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DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Roomshe East Village, downtown in New York City, looks good. Or bad, depending on your perspective. It’s the trendiest neighborhood in town, most desirable home for the models and stockbrokers, college students and trustafarians, studded with boutique hotels and luxury high-rise apartment buildings and more upscale bars and restaurants than you could hope to visit before they morph into new bars and restaurants. It’s especially happening on nights and weekends, as the hip and glamorous, and the people who want to be near them strut through the streets to the latest scene, gig, or meet and greet. In the mornings they do battle over taxi cabs or espressos to go – designer sunglasses shielding them from human contact or need for manners. They shake off the dust of the furious development going on around them – the transformation of the Lower East Side from a storied, historic place to the latest moneyed destination.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Lower East Side Blues

But there’s a strength in these streets, a survival instinct, and a spirit that speaks of decades – centuries – of struggle and history that will not be so easily glossed over, or trampled. Under the shadow of the crane and the wrecking ball, in the noise of the jackhammers and trucks, battlers and dreamers of the Lower East Side hold on to their homes, businesses, gardens, and lives in constant threat of dislocation.

I came here in 1984. It was a neighborhood where history lived in the streets and told its stories in the buildings that anchored them – the grand decaying synagogues and tenement houses, storefront temples now Spanish churches with a different congregation each day of the week. The Jewish merchants with pickle shops, or bialys and bagels baked to sell across the city. Orchard Street with fabric stores and hat shops, shopkeepers selling wigs, leather coats, and demure underthings. Clinton Street pounding with the salsa and merengue beats from the Latino music stores, and the restaurants and cuchifrito counters serving bacalao fritters and arroz con pollo and sweet dark café con leche.

The avenues from First to Third below Fourteenth Street were heavily Eastern European – storefronts housing Jewish hatmakers and tailors, butchers and bakers. Ukrainian bars with ancient barmaids, Polish diners fragrant with borscht and stuffed cabbage and open all night, and bakeries selling poppy-seed babka and sweet braided challah breads.

Just a few of these businesses have survived, some thriving and a few barely hanging on, as spiraling rents and a trendy designation have brought boutique hotels, designer stores and restaurants, Starbucks, and high-rise development to a formerly unpretentious and low-rise area.

My particular corner of the Lower East Side was the thrill of a neighborhood we call Alphabet City – the avenues A, B, C, and D christened, only half jokingly, Adventurous, Brave, Courageous, and Death. I moved here in the bad old days of drug wars and shootouts, junkies and crackheads, pitbull fights, and walking home with my money in my shoe and a key poking out of my fist in case I had to fight. These were also the glorious days of squatting and cheap rent, streets vivid with graffiti murals and artpolitik posters, Puerto Rican street parties, music pumping from cruising cars and speakers in apartment windows, art in abandoned buildings, hip-hop and punk rock, and after-hours clubs of all types hidden in the storefronts and basements of a neglected neighborhood. Across the street from what was a favorite club on Avenue B they are now selling $2 million condominiums. Three million on Seventh and D! For twenty years I have lived on Third Street between Courageous and Death, although the names have lost their sting.

We were spoiled. Here the streets that seemed abandoned and foreboding to most people were our land of opportunity – spaces to be had for a song and transformed into a home or a studio or a club.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Lower East Side Blues

My friends and I lived paint-spattered and plaster-dusted, hauling canvases and wood, tools and metals to loft work spaces or minuscule apartments, coloring the streets with spray paint and stencils, wheat-pasted posters, scrawled wisecracks. We found our furniture on the street. We saw or played in shows at A7, King Tut’s, the World, the Pyramid, and 8BC. After-hours we’d go dancing at Save the Robots, subterranean dance hall and den of iniquity, gathering house for every stripe of partygoer – black and white, gay and straight, punks, rastas, rockers, club kids and drag queens, Hells Angels and hustlers. Dancing until noon unless a police raid forced everyone out stumbling and blinking into the daylight.

