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Where Have All the Hipsters Gone?

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

“Bill!”

“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. ♦

 

 

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Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side

Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side
June 14, 1994

From the very beginning — goofing on Tom Carvel and rapping over AC/DC riffs like bedroom stoners who wished they were dirtbags — there was no difference between how they sounded and what they were, or at least what they projected. The voices, whiny and young, communicated in seconds a worldview it had taken a short lifetime of cathode-ray overexposure and pop-culture over-consumption to develop, a teenboy fantasy as fully formed, detailed, and endlessly explorable as any that Robert Plant’s witchy, hip-melting howl ever conjured. High and tight, their spiel spoke of the maturation of immaturity, of the years it took to go from sucking helium out of balloons at bar mitzvahs to sucking nitrous outside of whippets at dorm parties. They couldn’t stop talking, either — the restless energy, the legacy of boredom that knew no bottom, threatened to shred their throats. There was something like confidence in all that talk, but it was too eager, too unearned to be a real thing. This was the invincibility of pranksters who needed to hide behind the telephone, of practical jokers who knew they’d get their asses kicked if they got caught. Not, What are you rebelling against? What have you got? but, What are you making fun of? What have you got?

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Even at the beginning, though, there was more than beer spray and gun smoke, metal riffs and hiphop beats. There was love, too — the love of risk and difference, a vital attraction that drew them like a magnet away from the comforts of Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, and the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side, where like every generation of bohemians before them they set about reinventing themselves. It was the early ’80s, a moment when the original punks were consciously abandoning their own whiteness to dig deep into black rhythms — albeit the sounds of the past (James Brown) or the future (Grandmaster Flash) rather than the dance music of the present. It was a time when suburban new wavers could learn about reggae from Elvis Costello and about rap from the Clash, when punks and Studio 54 celebs and Bronx MCs and the rest of the world besides were all in orbit around the same music: the bassline and unbelievably springy guitar of Chic’s “Good Times.”

“When we were 13 and 14 and went to clubs and heard the DJ mix Big Youth and Treacherous Three with James White or Delta 5,” Mike D. recently told Simon Reynolds, “it wasn’t, ‘Hey, now we’re finding out about what people from another culture are about.’ It was just great music. All the kids at my school were into Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and that was what I defined myself against. So it was more a case of cool music versus uncool music.” This is wishful thinking, of course, the reductive cool-versus-uncool approach raised to the level of high theory by another set of B-boys, Beavis and Butt-head. More likely it was a little of both — great music and a way of finding out what people from another culture were about — but that wish counts for something. Because early on, the Beastie Boys made that wish come true.

Listen to the juvenilia collected on Some Old Bullshit and you can hear that wish taking form. They dive into hardcore, the strain of punk that reasserted the whiteness of the wail, and come out the other side as the rappers whose wanton disregard for boundaries — social, racial, moral, and musical — would win them so much notoriety on Licensed To Ill. The wish was not just that it was as simple as good music versus bad music, but that the good music created a way of belonging, a “Beastie Revolution” (as Some Old Bullshit’s ragamuffin track puts it), a place where cultures could interact dynamically and unceasingly as in the Manhattan the Beastie Boys continue to claim as home years after going off to Cali. Specifically, it is an integrationist wish, one aptly summed up by the name of the tour the million-selling Beastie Boys of Licensed To Ill embarked on with the million-selling Run-D.M.C. of Raising Hellin 1987: Together Forever.

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Again, wishful thinking — as the ’80s became the ’90s, neither the music nor the group’s careers would earn the boast. Once hiphop entered the age of identity politics with another 1987 event, Public Enemy’s debut, performers who made a point of blurring the lines between audiences and cultures faded faster than suede Pumas left out in the rain. By 1989, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique couldn’t have been more out of step. Abandoning Licensed To Ill’s gangsta cartoons in the year of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, they approached hiphop as pop art, or “B-boy Bouillabaisse,” as they named the suite that closed out the album. They sampled Johnny Cash five years before Rick Rubin got to him, a bong hit two years before Cypress Hill made dope a cause célèbre, and the Sweet and the Isley Brothers four years before Lenny Kravitz brokered the marriage. They were prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention. All they lacked was an audience.

Or so it seemed. Much is made of the musical woodshedding that went into 1992’s Check Your Head — the album where they played their instruments! — but the three years between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were more notable for the quality of their demographic research. Having found an audience that no one knew existed and then lost it to “real niggas” and pop fakes, the third time out they satisfied true loyalists and new recruits by satisfying themselves. In the process they found the emerging archetype of ’90s stardom, as crystallized by antistars from Nirvana to Ice Cube: the refusal to compromise. “Be true to yourself and you will never fall,” Mike D. advised on Check Your Head’s first single, “Pass the Mic.” No one seemed to mind that the songs seemed longer on ideas than wit or musicianship, because the Beasties had found a way to flaunt the old together-forever wish without selling out. From the title — back-in-the-day phraseology for “think it over” that alluded to Dischord’s crucial DC hardcore compilation Flex Your Head — to the grooves, here were two musics, two cultures, one people. There was a Sly Stone song done up hardcore stylee, there were backing tracks that imagined Curtis Mayfield riding with the James Gang, there were skateboard on-ramps to stoned soul picnics, and cable channels that showed nothing but Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Suburbia over and over again. But the Dischord reference hinted at a problem as well. Having made two of the greatest albums of the ’80s, the Beasties were in danger of turning into Fugazi — a band honored more for its principles and past accomplishments, a band loved most for what it represented, not how it sounded.

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Sure enough, at a surprise Artists for Tibet benefit at the Academy two Fridays ago, Mike D. lectured the crowd on the politics of moshing, just like Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye at Fugazi concerts. “You can watch MTV at home and do that shit,” he said, later dedicating “Tough Guy” — one of three hardcore slammers on the new Ill Communication (Capitol/Grand Royal) — to the bully boys stepping on other people’s heads: “Now you’re poking me in the eye/Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, it’s time for you to die.” Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, “Sure Shot,” boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” MCA — who got to California and kept going west until he discovered Tibetan Buddhism — is at the center of Ill Communication as surely as Ad Rock, the only unrepentant wiseass left in the bunch, was at the center of Licensed To Ill. Repudiating his fascination with firearms in the superb, full-service Beastie-zine Grand Royal, giving respect to hiphop’s African descent on “Alright Hear This,” or calling for eco-action with Rastalike intimations of apocalypse on “The Update,” he’s atoning for past sins. Just as he’s smart enough to know he’ll never swing like the funk and jazz journeymen the Beasties now idolize (“Playing the bass is my favorite shit/I might be a hack on the stand up but I’m working at it”), he’s smart enough not to sound like a prig (“I’m not preaching bullshit/Just speaking my mind”). He concludes “Sure Shot” with this album’s version of the old wish: “Send my rhymes out to all nations/Like Ma Bell, I’ve got the ill communications.”

You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids, but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication, the way learning to play their instruments was the superficial story of Check Your Head. A more complicated version of the story starts with the title — which seems to refer less to the feedback on Sonic Youth and Pavement records or the “Can I take your order, sir?” squawk boxes they’re now enamored of than to a way of balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time. Whether it’s guest star Q-Tip interrupting one cipher session with “Phone is ringing, oh my god,” Ad Rock getting silly with “I’ve got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly” (the most Jewish rhyme these Jewish rappers ever popped), or Mike D. babbling about his golf game, Ill Communication freestyles till it very nearly combusts. It aims to take whatever’s on their minds and make it signify.

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The music, too, works an off-the-top-of-their-heads vibe, though much more carefully. A determinedly futuristic album designed to crackle like an old LP, Ill Communication uses technology to push forward and backward at the same time. As with Check Your Head, it offers vinyl-only thrift-store bargains on ’70s styles: blaxploitation percussion, skunk-rock fuzz bass, disco flute, punk loudhardfast, and general dub madness. The Beasties have found their own sound among their obsessions — elegantly fucked-up hiphop that brings a work ethic to indie-rock accidentalism — but still get by on their DIY cred. Often they’re after the metallic skank, accidental funk, and haphazard rhythmic inventions of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, and they may never have enough command over their instruments to capture its falling-apart-at-the-seams-but-in-the-pocket grooves (personal to drummer Mike D.: since knocking off Ben Davis designs worked so well in the shmatte trade, why not just sample beats?). But they’ve got more than enough rhyme skills — they can be loose and in control at the same time, moving with the physical power, championship drive, and awkward authority they could just as well have learned from their beloved Knicks. The endless flow of freestyle verbiage makes Ill Communication seem more like the result of partying than woodshedding.

And it goes deeper than that. For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today, they make culture. In the ’90s — when every new star climbs up on the cross to tell us about being afraid of, revolted by, or victim to the pop audience — no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community. The magazine they started to answer write-in requests for the lyrics to Check Your Head offers both aesthetic and spiritual guidance, as do the hardcore and art-funk records they release on their label of the same name; Mike D.’s X-Large stores are only too happy to see to his audience’s clothing needs. Their records need only function as a portable Lower East Side, an East Village of the mind, a place where the 14-year-old kids who’ll flock to see them at Lollapalooza this summer — and who were in kindergarten when “Fight for Your Right” hit MTV — can go to hear good music and find out how people from another culture live. They’ve become the DJ, mixing Big Youth and the Treacherous Three with the SS Decontrol and Luscious Jackson. You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.

