What’s going on around here? Where the hell is everybody? I’ve been living in the West and East Villages for the past 13 years and I’ve known a gang of people all over New York, but where are they now? I went to the recent peace congregation in Washington Square and with the exception of a pair of friends from a subterranean newspaper and the peripatetic Nat Hentoff, I saw not one face I recognized. Not one! including those on the speakers’ platform, and I’ve been pounding against the abomination of this war since 1964. Where is that whole happy tormented crowd I used to know? Driven from the Village to the Lower East Side too … where? Where are they? Or maybe the question should be: where am I?
Recently I decided to break out of and away from certain stultifying and treacherous patterns to which I had anchorweighted myself; things as simple as always taking the same out when going from one place to another. When I lived on Charles Street in the Village (’59 to ’63) I pretty much stayed in that community. Since ’63 I have lived on the Lower East Side (nine bleeping years! a quarter of my life!). Since I’ve been here I haven’t gone back to the Village much so I decided that for old times’ sake I’d right-angle it down MacDougal and east across Bleecker one Wednesday morning a week or so before the peace thing. It was a bad idea. It has become Desolation Row.
In the early ’60s residents of the Village complained that creeping moneylust was going to turn Bleecker and MacDougal into another Coney Island. On that recent Wednesday morning ramble I couldn’t help thinking it should only look as nice as Coney Island. The old familiar places the crucially vital organs — gone: the Remo the Figaro the Kettle of Fish the Cafe Bizarre … now vacant stores and even the occupied ones have dusty windows the hue and texture of pavement. No one — but no one on the street. Wine bottles lumping in clusters of paper bags in the doorways — and somehow I couldn’t believe they were left by the cheerfully wrecked poets and painters of beat-time — but rather by those professional mourners from a few blocks further east where Third Avenue bends into Bosch.
Where are they? Where have all the hipsters gone? The people whose speech was musically suffused with slang five years before people in Boston and Chicago even knew what the words meant. People who did all the new dope before others knew it existed. I remember a black actor-friend in 1960 telling me (as we went out to haul beer back to the endless party) of “this really insane dope I took. I don’t even know what it’s called — but it’s just a little brown [word missing] cube of sugar and I stayed high all day Man …” People who dressed like Bonnie and Clyde in 1963 — before it became fashionable — when it was hip. You had to have some kind of together head to carry that.
Someone recently asked me, “What’s happening on the Lower East Side?”
I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t lived there for three or four years.”
“But I thought …”
“Oh my apartment is still there. And I sleep there almost every night. I just don’t live there.”
It’s been too scary. In ’63 I could sleep comfortably stoned in Tompkins Square Park on a bench by myself and be awakened around dawn by pure sweet saxophone music. Lately I get nervous there on Sunday afternoons with four friends. The last time I walked the length of Avenue B was two and a half years ago when I moved into the place in which I now life. I had to go to the lumber yard on 13th for bookcase material. The lumber yard and most of 13th Street between B and C is now gone — as though the hand of Wotan descended from empyrean precincts and removed it as some kind of arcane warning to us witless mortals.
And the joints. Those warm giddy bars and stupormarkets which used to pump such fine bright highs into the neo-bohemian nights. Stanley’s, at 12th Street and Avenue B, once the best hip bar in the city, seems to have reverted to the Polish-Ukrainian neighborhood tavern it was before the onslaught of chinhair and tits at the beginning of the last decade.
The Otherplace looks foreboding, and we all know what happened to Linda and Groovy downstairs from the Annex which was putatively responsible for its closing. In order to travel the streets of the Lower East Side at night on foot you have to be with a paranoid of friends, totally ripped on booze, or so stoned on something else that your interest is psychopathically focused on things not concerned with survival.
