t mean to crush this cartoon by resting heavy theories and laments on its waiflike shoulders.
But here goes. Everyone is born at least a decade too late. That’s the first lesson of bohemia: It always looks better in hindsight, and once you begin to wax nostalgic— about drug dealers yet— you’re just another old fart. After all, the second lesson of bohemia is that each person’s experience of it is the Golden Age. And that Golden Age is always waning.
The fact is that bohemia has moved on. It has atomized, really, into cyberspace, whatever’s left of the old zine scene, and individual living rooms. It can’t be pinpointed on a map anymore— despite The New York Times‘s belated anointment of Ludlow Street a couple years ago (“East of Soho and Still Unspoiled”). Media attention is part of what commodifies and banalizes and kills such a place.
It was certainly over by 1990, the year Downtown‘s Prynoski moved here from Trenton, New Jersey, to attend the School of Visual Arts. I think the East Village actually died during the Tompkins Square riot of ’88. A week after what was basically a turf war over gentrification, I remember going back to the park to report on a planned all-day lovefest that would supposedly heal the wounds. But after hours of talking to homeless people, skinheads, old yippies, and other tribes that would never really connect, I felt that the war had simply been lost, that whatever the East Village had once meant was now over.
Art history is constantly rewritten to suit the prevailing theories, but the notion of bohemia never has been revised. It’s so 19th century, so very romantic— this notion of a place where someone goes to be poor but pure, to lead the liberated life and sacrifice for art. That whole La Bohème scenario has a great popular appeal— as in its latest incarnation, Rent. It’s the ever-popular lore of the “starving artist,” a cycle of stories inspiring deeds that will inspire still more stories. Arthur Rimbaud leaves Charleville, wanders beneath the stars in torn clothes, sleeps in a Paris doorway, gets arrested and sent home as a vagrant. Kerouac hits the road with Neal, rhapsodizes over diner food, converses with bums. Then young John Lennon sits in the art school pub with Stu Sutcliffe, discussing Kerouac. Again and again the story unfolds: he’s a rebel. And he never was. Understood.
In Downtown the romanticism is gone, yet it hasn’t been replaced by anything but the occasional style war. This is what ultimately makes it both so familiar and so depressing.
Downtown airs on Tuesdays at 10:30 on MTV.