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Chinatown ’89: Rubbing Two Neighborhoods Together

A T-SHIRT ON SALE in Hong Kong captures the colony’s apprehen­sion about China as the day of its 1997 takeover approaches. It shows Chinese atop the Great Wall asking for more tourists; below them a dragon chews on hu­man bones above the caption: “The ones that came earlier were deli­cious.”

Nervous Hong Kong developers are funneling a lot of their capital to the low-­income neighborhoods of New York City’s Lower East Side. The resulting gentrification has upset Hispanics in the area who scapegoat poor Chinese immi­grants for the doings of rich Hong Kong developers.

The money pouring in from Hong Kong — roughly $400 million so far in Manhattan alone — has been spent on real estate. As a Chinatown realtor says, “The Chinese would rather own bricks than money.”

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Most of the Hong Kong capital comes from pools of cash jointly held by as many as 20 investors. In contrast, the Japanese investment in U.S. real estate­ — which is expected to reach at least $43 billion by 1990 — comes largely from ma­jor corporations, which prefer to invest in office towers and hotel properties in Mid­town and the downtown financial district. Hong Kong investors, on the other hand, have concentrated on loft buildings and garment factories in Chinatown, which is devouring contiguous communities like Little Italy — now trimmed to just two blocks — and a previously Jewish neigh­borhood in the Lower East Side. Real estate brokers in New York maintain that property values on the Lower East Side increase the closer they are to the heart of Chinatown.

“Tiananmen Square has had a deep effect on Hong Kong,” says Thomas Li of Grand Enterprise Corporation, a partner in a proposed $15 million Hong Kong­–backed condo project on Delancey Street. “People who wanted to stay after ’97 have changed their minds. Many people I know are pulling out 80 per cent of their investments.”

It’s too early to tell how much of the capital flight fueled by recent events in China has ended up in New York. But the pre-Beijing massacre investments were already intensifying pressure on China­town, where commercial rentals and housing are already scarce. Businessmen were on edge about the colony’s future as far back as the early ’80s. But the new money has already inflated prices and ensured increasing gentrification. Three years ago, the largest feasible real estate deal in Chinatown was worth around $18 million. Today, a $50 million project is under way. In 1986, vegetable stall own­ers in Chinatown paid more rent per square foot than the owners of Tiffany & Co. in midtown Manhattan.

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THE DISPLACEMENT of other ethnic groups that is accompanying Chinatown’s expansion has given birth to a racially hostile environment where Hispanics vent their anger indiscriminately at all Chinese. The low-income Chinese, who have taken the brunt of gentrification-­inspired antagonism quietly, are blamed for the intrusion of their rich counter­parts into the neighborhood.

“Other ethnic groups in the area are confusing two different groups: the immi­grant workers and the Hong Kong inves­tors,” says Mini Liu of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. “There’s a sense among non-Asians in the commu­nity that all Asians own land and are taking over.”

Last November at Seward Park High School, a racially mixed school on Grand Street, several Chinese students were as­saulted by a group of Hispanic class­mates. “There were three, four, or five incidents in a span of a couple of weeks, ” says Jules Levine, the school’s principal. “Although there were several Hispanic boys in the area when the attacks hap­pened, only one was identified as the ag­gressive one. He was brought to the po­lice, and the problem was solved.”

While doing its desperate best to shield the incident from public and press scruti­ny, Seward Park has been working with the Seventh Precinct, members of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, church leaders, and community organiza­tions to remedy the damage.

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Members of the ethnic education com­mittee planned to start a racism-aware­ness program by this fall. But, according to Mini Liu, “The school’s approach has been cosmetic. The committee had to be pushed hard to talk about racism aware­ness. They’re more interested in teaching cultural diversity — different types of food, dance, that kind of thing. They haven’t included a racism-awareness pro­gram in the curriculum.”

Several committee members stress that the Lower East Side, known for its Jew­ish, Hispanic, and — more recently — Chi­nese immigrant population, has had a history of racially motivated violence.

“Incidents like Hispanic kids chasing around young Chinese immigrants are cy­clical,” says Victor Papa, an activist priest who heads the Lower East Side Catholic Area Conference. “Seventy years ago Irish kids chased Italian kids on the very same streets. It’s part of the process of immigrant assimilation.” Papa nevertheless insists that “the Lower East Side is a model neighborhood for the whole nation of how many ethnic groups can exist together in relative harmony.”

“There are underlying tensions in the Lower East Side that surface when com­petition for housing and jobs gets stiff,” says Mini Liu. “When there’s a sense that one group is getting more help than other groups, that’s when the tension comes out. People tend to lash out at the most accessible people — in this case poor Chinese — instead of at City Hall or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. It’s a systemic problem, not an attitudinal one.”

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HALF A WORLD AWAY, the Hong Kong investors who have ignited this ethnic tension are spurred on by pending negoti­ations on provisions of the Basic Law — ­the colony’s post-1997 Constitution. The 59-member Basic Law Drafting Commit­tee, composed of Chinese officials and Hong Kongers appointed by the National People’s Congress, is now working on a third draft. The provisions currently per­mit martial law and the presence of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong. China’s vow to keep its “socialist system and socialist policies” within its own bor­ders while giving Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years follow­ing the takeover seems dubious. China reserves the power to interpret and amend the Basic Law— even after negoti­ations have been finalized.

Two in every five of Hong Kong’s 5.7 million residents migrated from Commu­nist China. Hong Kongers’ distaste for communism is manifested in last year’s emigration figures: an estimated 45,000 Hong Kongers left the colony, more than 11,000 of them coming to the United States. For Hong Kong developers, the U.S. is a political safe haven for cash reserves. Last November, in a little-publicized ef­fort, then deputy mayor Alair Townsend and powerful members of the Chinatown business community flew to the colony with the Hong Kong Development Trade Council to promote investment in the New York real estate market. Ken W. Chin, a real estate lawyer in Chinatown and a respected member of the communi­ty, was one of the delegates.

“We’ve had a good response,” Chin says. “There’s a $50-million project on the way for a large hotel, with office and retail space and banquet facilities. We’re aiming to complete it by 1991 or 1992.” His vision for Chinatown: “It will be part of mainstream business. Five years from now, walking down Canal Street will seem like walking down Lexington Avenue.”

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The Mandarin Plaza, a $37 million condo project at Broadway and White Street, is another Hong Kong–financed development. The 25-story condomini­um, which is due for completion next spring, is a joint development of Thomas Lee, a general partner in the New York–­based Target Development Corporation, and William To, a Hong Kong businessman.

According to John Eng, a real estate appraiser based in Queens, Hong Kong investors have been buying up Lower East Side loft buildings on East Broad­way, Broadway, Market Street, and Divi­sion Street. He estimates that the proper­ties are worth $70 to $74 per square foot before renovations. After the buildings’ conversions — usually into condos — they sell for $250 to $275 per square foot. In Chinatown, Eng says, Hong Kong inves­tors buy loft buildings and garment fac­tory spaces for an average of $1 million and then convert them into office build­ings. Before conversion, Chinatown prop­erties sell for $70 to $100 per square foot. After conversion, these properties are worth $300 to $325 per square foot. In 1988, Eng says, 40 to 50 such properties were sold to Hong Kong businessmen. From his figures, overseas investment ac­counts for 50 per cent of New York prop­erty sales; 35 per cent is solely from Hong Kong.

With Hong Kong property values al­most equaling those of Tokyo — the high­est in the world — market prices in the U.S. seem dirt cheap.

Though San Francisco has absorbed the bulk of Hong Kong investment in the U.S. ($500 million), the city’s Proposition M, which limits office construction to 450,000 square feet a year, is fast chang­ing that. According to Landy Eng (no relation) of the California State World Trade Commission, investors are beginning to feel unwelcome because of the difficulty in obtaining building and modi­fication permits. In comparison, New York is becoming more attractive.

Even more fundamental for the Hong Kong businessman than the rate of re­turn on investment and the economic at­mosphere of a city is the continuance of cultural and familial ties. New York’s Chinatown has the largest number of Hong Kong immigrants in the U.S., fol­lowed by San Francisco. Many real estate brokers and developers are happily an­ticipating more Hong Kong dollars in New York. ■

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Birth of SAMO

SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA?
December 11, 1978

Big city graffiti peaked in the early ’70s, somewhere between the NYC Transit Au­thority’s decision to sic killer dogs on the vandals and visigoths, and the media hoopla that greeted the first graffiti artists show in SoHo.

We had pretty much stopped looking at the walls until this fall, when we noticed something new. The best graffiti suddenly had more to say than just a nickname and number. To be sure, the Communist Cadre had been stenciling slogans like YIPPIES JE­SUS FREAKS AND MOONIES ARE GOVERNMENT for years. But who was writing ONE WOMAN IS RAPED EVERY IO MINUTES — CASTRATE RA­PISTS? Or drawing chalk outlines of fallen bodies with bright red bloodstains? And who the hell was this guy Samo©?