The jollies I got in the Village I once could get on the Lower East Side. I even got an 11-pound novel out of it. I don’t get those jollies now in either place — but there is an area in town where I do still get that fine jumping rush, an area where the women seem more together in their heads than elsewhere, where men regard one another with apparent friendly warmth (which is not to say that there is a lack of healthy cynicism), where blacks and whites still seem able to inter-act without visible hostility, an area where you can say “Bird” or “Brautigan” or “gesso” and people will know what you’re talking about. SoHo.
I’ve been roaming SoHo lately and though the fear-vectors are somewhat present for me (they’re everywhere now I guess) there is that precious old rush that jab-and-tingle of intense energy-levels loose on any given seemingly-deserted block. You can actually feel it zapping out of the buildings and it shakes your nervous system by its very vitals. It is as though you become enveloped in a dense paisley fog of productivity. That dance.
Frug on down to SoHo any Saturday afternoon on West Broadway on Prince on Spring … and you’ll see a lot of people who look like the people who used to come to the Village on Sunday to pin the beatniks. Very like them. They stream into and pour out of the galleries and honky-tonks. Remember how it used to be on 10th Street between Third and Fourth? Same number. A couple of months ago a painter-friend said (as we ate a midweek lunch of beer in a rather charming little bar/restaurant he had introduced me to that very day), “You should make it down here on a Saturday afternoon when the painters take this place over.” At the time the clientele was composed of about one-third painters, one-third truckdrivers, and one-third indistinguishable others.
The following Saturday I did go back. When I pushed through door were perhaps eight people in the front half of the smallish establishment. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I got a beer, sat down at an empty table, and began rather offhandedly jotting down first-draft notes for a recipe I’m thinking of writing. Twenty minutes later I looked up from the scribbling and there were 400 people in the place and 20 times more hair than there was on the stage at the last Miss America contest. It was Stanley’s and it was 1963 again. You couldn’t get to the men’s room. The waitress had to quit waitressing because she couldn’t get herself, let alone a tray of lush, through that luscious throbbing jam. Theoretically one could probably have gotten laid (or maybe “stood” would be a more accurate word) without anyone but you and and your sexual conspirator knowing it. It was not a little exhilarating. Everybody seemed to know everyone else and it was like the kitchen at home on Christmas Eve. Like a warm hip square-dance in the wilderness with everyone simultaneously doing the calling to his own private do-see-do allemande left. Even I knew a lot of people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. Since the Lower East Side was alive and not fraught with incendiary creeps and ghouls. I saw people from Stanley’s. And people I had been avoiding calling for months and the relationships were pretty much all cool and straightened by the time I left. I miss that kind of place.
But some people who live down there have told me that they give the scene maybe two years in its present state — and that made me sad. Maybe they’re wrong though. There are no quaint shops and art movie houses and charming brownstones down there such as those which attract accountants and their wives to the Village. No Nathan’s. No Blimpies. Just a lot of shabby gray loft buildings. And a few galleries. And a few choice bars. And a couple of sweet little eatfood places. And probably more intensely concentrated creativity than you’ll find anywhere in America. Maybe even the world. But you can’t see that from a tourist bus.
Talent in New York does have an abstruse way of coming together like that. In ’63-’64 at Stanley’s (before anybody knew who most of them were) you might have walked in on any given afternoon or evening and encountered writers such as Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, Ron Sukenick, Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders, and Lennox Raphael; actors like Moses Gunn, Mitch Ryan, Lou Gossett, and Cicely Tyson; musicians such as Odetta, Marion Brown, and Richard Andrews; Khadeja the fashion designer who was Afro before people knew what that meant; Tom Dent, one of the founders of the Free Southern Theatre; Walter Bowart, who tended bar there and later was the original publisher of EVO — and Clark Squire, one of the Panther 21.