After hours clubs were everywhere. Del Monte’s had go-go dancers on the bar and changing décor courtesy of local artists. The Nursery had a pool table, a Union Jack painted on the floor, and a jukebox that seemed to only play one song (“Ride the White Horse” – an ode to heroin). The Sin Club had graffitied walls and an old-style barber chair. Club 82 was a celebrity and wiseguy hellhole. Cave Canem, a former bathhouse, went overnight from gay pool parties to a casino with roulette wheels, blackjack tables, and bowtied croupiers.

Body Heat looked like Shaft’s living room. Brownie’s had a year-round Christmas tree, Brownie himself in fur coat and pimp hat and a girl on each arm, a “Check Your Weapons at the Bar” sign, and patrons obligingly handing over guns and daggers. We played hard and worked hard. We took over buildings. We were artists and activists, writers and musicians, poets, punks, and junkies.

I was one of the squatters, a loose coalition of a few hundred people who moved into many of the abandoned buildings of this devastated area, using found and recycled materials to repair roofs and raise floors, teaching each other plumbing and electrical skills and creating homes out of the neglect and rubble of the city’s cast-off housing stock. We held art shows and performances at Bullet Space, my building, which had a screen-printing shop and gallery and a stage in the backyard. We hosted bands, dancers, poets, fire-eaters, a guerrilla radio station, radical puppet shows, art installations with complex mechanical constructions or Haitian altarpieces. C-Squat threw punk-rock shows and built a half-pipe in the basement for skateboarders. Umbrella House had a printing press for artists, activists, and comic book writers. We had babies, this big crazy family.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Lower East Side Blues

Everybody helped each other. We’d have “dirt parties” to remove rubble, work days to raise the posts under sagging floors. I remember when a fire damaged our building. That day the house swarmed with other squatters and friends, people replacing support beams and installing recycled windows and cleaning up the blackened waterlogged mess. We had “eviction watch” phone trees and fought police evictions on the streets and the city in court to defend our homes. We eventually won the right to stay, eleven surviving buildings out of more than thirty squats in the early days.

There was such a sense of freedom and possibility. I had no curtains for fifteen years. My third-floor apartment looked out onto empty lots and abandoned buildings and our beloved All People’s Garden, dug out from rubble and garbage, planted with donated seeds and trees and fiercely run by Miss Olean For, octogenarian creator and protector of the garden. There were dozens of these gardens in the neighborhood. Some lots hosted casitas, little houses built by the Puerto Ricans to bring a little country to their city, a little shade in the summer. They were decorated for Halloween, for birthday parties, for Christmas. Ducks, chickens, and rabbits lived there. A rooster, crowing at the city dawn. Whatever we could imagine, it seemed, we could make happen.

Adam Purple, neighborhood icon with flowing white beard, built his glorious “Garden of Eden” in concentric circles on an abandoned lot on Forsythe Street, living a personal philosophy of recycling, using horse manure and his own “night soil.” The Rivington Street welders took over empty lots to make sculptures, giant constructions, and wood-burning stoves for the squats.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Lower East Side Blues

Most of these lots are gone. The East Village, like the rest of the city but at a more furious pace, has groaned under an onslaught of development – the demolitions and bulldozers, wrecking balls and piledrivers fueling construction of so many apartment buildings, the rents insanely high even by city standards. It is now more expensive to buy real estate in the East Village than on Madison Avenue. Three-, four-, and ten-story additions are going up on top of century-old buildings, a new rich modern village above the old. The beautiful red bricks of the old tenement houses are ripped out and replaced by prefab instant apartment buildings. Tiny dark spaces in theolder buildings are “renovated” and equally pricey. Huge chunks of Orchard and Ludlow streets, the low storefronts,were razed and boutique hotels are going up. There’s one already on Rivington Street, twenty-one stories, the bar floor all glass so patrons can gaze across the narrow street into the apartments of put-upon neighbors. High rises, so out of place in this neighborhood of five and six stories, are shooting up rapidly. The famous shopping blocks of Orchard Street now exist only on “Historic District” signposts. Everything is luxury. Longtime residents are forced out and away – to where? I have friends born in the neighborhood who can no longer afford to live here. They are building twenty-three stories high on the lot across from the hundred-year-old Katz’s Delicatessen. The tenement next door is shuddering and teetering as they dig a huge hole for the job.