For those of you who haven’t waded through lower Manhattan lately, Samo© is the logo of the most ambitious — and senten­tious — of the new wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs. Accompanied by the inevitable copyright and usually punctuated with an ex­hortation to THINK!, there are hundreds of pithy SAMO© aphorisms splashed on choice spots in Soho, Noho, and the Village, East and West. A random sampling will give you the idea:

SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD, STAR­-TREK, AND RED DYE NO. 2.
SAMO© AS AN END TO MINDWASH RELI­GION, NOWHERE POLITICS, AND BOGUS PHI­LOSOPHY
SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO JOE NORMAL BOOSH-WAH-ZEE FANTASIES
SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS
SAMO© CAN SAVE THE AVERAGE JOE
SAMO© AS A NEW WAVE NEO ARTFORM
SAMO© AS AN ESCAPE CLAUSE
SAMO©…JUST IN CASE

I met the perpetrators of SAMO© outside an East Village bar the other night and they agreed — provided no last names were used — ­to give me a tour of their handiwork and tell me something of its genesis.

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Aided and abetted by a tight circle of friends, the bulk of Samo©’s sayings are the work of two sharp, personable teenagers named Jean (17) and Al (19) who share re­markably similar handwriting and an un­spoken agreement about where SAMO© is coming from.

Growing up in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, respectively, both knocked about quite a bit. Jean dropped out — or was kicked out — of five or six schools. Al eventually found his way to Art and Design, where he was comfortable for a couple of years. Even­tually he dropped out too — it seems he spent most of his time decorating subway cars.

“Oh man, graffiti? Forget it. I was right in there with Snake 1, Phase Too, and all those cats. ’Cause that was my life at that point. Bomb 1, that was me. I must have gone through a hundred different markers before I was 16. Then after that I hung it up.

“But when SAMO© came along it was like whoa! a rush, you know? A reason to start writing again. The stuff you see on the sub­ways now is inane. Scribbled. SAMO© was like a refresher course because there’s some kind of statement being made. It’s not just ego graffiti.”

SAMO© was hatched this spring in the alter­native high school in Brooklyn Heights where Jean and Al ended up. “We were smoking some grass one night and I said something about it’s being the same old shit,” Jean recalls. “SAMO©, right? ‘Imagine this, selling packs of SAMO©!’ It started like that — as a private joke — and then it grew.”

Next, they drew a series of cartoons for their school paper showing people’s faces be­fore and after using SAMO©: “I used to be a lamo before I started SAMO©. Now I get some poontang everyday.”

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The etymology of SAMO© took a meta­physical leap in its next manifestation, a short story by Jean featuring a man searching for religion and a store called Religomat, where a salesman with a TV smile explains the pros and cons of the popular brands: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. Then the salesman pulls out SAMO©, a guilt-free re­ligion. It works like this: You do whatever you want here on earth, then when confront­ed with your deeds at the Pearly Gates you simply tell God: “I didn’t know.”

This May, Jean and Al took SAMO© to the streets. The first, at the corner of Church and Franklin: SAMO© IS NOW! A little way up the block: SAMO© IS COMING! On a church on West Broadway: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD. And in the men’s room of their high school: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO AL­TERNATIVE EDUCATION.

Does SAMO© in fact provide an alternative? “No way,” Jean and Al agree. “SAMO© is just a means of bringing it out,” Jean continues. “A tool for mocking bogusness.”

“Right, exactly,” Al agrees. “It makes people think ‘hey, maybe there’s another way.’ But it’s not like we can defend it. We’re really in a vulnerable spot to even talk about it with people from media.”

Talking to people from media was the last thing on their minds this summer as they fu­riously scrawled their message to the city. Jean estimates that he executed some 30 SA­MO©s on a good day, concentrating at first on the subways. “The D train, man, I covered it, ads and everything. And in broad day­light. Half of it, you know, is the arrogance involved.”

“We slowed down a little in June and July,” recalls Al. “But once you run it for that long it starts just coming up.” They became more and more selective, picking their targets. SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GREEK CHEESBURGER EMPORIUMS on a Greek cheesburger emporium. SAMO© AS AN END TO VINYL PUNKERY outside the Trash and Vaudeville boutique. SAMO© AS AN ALTER­NATIVE TO BOOSH-WAH YOUTH IMPERSONAT­ING ’60s PROTOTYPES on Stuyvesant High. Al grins: “Those guys hate us down there.”

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Soon, feedback started appearing on the walls. Some of it was friendly — SAMO© CALL HOME AT ONCE! MOTHER NEEDS YOU — and some of it less so: SAMO© AS SHEER TEDIUM on St. Marks Place; SAMO© IS CIA on the Washington Square arch; and, on the Grand Union at Bleecker and La Guardia, a major political graffiti — DEATH TO SOMOZA — edited to read DEATH TO SAMO©.

“They’re doing exactly what we thought they’d do,” says Jean, his voice rising. “We tried to make it sound profound and they think it actually is! That’s like a heavy com­pliment, man.”

Al picks up the thread: “People are so bored that when something seems mysterious and it keeps coming up it’s like ‘Oh wow! What’s going on? We better know about this!’ So they conclude this thing that we’re CIA.… I can’t begin to explain where they got that.”

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Their epithet, BOOSH-WAH, seems to pro­voke the most hostile reactions. The word was Jean’s contribution: “This city is crawl­ing with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Sta­tus symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritu­ally, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.”

Is no surface sacred? They do stay clear of most private property, but government prop­erty and corporations are fair game, especial­ly subways, elevators, and public toilets. What about the millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent each year cleaning up? Jean has a ready reply: “That’s a drop in the bucket compared to how people are getting shafted in big ways.”

Jean is more troubled by his questions. Is it a cop-out to give SAMO©’s story to the pa­pers? Is it anti-cool to take credit for street art? And what of their ambition to some day work in art-related jobs, isn’t that BOOSH­-WAH?

And it should be reported that in the proc­ess of helping me with this story Jean and Al came under some rather pointed criticism from their friends, who worried that a taste of fame would go to their heads.

The strain of these last few weeks is reflect­ed, appropriately enough, in their art. One of their latest, and increasingly rare, creations reads: LIFE IS CONFUSING AT THIS POINT…SAMO©.

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Categories
NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The TRGT Fiasco Was No Mistake

When Target opened its Alphabet City location the week before last, it did more than just add another link in the chain of stores now spreading across New York. For its grand opening, Target created a one-day “brand activation,” a tableau vivant that simulated the life of the city street — the very life that is under threat from overdevelopment and corporatization.

I’d heard about the event on the morning of July 21 from the blogger E.V. Grieve, who tweeted that Target had constructed an “homage to CBGB.” When I arrived on the corner of Avenue A and 14th Street that afternoon to check it out, I found a far more astonishing spectacle. Target hadn’t just built a faux-CBGB storefront, renamed “TRGT” to evoke the famed punk club; it had built an entire Potemkin East Village.

The Hollywood-set fantasy included a life-size backdrop of tenements photo-printed on vinyl sheets; a fake stoop on which a hip-hop dancer wore a Target bandanna tied around his thigh; red Target-branded buckets for imitating bucket-drumming sidewalk buskers; and a red newspaper kiosk that looked a lot like the ones that used to carry the Village Voice. Inside the store, painted on an East Village–themed mural above the cash registers, were the words “NYC Nuyoricans” and “Poets Café.”

As neighborhood appropriation goes, creating a crass and cynical simulation of the local New York streetscape is bad enough. But worse yet, it’s this very ecosystem that is being erased, block by block, by the presence of chain stores like Target — as well as by big developers like its landlord, Extell, which has named the new luxury building in which Target sits “EVGB,” a riff on CBGB that is supposed to stand for “East Village’s Greatest Building.”

Many people welcome these changes. The sidewalk that day was mobbed. Under the watch of three private security guards and an NYPD officer, people posed for selfies and lined up for free promotional trinkets like keychains and sunglasses. No one seemed troubled by the advertainment; instead, they were advertained. I spotted one person who seemed to be observing more than participating, and I asked what she thought. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said, with a thrill in her voice. I felt out of place, alienated in my own neighborhood.

I reached out to Chris Stein of the band Blondie, who got their start at CBGB and helped make the club a household name. He said of Target’s marketing stunt, “It’s grotesque on the level that it’s an attraction that will seduce people. It’s a false god. And it’s the antithesis of what the club stood for — freedom and individuality. Target is just mass sheep appeal. It is massive conformity.”

Target’s opening celebration may have been tone-deaf — the company later issued a non-apology apology — but it was neither an anomaly nor a mistake. It is part of the larger process of hyper-gentrification, the state-sponsored class takeover of urban neighborhoods in our era of late-stage capitalism. Gentrification long ago stopped being the small-scale, sporadic process it was when first observed in the late 1960s and ’70s. By the 1980s, it had become official policy for making New York friendly to big business, tourism, real estate developers, and upscale professionals. That top-down process has since grown exponentially, glutting the city with luxury developments and chain stores that homogenize the streets and rob New York of its character and variety, as well as its affordability.