Perhaps a variation of the old Circle Theory is in play after all. When the coin-schleppers drove less fortunate artists and writers from the Village more than a decade ago they repaired to the Lower East Side — a veritable slum — but rents were more agreeable — some even fair. There are now buildings down here — renovated to be sure — which command $380 a month for three rooms. In a slum. Dig that. It is not inconceivable that the time is coming when wretched poor people won’t be able to live in this slum — when artists who Have Not Made It won’t be able to live here either. Then the apartments will go to the quasi-hip brokers and lawyers who want to vamp Where It’s Hapnin Baby (or was). These situations in New York City have been historically cyclical. Greenwich Village, for instance, was a black ghetto for some time after the Civil War — before Harlem. And Harlem. My mother lived in Harlem for a few years in the ’20s while she waited tables midtown. Today she wouldn’t go there in an armored car with the Mayor riding shotgun.
Ten years ago speculation had it that when the Lower East Side would inevitably turn into the East Village (as we knew it would have to) all of us lesser lights would probably then make it to the Lower East Side (where some had even then already moved) to Stanton Street and Essex and Delancey. But the hot action moved to SoHo — where the painters and sculptors and craftsmen (and craftswomen) (and craftsgays) (have I got everyone?) can’t be all that poor judging by the rents. Lately I hear more and more of the successful of their number are buying the buildings they live in — and the moderately successful banding together as corporations to buy their individual lofts in buildings as a whole. It is hard to tell where the as-yet-unsuccessful strugglers are living — but they’re partying in SoHo. The vibes are apparently of the right intensity and consistency. Or else all the artsy-smartsy dudes know the right gangster landlords.
There are priorities and necessities which must be present (on all sides) in the emerging of any “artists’ colony” — and economics is certainly one of them. In the summer of 1963 I lived on the Lower East Side for more than three months on something less than $150 cash. Today it would take a grand. Minimum. From the speculators’ point-of-view it seems that the very presence of artists in abundance is sufficient: they follow close on their heels judiciously snapping up properties, naming them with hysterical designations such as the Hip Bagel and the Hippydrome and the Rock and Roller Skating Rink, and when they own everything they’ve killed their golden goose and then must begin following the next exodus to the new land of paint and money. The people who already own businesses in the area before it “happens” (once they get over their abject disgust at bohemians and begin catering to what money they have and that which their presence attracts) flourish while they are there (like Bleecker and MacDougal — like Avenue B and Saint Marx) and languish when they have been driven elsewhere. You don’t have to wait in line in the cold at midnight to get into Stanley’s on a Thursday anymore.
Yet maybe my informants are right after all. I went to the aforementioned bar in SoHo after the peace mingle (I won’t give the joint’s name because then you’ll steal it from me) and walked into it shortly after 3. The bar and tables were almost completely filled with about 40 people in their 30s and 40s all of whom looked like they had alighted from a bus from Queens or Staten Island. They left together shortly after I arrived and I asked the bartender who they were. They were from Virginia. Yes Virginia, there is a SoHo. SoHo knows there is a Virginia. And that it is coming to get them.
But it can’t happen to SoHo! (A discotheque in a cleaned-up loft called the Paint Rag?) What about all the rats down there? Big as small babies. What about the panhandling winos and the apprentice corpses in the doorways? They carry pistols and machetes. What about the huggermuggers lurking in every shadow just waiting for purses and watches maybe desperate enough to kill? They are men (and women) without consciences. What about the narrow repugnant streets? They’re all right if you don’t mind puke-covered shit. And there’s nothing down there at night … it’s deader than Wall Street for chrissake! What about …
Perhaps in the virtues of voyeurism lie its own rewards.
Note: After having written this, last Sunday, jiving along down Second Avenue at 14th Street I heard my name called out from the window of a bus. A black radical whom I hadn’t seen for quite some time because he had fled The Man to a commune in New England:
“Hey Baby!” (Lock palms and thumbs — no more popping.) “Whas hapnin?”
(Bus begins to pull away.) “I’m staying down on Spring Street in SoHo under the name of *** *****! CALL ME!”
I guess maybe it takes one to know one. ♦
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 7, 2020