We are fighters, veterans of many onslaughts – of politics, poverty, police – and we hold this neighborhood dear and close. We are the squatters, the artists, the Puerto Ricans, the grand old women of the gardens, the kids fighting for their church, the punks for their venues. The city is a safer place – but for whom? We pay the price of dislocation, jobs lost, the elimination of cheap housing.

Around Houston Street (pronounced “HOW-ston, or the cabbie may take you the long way around) are some survivors from the days when pushcart vendors worked the streets of this Jewish neighborhood. Katz’s Delicatessen, opened by Russian immigrants in 1888, is the epitome of a raucous, hearty, old-time deli, with neon and hand-lettered signs (“Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army”), cafeteria seating, and photographs of the presidents and celebrities who have eaten there. The sandwiches are aromatic monsters – pastrami or corned beef, turkey and kielbasa, hot dogs. The counter men are sweet and surly all at once, using silent expressions of supreme distaste to enforce the unwritten rules of the deli (mustard – never mayo – on your pastrami, sauerkraut solo on a dog) and then gifting the customers with slivers of meat to taste and pickles, sour and spicy. Sometimes there’s a saxophone player busking outside the front door.

On the next block, Sal Bartolomeo had been flipping pie dough and feeding the neighborhood kids out of the sweltering storefront of Rosario’s Pizza for thirty-seven years. Despite months of protests and petitions, Sal was evicted by a Ray’s Famous Pizza chain that bought the building. The big guy won. But – unlike most Lower East Side real estate stories – Sal found a new space one block away, bigger and affordable. His clientele followed and grew, along with his legend, and I no longer scowl at Ray’s. I know that a block away there are lines out the door for the best pizza and the sweetest pizza man on the Lower East Side. “Food, music, and love,” Sal says, “you can’t change the ingredients.” The little guy won too.

Nearby is Russ and Daughters smoked fish emporium. In 1914 Joel Russ, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, went from selling herring from a pushcart to a small shop at 179 East Houston. His three daughters, Hattie, Ida, and Anne, grew up working in the store, selling fish and pickles from barrels, and in 1940 the store was renamed to honor their partnership. Now Mark Russ Federman, his daughter Niki (her business card says “4th Generation”), and her cousin Josh Russ Tupper are working this pristine store, drawn, as Niki says, “to the importance of keeping a tradition alive when so much is changing, not just in this neighborhood but all over the city, everywhere.” In white coats they slice salmon from all over the world, and sell caviar, whitefish, sable, all the staples of the Jewish table – olives, beets, gefilte fish, herring, eggplant and potato salads, stuffed cabbage, breads, kugel, strudel, and dried fruits. It’s mobbed before any holiday, Jewish or otherwise – take a number, come back in an hour, maybe.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Lower East Side Blues

Yonah Shimmel’s Knishes opened in 1910 with a basement bakery and a rattling dumbwaiter that still brings up racks of dense potato cakes mixed with spinach, mushroom, broccoli, red cabbage. Shimmel’s also makes latkes, blintzes, and borscht. And it has been making yogurt from the same culture it started with almost a hundred years ago. It’s a direct link to our past, to the ancestors, those early strivers who long ago trod these streets and sat in this place. We touch history. (And eat it, too.)

Two blocks away is Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House, a cramped basement with an ancient accordion player or singing waiter, vodka bottles encased in blocks of ice melting on the tablecloths, huge slabs of meat, and splashes of schmaltz (from bottles on the table) poured over everything. My friend calls it “putting the heart in heart attack.”