In this less open, more boring cityscape, the corporate chains often present themselves as friendly and fun. It is part of the Disneyfication of the city, the creation of what architect Michael Sorkin, in his book Variations on a Theme Park, called “a city of simulations.” This is “urban renewal with a sinister twist, an architecture of deception which, in its happy-face familiarity, constantly distances itself from the most fundamental realities.”

Globalized capital aims to distance us from reality, and from community, in order to destabilize us, and to lower our self-esteem. We consume more, studies have shown, when we feel insecure. In their work on terror management and mortality salience (the awareness that one will die), marketing researchers Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters noted that the terrorist attacks of 9-11, as well as natural disasters, increased death-related thoughts for many people, and one way of coping with those thoughts is through excessive consumerism. In their research, they found that individuals with low self-esteem, especially, engage in overconsumption in order to escape self-awareness. (And we know that advertising often lowers self-esteem. As Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism, “modern advertising seeks to promote not so much self-indulgence as self-doubt. It seeks to create needs, not to fulfill them; to generate new anxieties instead of allaying old ones.”)

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Our urban neighborhoods, too, have destabilized. New York is always changing, of course, but for much of its history it also possessed a certain equilibrium. Today, in hyper-gentrified parts of town, your neighbors come and go, many not sticking around for more than a year. Businesses come and go rapidly, too, without long leases and affordable rents to give them stability. More and more, storefronts fill with pop-up shops, creating a “here today, gone tomorrow” city of whiplash changeability.

Almost all the actual elements of New York that were featured in Target’s pop-up village have vanished or are in danger of vanishing. Their Disney-style depiction traffics in a nostalgia that many New Yorkers feel for lost neighborhoods that once offered what Jane Jacobs famously called “the sidewalk ballet,” the lively variety of the local, human-sized city. What was most objectionable in Target’s imitation of life was that it capitalized on the very experience it is replacing.

Target is not alone. It is only the latest actor in the co-optation and commodification of the city’s obliterated history:

  • When G&M Realty, owned by developers Jerry and David Wolkoff, demolished the Long Island City graffiti mecca 5Pointz, it then used the name for the luxury towers that rose on the site, releasing renderings of interiors full of graffiti art.
  • When the Chetrit Group and Somerset Partners tried to rebrand a portion of the South Bronx as the Piano District — for “luxury waterfront living, world-class dining, fashion, art + architecture” — they threw a party that played on the theme of “the Bronx Is Burning,” featuring bullet-riddled cars and oil drum fires around which celebrities and fashion models posed like hobos.
  • When a bar called Summerhill opened in gentrifying Crown Heights, the owner sent out a press release advertising the space’s “bullet hole–ridden wall” and its Forty Ounce Rosé, joking to Gothamist that bottles would be served in paper bags.
  • In the Hudson Yards mega-development, built on a working-class neighborhood upzoned by the Bloomberg administration, a white-owned restaurant called Legacy Records has filled its walls with African-American imagery. In the New York Times, Pete Wells pointed out that Legacy “seems eager to suggest that it has local roots — so eager that it has essentially ginned up a history for itself that brings together sloppy research with a superficial tribute to black culture.”
  • CBGB, evicted and forced to close in 2006, is a repeat victim. In 2007, celebu-chef Daniel Boulud announced that his new Bowery restaurant would be called DBGB — short for Daniel Boulud Good Burger. Like Target, he used the CBGB typeface. (After he got a cease and desist letter, the typeface changed.) In 2008, luxury menswear designer John Varvatos moved into CBGB’s space, throwing a star-studded grand opening party with T-shirts that read, “Varvatos 315 Bowery…Birthplace of Punk.” He sealed CBGB’s walls behind Plexiglas and sold used rock T-shirts for $350. Finally (or not), in Newark International Airport, a facsimile of CBGB serves as a theme restaurant for tourists traveling in and out of the city. It features a cocktail called the Dirty Ashtray.

Often, these marketing stunts trigger a backlash. After the South Bronx real estate party, local social media exploded in outrage. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito demanded an apology and tweeted, “Lack of empathy & basic awareness are signs of an ailing society. Who thought ‘Bronx is Burning’ theme a good idea?” The outcry against Summerhill was also swift and fierce, with neighborhood residents gathering outside in protest of what they saw as a gentrifying white business owner profiting from the pain of the community and commodifying blackness, a trend that American University public affairs professor Derek S. Hyra, in his book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, calls “black branding.” At the opening of the John Varvatos boutique, anti-gentrification activists protested what they called the “co-opting of culture to sell overpriced luxury goods.” They held signs that read “$800 Pants Kill Music in NYC” and “40-40-40,000 Dollars a Month, We’re Gonna Be Evicted!”

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But the backlash doesn’t last, and more often than not, the offending business goes on to success. The luxury developers in the South Bronx and Long Island City will probably find takers for their units. DBGB enjoyed eight years of selling $12 hot dogs. People are dining at Summerhill and Legacy Records. They are shopping at the Varvatos store, admiring the preserved CBGB walls. So far, Target appears to be doing just fine on Avenue A. In fact, it’s opening another Lower East Side outpost in the Essex Crossing mega-development, in a building called The Rollins, named for jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who once lived in a now-demolished tenement on the site. As the Times pointed out, rents at The Rollins “will be among the highest in the neighborhood,” with concierge service, a pet spa, a shuffleboard table, a private gym, and rooftop barbecue grills.

What the colonizers desire and replicate is gritty New York without the grit. Punk and jazz and poetry without the enlivening shock of unpredictability. It’s a neat trick that works in part because we are starving for reality and a connection to history. Homesick for our lost city, we can be easily seduced by imitations of life.

The ghosts of tenements past surround

At Target’s grand-opening event, it wasn’t the pseudo-CBGB that really got to me. I keep thinking about that fake stoop. The stoop, so utterly urban, normally brings the inside out; facing the street, it engages residents with the sidewalk ballet. But in today’s homogenized city, the new developments turn away from the street, like suburban developments often do, shielding their residents inside controlled private spaces that reject the communality and chaos of city life. Target’s fake stoop haunts me as a ghost of the unreal, an empty representation recalling a reality that is slipping away. As urbanist M. Christine Boyer has written, in her essay “Cities for Sale,” “these tableaux are the true nonplaces, hollowed out urban remnants, without connection to the rest of the city or the past, waiting to be filled with contemporary fantasies, colonized by wishful projections, and turned into spectacles of consumption.”

A haunted feeling is part of the package in today’s commodified cities. Hyper-gentrification is a horror movie mash-up. An invasion of the body snatchers, it zombifies what went before. It kills and then reanimates its victims, sanitized and tamed, to sell itself and expand into further territory, all while working to convince us that it has the best intentions and means no harm. It just wants to be part of the community. Part of the family. One of us, one of us. Like a vampire at the door it asks, with a seductive smile: Won’t we please let it in?

 

 

Categories
Living Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

City’s ‘Nightlife Mayor’ Faces a Tough Crowd on Her Home Turf

Last September, when New York City established its Office of Nightlife — a new entity meant to serve as an intermediary between club owners, residents, and city agencies — it came at the tail end of roughly a year of lobbying from advocates for struggling DIY spaces. The hope was that the new office, along with a director informally dubbed the “Nightlife Mayor,” would smooth the path for the operation of startup clubs and bars, revitalizing an industry many venue owners felt was perilously tangled in red tape.

Yet since her appointment was announced March 7, new Nightlife Mayor Ariel Palitz has drawn criticism on her home turf in the East Village. A resident of the neighborhood for two decades, she operated the nightclub Sutra Lounge, on First Avenue near 2nd Street, for half of that time — something some community leaders are charging will make her decidedly pro-bar, in a neighborhood famously more alive at night than during the day.

“People are cleaning vomit off their stoops Saturday morning,” says Laura Sewell of the East Village’s North Avenue A Neighborhood Association, which covers the stretch of Avenue A between 14th and 10th streets. “That’s an unfair burden to put on residents.”

Palitz, whose press office declined Voice requests for an interview, has worn many hats during her time in the East Village. From 2004 to 2014, she ran Sutra Lounge, which drew a hefty number of noise complaints, topping all bars in the city for 311 complaints between January 2010 and October 2011. (A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, representing Palitz, said this was largely due to the persistence of one unhappy neighbor.) From 2007  to 2014, she served on the State Liquor Authority subcommittee of Community Board 3, which gives recommendations to the state authority on matters of licensing.

Yet while this experience makes Palitz intimately familiar both with the challenges facing entrepreneurial business owners vying for a shot at success and with the gripes of residents who have had their fill of liquor-slinging outposts, East Village and Lower East Side locals vehemently disagree over whether Palitz has been willing to give both parties equal treatment.

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***

The Lower East Side and East Village’s reputation as a party hub is now so entrenched in the city’s collective consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine it being any other way — but longtime locals say unchecked hell-raising is a relatively new phenomenon on their blocks. Diem Boyd of the Lower East Side Dwellers Neighborhood Association, which covers the now notoriously booze-soaked cluster of blocks bordered by Houston, Delancey, Allen, and Essex streets that has been dubbed “Hell Square,” says she noticed the chaos start to ramp up between 2003 and 2005 — during that time, the Hotel on Rivington opened between Ludlow and Essex streets, concert venue Fat Baby popped up on the same block, and unfailingly popular drinking destination Pianos opened on Ludlow Street.

By 2006, the subdistrict had earned its ominous moniker. (The first documented use of the term “Hell Square” was reportedly in a post on Eater, though the original article seems to have been taken down.) In the years since, the DL opened at 95 Delancey Street (a bar that has butted heads with neighbors ever since, and last year was raided by police after spawning two violent brawls within two months), rancorous sports bar Hair of the Dog opened at 168 Orchard Street, and the ironically named No Fun (whose owners would sue the Dwellers in 2016 for trying to prevent their liquor license renewal) opened at 161 Ludlow Street. By 2013, the hellish nature of Hell Square was only escalating, and the Lower East Side Dwellers convened to combat the proliferation of liquor licenses they deemed responsible.

Meanwhile, the North Avenue A Neighborhood Association was formed in 2009 as a direct response to an explosion of rowdy nightlife establishments on a once reasonably peaceful stretch of Avenue A. That was the summer, notes association member Dale Goodson, that the block between 12th and 13th streets saw the opening of the notorious Superdive — a bar known for its frat-house atmosphere, keg stands, and champagne nights, for which a dwarf would lop off a champagne cork with a small sword. Upon its closing in the fall of 2010, a breathless obituary in Politico claimed the bar had signified a “tipping point” for the East Village into party central.

“It was the fuse that ignited everything,” confirms Goodson, noting another rowdy bar called Diablo Royale Este started giving neighbors near 10th Street grief in 2010. “Up and down Avenue A, things were starting to really go crazy.”

Locals ever since have lined up at community board meetings to air their grievances about thumping, sleep-disrupting basslines and shouting (and sometimes vomiting) partygoers. And those gripes are backed by statistics. An audit by the State Comptroller’s Office found that the area encompassing the East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown in 2015 was the site of more noise complaints stemming from nightlife establishments than anywhere else in the city.

Beyond chipping away at residents’ quality of life, longtime locals complain, the explosion of nightlife has left establishments that don’t serve liquor unable to keep up with climbing rents, driving out daytime attractions and less-moneyed residents alike. The result, at least within pockets of the neighborhood, is more of a boozy Disneyland flush with sloshed tourists than a community.

“The Lower East Side and the East Village have been decimated by this,” says Boyd. “We’ve lost so many mom-and-pop shops, rents have skyrocketed — it’s a transient community in a lot of ways.”

The Dwellers, known for their antagonistic tactics in combating liquor saturation, years ago declared war on Palitz and her Sutra Lounge, calling for her removal from the community board due to the lounge’s “rap sheet” of violations. The group fretted the launch of an office they feared would favor the nightlife industry over beleaguered residents, tweeting last year that a nightlife mayor was “not the answer for communities suffering quality-of-life nightlife blight and crime.”

When they found the appointed nightlife mayor was one of their own, that anxiety only intensified.

Members of the Dwellers, North Avenue A, and the Orchard Street Block Associations all say that during her time on the community board, Palitz voted overwhelmingly in favor of new liquor license applications and brushed aside residents’ concerns in public meetings. (Community Board 3 declined to comment for this article and was unable to provide Palitz’s voting record.)

“They really couldn’t have made a worse choice, in my opinion,” says Pamela Yeh of the Orchard Street Block Association, which covers a swath of blocks below Delancey Street and between Allen and Clinton streets. “She voted in favor of just about passing every [liquor license] application that came through the SLA committee.”

***

Those who served on Community Board 3 with Palitz, however, recall a reasoned and evenhanded presence who was always willing to hear both sides. These former colleagues insist the harsh criticism from bar-weary neighborhood groups is unfair, especially considering the newness of the position.

“I am extremely happy that she got appointed — I think she is the perfect person for this job,” enthuses former board chair Anne Johnson, who says Palitz’s experience as a bar owner should allow her to effectively tackle the issues facing the Lower East Side and East Village. “I always found her to be reasonable and willing to listen to all sides and not just blanketly support one side or the other.”

Former community board member Chad Marlow, who has been a staunch supporter of limiting liquor licenses in the community, recalls Palitz as a voice of reason, attempting to bring “uniformity and clarity” to the process of supporting or denying liquor license applicants on the subcommittee. “I think [for] Ariel, her challenge is going to be to try and find a way to promote the interests of the industry while at the same time protecting the interests of the community, and I have no doubt she’s going to labor very hard to strike that balance,” he says.

Essential to that balance, as far as bar owners are concerned, is an understanding of the hurdles faced by incoming entrepreneurs looking to build a sustainable business, particularly in such skeptical and often combative communities as the Lower East Side. Rents for retail space in the neighborhood are so high, a liquor license is often the only way to stay afloat — yet the tenor of the neighborhood has become warily anti-bar, creating a snag for anyone hoping to make a living out of a rented storefront.

Longtime local and nightlife veteran Nick Bodor, owner of beloved First Avenue dive the Library and shuttered rock music staple the Cake Shop on Ludlow Street, says the process of garnering approval from the community board can be laborious. And all the hoops one must jump through to justify the business model in the meantime — negotiating a lease, hiring a lawyer, hiring an architect to draw up renderings, even beginning to build out the space before the promise of a license is secured — can be prohibitively expensive.  

The result, says Bodor, can be a stifling of creativity and a depressing homogeneity in the bar scene.

“Cake Shop couldn’t make it up to twelve years,” says Bodor. “When you have these $25,000-a-month rents, it’s causing people to do lowest common denominator shit like pubs. It’s taking away any kind of interesting vibe–type places.”

Upon securing a lease, those looking to open a bar will often pay exorbitantly high rents for months while wading through the community board process, which often asks that the operator prove its establishment will be a boon to the community. Sometimes, bar operators will try to go around the community board and appeal directly to the SLA — something Bodor is hopeful will no longer be necessary. “All of that should be ironed out [by] the nightlife mayor,” he says. 

And Palitz is the perfect person to do so, says Bodor, recalling her as a sympathetic and reasonable voice on the SLA subcommittee when he was vying for a liquor license for the Cake Shop’s top floor as a means of staying afloat, even as anti-bar sentiment in the neighborhood was mounting.

“She was like a voice of reason during that time period when she was there, and it was really crazy with really long meetings and lots of opposition — she really understood both sides,” he says.

To assuage fears, Commissioner of Media and Entertainment Julie Menin, who oversees the Nightlife Office, quickly arranged the first of several planned meetings with Lower East Side groups on March 14. Goodson says Menin “seemed genuinely engaged with resident issues with licensing, the SLA, and oversaturation.” Palitz recently made her first public appearance in Bushwick at the invitation of the NYC Artist Coalition, where she addressed the concerns of local business owners. A representative for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment says town halls will eventually be held in every borough so that Palitz can get a feel for issues affecting each community.

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***

The bulk of the inherent distrust in Palitz and her office may stem from the fact that Lower East Side residents have long felt neglected by authorities tasked with overseeing the flow of liquor in their streets. Some, including Marlow, have argued that the community board’s SLA subcommittee has a history of passing wishy-washy resolutions that greenlight new liquor licenses in violation of the SLA’s 500-foot rule, which prohibits issuing a new liquor license within 500 feet of three or more other licensed establishments. The results of this are evident on a map of the Lower East Side: The stretch of Ludlow Street between Houston and Stanton Street, which is roughly 500 feet long, contains six full liquor licenses according to SLA data; the full nine blocks of Hell Square contain over fifty full liquor licenses — and that’s not including beer and wine licenses.  

In early 2016, residents railed against a taqueria seeking a full liquor license that was set to replace a beloved Chinese bakery at 162 East Broadway — the spot was within 200 feet of a church (placing it in violation of another SLA regulation) and within 500 feet of a handful of other liquor-serving establishments. The business owners ultimately moved their entrance to skirt the 200-foot rule, and the community board issued a list of stipulations for them to observe. (The spot is now vegan eatery Jajaja.)

The resulting controversy led to a board resolution solidifying its commitment to the 500-foot rule; since then it has been more unwavering in its rejection of violators. (SLA Subcommittee chair Alex Militano has also pointed out that the board is merely advisory, and it is often in the best interest of the community to recommend stipulations rather than push for an outright rejection from the authority.)

In any case, once a new license has been issued, it is notoriously difficult to have it removed — community members have in the past found themselves saddled with bars that seemingly get slapped on the wrist for violations. Hookah bar Mazaar Lounge at 137 Essex Street earned a renewal despite accruing $20,000 worth of liquor law violations and a violent incident in which a drunk patron attacked a police officer. While the SLA has the authority to revoke, cancel, or suspend licenses for such violations, it often opts for less-damaging penalties — in the case of Mazaar, the lounge was hit with a steep fine as part of a plea deal — a tactic Boyd’s group has slammed as overly lenient. An SLA spokesman noted the authority does have a disciplinary process, pointing out that the DL was hit with a $40,000 fine last November, and could ultimately have its liquor license revoked. 

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment said there was no set interagency strategy in place for tackling nightlife issues, but that the office would work with the SLA and other agencies with a hand in nightlife. And in a written statement to the Voice, Palitz herself reaffirmed her commitment to pursuing nightlife parity: “I have tremendous faith that after we conduct a very thorough listening tour of all five boroughs and listen to all stakeholders in nightlife, we will be able to present a very comprehensive and realistic plan that will address the overall concerns of the residents and business owners alike.”

***

Palitz and her cohorts no doubt have a difficult road ahead of them in her home neighborhood alone if they are to truly balance the interests of business owners grappling for the right to serve booze just to stay afloat, and a rattled community that lives in fear of more drunks pouring into the street below their windows.

But hopes and fears aside, nightlife is an economic and cultural force to be reckoned with — it provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars, both from New Yorkers and from out-of-towners flocking to the party hubs its residents hate so much. And so, the city’s logic goes, why should it not be maintained like any other part of the city’s economy?

There needs to be a balance between nightlife activity and residents, and this office can help to mediate situations that occur, and also focus on planning and managing nightlife, instead of letting it organically get out of control and then having to police it,” says Andrew Rigie, founder and executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, who now serves on the advisory board of the Office of Nightlife.

“We focus on city planning, and there’s no reason nightlife shouldn’t be part of the planning. It’s vital to our economy and our culture. And after all, we have been called the city that never sleeps.”

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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For Want of a Garden, an Election Could Be Lost

The Elizabeth Street Garden in Little Italy is one of those quintessential only-in–New York spaces. Wander by on a sunny weekend and you’ll find people flocking through by the dozens to Instagram themselves before the quirky array of neoclassical statues and monuments nestled amid fruiting fig trees and sprays of phlox and hydrangea.

Children play hide-and-seek in the shade of Bradford pear trees, darting behind stone pedestals bearing marble sphinxes and a snarling cast-iron tiger by French sculptor Albert Jacquemar. Families spread picnics on the grass. Lunch-hour techies gaze at laptop screens in the shadow of Roman columns and an elegant wrought iron gazebo designed by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Many cities would relish the chance to preside over what has in recent years become an active community-run park stuffed with valuable relics. But in space-starved Manhattan, the garden has been targeted for housing for low-income seniors by the area’s councilperson, Margaret Chin.

Both Chin and Mayor De Blasio have refused to consider alternate sites for the housing — despite growing outcry from local residents and the leaders of Community Board 2, who want to preserve one of the last pockets of green in this otherwise dense corridor of lower Manhattan. The public fight over the garden has now spilled over into Chin’s re-election campaign, where she faces an independent challenger, Christopher Marte, who came within 222 votes of toppling her in the Democratic primary.

“If Chin loses the election, the garden is saved,” says David Gruber, a member of Community Board 2 and of the Downtown Independent Democrats, which took the unusual step of endorsing Marte for the general election even though he is running on the Independence Party line. “If she wins, the garden is gone. It’s that simple.”

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The Elizabeth Street Garden was founded in 1990 by neighboring gallery owner Allan Reiver, who leased what was then a derelict lot from the city for $4,000 a month and transformed it into an outdoor showroom for the antiques and architectural salvage he sells. “It was full of old cars and dead animals when I got it,” says Reiver, who signed a stipulation requiring him to maintain “a manicured lawn for the storage of statuary, fountains, gazebos and similar objects in a parklike setting.”

Reiver planted grass and trees and stocked the place with treasures, like the limestone balustrade and balcony he acquired from Lynnewood Hall, one of the last Gilded Age mansions outside Philadelphia, and a pair of stone pillars that once stood at the entrance to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

For many years, Reiver kept the space private and largely gated. But since 2013, when locals found out it was threatened with development, it has morphed into a very active community-run park. It’s now open seven days a week, with Reiver’s son and other volunteers organizing free movie nights and yoga classes, poetry readings, and art shows. It’s also used by area schools, including Chinatown’s P.S. 1, whose students come to plant daffodils and learn about composting.

The plot of city-owned land it sits on, however, has proven irresistible to those who would like to allow a developer to build a seven-story affordable housing project for seniors on the site. Chin first pushed to have the lot designated for affordable housing in 2012, during negotiations over the massive Seward Park Urban Renewal Area project (a/k/a Essex Crossing) off Delancey Street. 

The de Blasio administration has since backed Chin’s effort to house seniors there and says it expects to select a developer for the project this fall. Only about one-quarter of the garden — 5,000 square feet, slightly smaller than a basketball court — would be kept as open space.

Many local residents and members of Community Board 2 were outraged that Chin did not consult with them about the fate of the lot. Most people in the neighborhood were unaware the land was even city-owned, and mobilized to open it up as a public park instead.

“People here feel strongly about saving it,” says Jennifer Romine, who for the past seventeen years has lived in the block of subsidized Section 8 apartments adjacent to the garden site. Last year, she went door to door collecting petitions to save the garden; nearly all the residents there signed.

“A lot of the older people remember when the old school was demolished,” Romine says, referring to a public school that occupied the block until it was taken down in the 1970s. “They say they were always promised a park there.”

For the mayor, the senior housing project fits with his agenda to build affordable housing in every community. For Chin, who chairs the council’s Committee on Aging, it’s about defending the right of seniors to “age with dignity” in their own neighborhoods.

Before she got into the council, Chin helped found Asian Americans for Equality, a group that builds and manages housing for low-income people and seniors. It also happens to be one of the groups bidding on the Elizabeth Street site.

Chin notes that an estimated 200,000 elderly New Yorkers are on waiting lists for affordable housing. “It’s a tough decision,” she says of her plan to develop the garden. “But it’s the right one.”

On Tuesday, voters in the district may have some say on that. Marte, a former investment analyst for IBM and son of a Dominican bodega owner, has tapped broad discontent across the district — from outrage over the mostly luxury skyscrapers going up along the waterfront, to anger over Chin’s handling of the NYU expansion and the stalled rezoning in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

But the biggest thorn in Chin’s side may be the garden. Supporters have rallied behind Marte’s campaign as their best hope of preserving the space — providing him with a built-in base of pissed-off moms, greening activists, and local business owners who are determined to oust Chin in order to save it.

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Admittedly Marte’s third-party bid is a long shot in a city where most voters cast their ballots for Democrats. (Two other candidates in the race, Aaron Foldenauer on the Liberal Party line and Republican Bryan Jung, could siphon anti-Chin votes.) Still, given expected low turnout in a year where the mayoral race is considered a shoo-in, having a small army of angry garden fans willing to go door to door to get out the vote could be key.

“Supporters of the garden are a huge part of our base,” confirms Marte’s campaign manager, Caitlin Kelmar. “I think it’s energized a lot of people who don’t ordinarily turn out for local elections. It’s become kind of emblematic of how out of touch Chin is from her constituents.”

Chin’s chief of staff, Paul Leonard, chafes at that accusation. “Margaret is listening to the community — a community that doesn’t have fancy parties with famous DJs,” he says, referring to a recent $77-a-ticket fundraiser for the garden that featured Andrew Wyatt of the indie band Miike Snow.

“I think she should be commended for being courageous on this,” Leonard says of the garden fight. “We’re up against major forces here,” he adds, pointing to garden backers like actor Gabriel Byrne, who lives on the block and made a video in support, and lobbyist James Capalino, who’s done pro bono work for the site. Kent Barwick, the president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, is chair of the board of Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden — which is one of two not-for-profits now advocating for retaining the space.

Community Board 2 has been pressing for the city to shift the senior project to a larger vacant lot several blocks west on Hudson Street, where community leaders say five times as much housing could be built. Leonard says Chin would support additional housing on that site, which is outside her district. “But if you have over 200,000 seniors sitting on a waiting list for housing, why would you give up this site?” he says of Elizabeth Street. “We need affordable housing in all neighborhoods.”

It’s easy to see why Chin’s allies might view this quirky statuary as a luxury, a “pet project of rich Soho moms,” as one detractor put it. Vogue magazine recently championed the space as a favorite haunt of fashion designers.

Still, there’s some argument that the site has long been intended to be preserved as public open space. A land use agreement in 1981 between the city and the owners of the Section 8 housing stipulated that the area where the school play yards had once been — and where the garden now lies — be reserved for “recreational use.” And unlike Chin, the district’s state assembly representative, Yuh-Line Niou, as well as State Senator Brad Hoylman and Congressmember Jerrold Nadler from neighboring districts, have come out in favor of keeping the garden, along with Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Walk the blocks south of Houston, jammed with traffic and incessant construction noise, and the controversy over this site feels a bit more elemental.

“This part of Manhattan has almost no parks, and the few parks it does have have almost no green space — it’s all pavement,” notes Adrian Benepe, who served as parks commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg. “The existing parks in the neighborhood are already heavily used, and with the new development planned at Essex Crossing, there’s only going to be more people using these spaces. So you have to think of that.”

Locals say they’re already feeling squeezed. “I wake up to construction going on in every corner of this neighborhood,” complains Sharon D’Lugoff, who lives in an income-restricted co-op on Elizabeth Street.

“This is my daughter’s favorite place in the whole world,” she says, as her daughter pedals her bike along the garden’s gravel paths. “We come here to read every day. How can you destroy this?”

D’Lugoff notes that as an independent, she didn’t vote in the primary — “but I am absolutely voting in this election.” She says the garden could be the issue that tips the vote for a rare upset of a council incumbent. “Chin would not be in trouble like this if she would listen to us.”

 

 

 

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Velvet Wonderland: Rediscovering The Velvet Underground’s New York

Fifty years ago this week, the Velvet Underground and Nico was released, causing barely a ripple in the wider music world, but leaving a trail of influence nearly unequaled in the history of rock & roll. To celebrate the anniversary, we’re resisting some of the locations that helped form and definite band.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Loft space, 56 Ludlow St.
In a loft with no bathroom, heat, or electricity, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLise rehearsed the first Velvet Underground songs. (A tape — minus drummer MacLise — surfaced on the box set Peel Slowly and See in 1995.)

Cale and MacLise had broken ground in the emerging world of minimalist music, playing together in La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate. (Tony Conrad, another minimalist pioneer, is a member of an early version of the band called the Primitives.) Reed and Morrison knew each from college at Syracuse. The Velvet Underground would combine the steady-state drone and repeated single notes of minimalism with the propulsion of the blues and R&B that Reed and Morrison loved.

In 1965, the nascent Velvets appeared in an underground film directed by a neighbor in at 56 Ludlow, Piero Heliczer, called “Venus in Furs.” Heliczer invited them to perform as part of a multimedia show at the Filmmaker’s Cinémathèque on Lafayette Street.

A side note: From 56 Ludlow, look to the Bowery to the west. That’s where the exploitation paperback from which the band took its name is found, reportedly by Conrad. “The Velvet Underground,” per Morrison, despite the whips and chains on the cover, “was basically about wife swapping in Suburbia.”

The Ludlow Street lofts are now home to a software company, a recording studio, a magazine publisher, and the building is now wired for electricity.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Café Bizarre, 106 West 3rd St.
Less a genuine Greenwich Village folk haunt than a tourist trap (“it was a dump,” according to Reed), this club hosted a residency by the Velvets in December, 1965. Drummer Maureen Tucker had now joined the group, but the club’s “anti-rock group” policy meant she was restricted to banging on a tambourine.

Underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin brought Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Gerard Malanga and Nico to the Café Bizarre to see the Velvet Underground. Warhol loved the band’s confrontational edge — audiences left performances “dazed and damaged.” Warhol had been asked to be part of discotheque opening in the spring of 1966 on Long Island. He took the Velvets under his wing with the idea that they’d play there. (The gig eventually went to the Rascals.)

Café Bizarre is long gone. Now, the east corner is a JW Market; NYU Law School’s Faculty Club takes up the rest of the block between Sullivan and MacDougal.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Hotel Delmonico, 502 Park Avenue
Warhol was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the New York Society For Clinical Psychiatry on January 10, 1966 at the Hotel Delmonico, on Park and 59th. He decided his remarks would take the form of showing some of his films, with the Velvet Underground providing music. Some 300 guests sat down in the Hotel Delmonico’s Grand Ballroom for a black tie dinner and were greeted by the Velvets playing at full volume, with Nico now on vocals and Malanga cracking a whip in the air while Edie Sedgwick danced. Jonas Mekas (a Voice columnist) and Rudin filmed the guests while asking blunt questions about their sex lives. “I’m ready to vomit,” said one.

Donald Trump bought the Hotel Delmonico for $115 million in 2001 and converted it into a luxury condominium building, the Trump Park Avenue.
.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Andy Warhol at the Factory in New York, 1966.
Andy Warhol at the Factory in New York, 1966.

Warhol’s Silver Factory, 231 E. 47th St.
Twelve blocks south of the Delmonico was Warhol’s art studio, located in an industrial building near the United Nations. There, on the fourth floor of 231 E. 47th Street, Warhol oversaw the making of silk screens and collages, and shot experimental films and his screen test series (Bob Dylan was a subject; so was Beck’s mom, Bibbe Hansen, a Factory regular).

The Factory is social center for artists, filmmakers, journalists, drag queens and hangers-on of all sorts. The Velvet Underground practices there regularly from 1966 – 1968. (Rehearsal tapes were included on the 45th anniversary edition of “The Velvet Underground & Nico”; you can hear Reed going over the words to “Venus in Furs” while they fool around with Bo Diddley’s “Cracking Up.”) The cover of the Velvets third album shows the band on a couch at the Factory. According to Ken Pitt (David Bowie’s first manager) to access the Factory you rode up in a rickety old elevator — more like a cage than a proper elevator. Open on three sides, the thing offered a harrowing view of the sheer drop as you ascend.

Demolished in 1968, the building is a car park now.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Dom, 23 St. Mark’s Place
After the January, 1966, performance at the Hotel Delmonico, the Warhol multi-media show — first dubbed Up Tight — went on the road, playing college campuses in March. When the Long Island disco booking fails through, Warhol and Paul Morrissey are alerted to a ballroom in an East Village hall at 23 St. Mark’s Place. It’s called the Dom, an abbreviation of Polsky Dom Narodwy, or Polish National Home, the organization that owns the space. They rent the spot for the month of April, and the show is renamed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in a Village Voice ad which reads: “Live Music, Dancing, Ultra Sounds, Visions, Lightworks, Food, Celebrities, and Movies: ALL IN THE SAME PLACE AT THE SAME TIME.”

When the band returned from a California tour, however, they found their lease ripped up and the room under new management with a new name: the Balloon Farm. Still later it becomes the Electric Circus. The band played both in time.

There’s no rock venue there today. A Chipotle and a Chinese restaurant are in part of the building, as is a tattoo parlor, though next door, at at No. 25, is the the punk rock apparel shop Search and Destroy.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Scepter Studios, 254 West 54th St.
In April of 1966 the band recorded the majority of their debut album here (though it would not come out for nearly a year) in studios belonging to Scepter Records, the label that put out the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. Scepter had taken over the run-down recording studio from CBS, which had called it Studio 52, and used it for radio and television broadcasting. The building will later house the iconic ’70s nightclub and discotheque, Studio 54. Nowadays, the Roundabout Theatre Company runs the place, though you can still enjoy a nightclub scene in the basement dinner club.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Chelsea Hotel, 222 W. 23rd St
One of New York’s quintessential rock & roll hotels. Bob Dylan lived there in 1965 (he wrote “Sad Eyed Lady of Lowlands” there), and Leonard Cohen recalled his assignation with Janis Joplin there in “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Scenes for Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls were shot there, though a scene with Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov was shot in an apartment on West Fourth Street, with the Velvet Underground in the next room improvising music. John Cale met his future wife Betsey Johnson at the Chelsea in 1967.

The hotel is currently closed, undergoing renovations, with plans to re-open in 2018.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Gymnasium, 420 E. 71st St
In April 1967, the Velvets played a series of gigs here on the Upper East Side, following the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico. (A tape of one show included on the 45th anniversary edition of the Velvet’s second album, White Light / White Heat, includes the only recording of a rocker called “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.”) The delay between the debut album’s recording and release meant the Velvets couldn’t take advantage of their 1966 notoriety. Warhol, in an attempt to rekindle the energy of the band and the flagging EPI, arranged for a series of gigs in the spring of 1967 at the Gymnasium in Sokol Hall.

It was a real gym, complete with barbells, weights, parallel bars, even a trampoline that kids leap onto from the balcony where Warhol’s projectors live. The maintain their residency for the rest of the month, playing to small crowds and sniping critics.

You can still get your sweat on in Sokol Hall, which offers gymnastic classes, as well as dance and yoga.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Scene 301 W. 46th St.
This basement club in the Theater District — a block west of Broadway and down some dicey stairs — was run by Steve Paul. Warhol and Paul hosted “underground amateur hour” advertised as featuring appearances by “stars of The Chelsea Girls” as well as “gurus, creative people, pop celebrities, society submergers” and the Velvet Underground.

The Velvets play here in January and of May of ‘67. Soon after, they cut their ties to both Warhol and Nico. And they won’t play another gig in New York until 1970.

Currently this space is under construction. Watch your step.

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‘When It Rains Outside, It Rains Inside’: Tenants Say Notorious NYC Landlord Is Practicing ‘Construction as Harassment’

“I was sitting at my desk, and the ceiling came down on top of me and my computer,” the woman says, standing in the hallway of 159 Stanton Street on the Lower East Side.

The woman, a rent-stabilized tenant who asked to remain anonymous, lives in one of the ten remaining occupied apartments in the building, which was bought by Steven Croman three years ago. In August 2015, when a Croman construction crew was demolishing the floor of the apartment above her, the light fixture in her kitchen fell to the floor and shattered. A few days later, cracks suddenly appeared in her ceiling, and she complained to the workers, the city, and the building manager, who told her “we’re working quickly.” Later that afternoon, the chunk of plaster fell and hit her. She was unhurt, but “shaken.” It left a hole more than three feet wide.

Tenants document the damage to their apartments.
Tenants document the damage to their apartments.

Tenants in the building have endured a pattern similar to those that have Croman facing a lawsuit from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office — a combination of aggressive offers to pay them to leave and what Sarah Knispel of Stand for Tenant Safety calls “construction as harassment,” vacant apartments renovated in a way that leaves the building dirty, dysfunctional, and dangerous enough to make them want to leave.

The twist here is that the work stopped in the fall of 2015 — leaving nine apartments abandoned, with doorknobs removed and windows boarded up or covered with plastic. The remaining residents say the building regularly has intruders, and there have been several thefts and burglaries. In one case, people climbed into an empty apartment at the back of the building and defecated in the bathtub.

“When it rains outside, it rains inside,” Weiben Wang, a librarian who’s lived in the building for 20 years, said at a rally outside the building last week. Earlier, he’d showed cell-phone photos of wet plaster chunks that fell on the stairs during mid-November’s heavy rains.

Tenants announced at the rally that they’ve filed an “HP action” lawsuit in Housing Court to demand repairs and a ban on harassment. The suit also asks the court to order that future construction be done safely, promptly, and with minimum nuisance to tenants, said Urban Justice Center lawyer Sherief Gaber.

159 Stanton Street.
159 Stanton Street.

A group of five people tenants identified as Croman employees entered the building a few minutes before the rally and left during it. Asked to respond to the residents’ allegations, they walked away without turning their heads.

“Our good faith efforts are very transparent,” a spokesperson for Croman’s 9300 Realty responded, saying that the company has “on multiple occasions” offered to “immediately address any open issues at the building and in tenants’ apartments.”

“Management has not been informed of any open repair items in tenant apartments,” she added. “Additionally, past repair issues have been addressed promptly.”

Croman bought the building in 2013 as part of a $40 million four-property parcel from former Andy Warhol star Baby Jane Holzer, a socialite who married a real-estate heir. (According to The Real Deal, he sued her for extortion while negotiations were underway, charging that she threatened to rent out 18 vacant rent-stabilized apartments if he didn’t cough up another $2.5 million. The sale went through two months later.)

Francis Di Donato and his son, Max Wolf. Donato has lived in the building for 25 years.
Francis Di Donato and his son, Max Wolf. Donato has lived in the building for 25 years.

“It used to be a vibrant, lovely Lower East Side building,” says Francis Di Donato, who’s lived there for 25 years and shares the apartment with his 12-year-old son. “Now, it’s half empty.”

Croman’s efforts to drive people out “ramped up very slowly,” says Wang. “People started disappearing.” Wang’s first inkling came when he didn’t receive a routine response to his renewing his lease. Then, when the demolition began in 2015, he “woke up one day to horrendous banging on the wall — so hard my apartment shook.”

Di Donato says that at one point, the cracks in his bedroom wall were so big he could see into the apartment next door. Another time, a sewage pipe leaked into his kitchen, contaminating all the food he had there.

Tenants also began receiving visits from Croman representatives such as Anthony Falconite, the former police officer named in Attorney General Schneiderman’s lawsuit as the landlord’s enforcer. The woman whose ceiling collapsed says she had strangers knocking on her door “before, during, and after” the demolition, offering her $4,000 to move out.

Rents generally range from $1,300 to $1,700 a month, according to tenants.

Wang says that when Falconite “banged on my door” and he said he didn’t want to speak to him, Falconite responded by shouting, “Why are you being so rude to me? Don’t you know drug dealers live downstairs?”

A second woman, who also asked to remain anonymous, says she was offered a “pathetically small” buyout shortly after Croman bought the building. Soon after that, Falconite showed up at her door. He tried to speak to her several more times, she says, with the last visit in October 2015, more than a year after Schneiderman issued Falconite a cease-and-desist order in July 2014.

“I became very nervous about leaving my apartment and possibly running into him in the hall, because he was so intimidating,” she says.

Di Donato says Croman tried to evict him for “not paying rent that I already paid.”

The construction mysteriously stopped around October 2015, tenants say. None know why, but there were rumors that management had said the building was too structurally unsound for it to continue. In October 2015, the city Department of Buildings fined Croman $8,500 for doing major electrical work in six apartments without a permit. Croman paid $1,600, according to department records posted online, and was fined another $1,500 in January 2016 for failing to certify that the “extremely hazardous” violation had been repaired.

That left the vacant apartments half-demolished. Wang says that if you look under their doors, you can see that they have no floor, only bare joists. Early last summer, Di Donato came home to find a gaping hole in his ceiling and debris all over the floor and bed. A burglar had either broken through or fallen through, and stolen $150 in cash. In August, another burglar took his prize possession, a Gibson semi-hollow electric guitar he’d had for 30 years.

Intruders regularly come in through the open roof door, through unlocked windows accessible from fire escapes, and by “kicking in the front door because the locks are shoddy,” one of the women says.

A doorway to one of the gutted apartments at 159 Stanton Street. Residents say they have been abandoned since the fall of 2015.
A doorway to one of the gutted apartments at 159 Stanton Street. Residents say they have been abandoned since the fall of 2015.

The building’s situation is “not that unique,” State Senator Daniel Squadron said at the rally, as there are plenty of landlords “whose strategy is to drive you out of your homes… in order to make a quick buck.”

Croman is the landlord most notorious for “construction as harassment,” but others in the East Village and Lower East Side have included Ben Shaoul, Raphael Toledano, Samy Mahfar, and to a lesser extent, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law. Sarah Knispel said it is becoming increasingly common in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick.

A package of 11 bills intended to stem such practices has been introduced in the City Council. One would require the city Department of Buildings to inspect buildings before allowing construction if they are partially occupied or if the landlord has recently been found guilty of harassment. Others would increase fines for violations, let the city put liens on buildings whose owners refuse to pay fines, and require owners to create detailed “tenant protection plans” and inform residents about them.

The measures are basically about “enforcing the rules that are already on the books,” says Paul Leonard, chief of staff for City Councilmember Margaret Chin.

Tenants of 159 Stanton say that the conditions have made their homes feel like anything but. “I don’t want to be pushed out of this building,” says Di Donato, but it’s uncomfortable living there while “knowing that things could get worse — and that’s the idea.”

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As Giant Luxury Towers Loom Over LES and Chinatown, Residents Protest Mayor de Blasio’s ‘Racist’ Zoning Laws

A coalition of community groups from the Lower East Side and Chinatown rallied outside of City Hall yesterday calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to resign, three years after the Brooklyn politician came into office on a platform of stopping the type of rapid displacement of low-income communities that defined the city during the Bloomberg administration.

“Fuera de Blasio,” the multilingual groups chanted as protesters spoke out against the mayor in English, Spanish, and Mandarin. Key to the coalition’s concerns was the decision by the de Blasio administration to go ahead with rezoning Chinatown and the Lower East Side piecemeal, instead of treating the area as a single large community, one that has already been subject to multiple rezoning efforts since 2008.

The protesters insist that the city adopt a plan developed by the Chinatown Working Group, which would preserve a large swath of affordable housing in the area while opening up some areas for the development of more affordable housing. It would also set height restrictions, and doesn’t allow for much market-rate development.

Mayor de Blasio as a two-faced Monopoly Man
Mayor de Blasio as a two-faced Monopoly Man

In meeting with city officials, however, community groups have been told that this idea is unrealistic.

“The first thing they asked us when we met with them was, ‘Are you willing to compromise?’ ” said Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, a group that’s championing the Chinatown Working Group zoning proposal. “We will compromise on certain things, but not on the exclusion of communities. We came together to build consensus with this plan, and to make sure that the entire neighborhood was protected. For the city to come to us now and say only a small part of Chinatown will be protected is so disgusting. We don’t have the time to wait — there’s luxury development going up left and right on the Lower East Side and people are being forced to leave the community.”

A protester outside City Hall yesterday
A protester outside City Hall yesterday

Several signs at the rally ridiculed One Manhattan Square, a new, 68-story luxury development on the site of a former supermarket as an example of the type of development that is being encouraged in the formerly working-class neighborhoods. Right next to that development, JDS Development Group bought out land from two local nonprofits for just $51 million to build a 77-story condo tower that will feature 150 affordable units and 450 market-rate apartments.

“Almost every candidate for Sheldon Silver’s open assembly seat supported the Chinatown Working Group’s plan,” activist David Tieu told the crowd of around a hundred protesters. “But de Blasio and [Councilmember] Margaret Chin, what do they say? No! They tell us it’s too ambitious for Chinese, for African-Americans, for Latinos, to ask for equality. They want to throw out our whole communities’ plan and rezone just a small part of Chinatown, excluding the Latino and African-American communities who live outside.”

The neighborhoods are also home to a sizable number of NYCHA housing units that have been targeted by the de Blasio administration for “infill,” a plan where market-rate and some affordable housing will be built on public housing playgrounds and garages.

“Passing these racist rezoning laws, by protecting only the historical part of Chinatown, de Blasio is dividing us and setting us against each other,” said Angel Pizarro, who moved in with his grandmother to NYCHA housing on the Lower East Side after her health declined.

Another protester outside City Hall yesterday
Another protester outside City Hall yesterday

Despite living the apartment for eight years, Pizarro is being kicked out of the unit by NYCHA, because he’s only been on the lease for a year, and his grandmother recently passed away. Pizarro, who is Puerto Rican, has little chance of remaining in the neighborhood he grew up in if his housing is taken away.

“Right now my community has no protection from luxury developers coming in and trying to make millions. Private companies are allowed to do as they please because our rezoning hasn’t been passed. We are at the mercy of whomever gives Mayor de Blasio a big enough campaign contribution.”