There are some sympathetic reuses and renovations of buildings. The Angel Orensantz Center is housed in the oldest standing synagogue in the country. A grand 1849 building, with a stepped stage, balcony, and gorgeous glass and iron work, it was named for the sculptor who worked here and created a venue for art and music. The Vision avant-jazz festival is based here every year. People hold parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs – back to its roots.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Lower East Side Blues

Tonic, another jazz and experimental music club, went in where Shapiro’s kosher winery operated, and the basement bar kept the old wine tanks intact. Shapiro’s recently opened a store in the old Essex Street Market, around the corner, sweet wines from old recipes. Indie-rock Mercury Lounge (where I have worked as door bitch for years) was built in what used to be one of the area’s many headstone stores. It has a carved granite slab and pieces of the old tin ceiling set in the bar, and the square wooden columns at the entrance are the old gravestone carving supports.

The Sunshine Cinema, a new art house (true to the neighborhood’s heart), was built into an 1898 Yiddish vaudeville house later known as the Houston Hippodrome picture theater. It had been boarded up for fifty years, mainly serving as a canvas for local graffiti artists’ commentary (Mike Tyson bites an ear, Tupac Shakur is murdered, “We love you Mr. President” for Bill Clinton’s passing motorcade). A sympathetic restoration saved the ornate brick façade and kept window views of the world outside – the lanes of traffic, the bustling neighborhood, the playground and handball courts, peeks inside the tenement windows. (New Yorkers never seem to care for curtains.) The seats are comfy, midnight movies classic, and the coffee’s good. Still bloody ten dollars, though.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Lower East Side Blues

Many things are disappearing. While some of this history hangs on, some is forced away, some is taken out by the wrecking ball and earth movers. I am often staggered by both the resilience and the fragility of this storied neighborhood where peeled-away layers reveal pieces of the underlying history.

Losses and survivors, and ongoing battles. The huge Rivington Street Synagogue had no money to fix its roof, and had to be demolished. The famous East Village art venues are mostly gone, although Bullet Space, Tribes Gallery, and the Nuyorican Poets’ Café still exist on Third Street. Some of our community gardens were saved, some are still fighting developers. CBGBs, the most famous punk club in the world, faced a tripling of its rent and, after thirty years, closed in October. But the art space and punk venue ABC No Rio, after twenty-five years of art and activism and grassroots fund-raising, just won title to its building from the city. St Brigid’s Church, overlooking Tompkins Square Park, was built in 1848 by and for Irish immigrants in the days when the docks came up to Avenue B. As I write this, the demolition has begun, evicting its Spanish-speaking schoolchildren. Once-renegade graffiti crews reserve walls and paint advertisements for movies and cell phones. Police barricade Alphabet City streets during the Puerto Rican Day weekend to stop the flag-draped cars and trucks from driving their own neighborhood, eliminating the colorful convoys of PR pride. I used to watch my neighbors prepare for days, washing and waxing their vehicles by the hydrant under my window, affixing banners and decorations.

Victories, and small joys. After years of city hassles and being relegated to an asphalt strip on the west side, the annual drag festival Wigstock returned to Tompkins Square Park, big hair and big shoes come back where they belong. The Howl arts festival, named for Allen Ginsberg’s poem, raucously brings art and music into the parks and streets. And in the spirit of the speakeasy and the after hours, there’s a club hidden behind a nondescript doorway on Avenue C, no sign, and on any given night you’ll find DJs, gypsy violinists, Moroccan drummers, South American singers, Jamaican dub stars, and New York jazzmen, all ages, playing together. Projections and art are on the walls, and everyone in there is dancing.

Over by the Bowery, at Houston Street, are two massive new constructions – luxury apartments, of course. The south side building was an empty lot for years, unused, but I will miss the sixty-foot-high arrangements of Christmas lights draped every year across the whole side of the tenement house next door, now disappeared from view.

Its twin development on the north side took a greater toll. It came in the wake of the demolition of 295 Bowery, an old tenement building that, in the 1800s, was the site of the notorious McGuirk’s Suicide Hall, the wildest bar on a street of ill repute, the cheapest drink for the poorest customers, who paid a penny for swill and where, legend has it, prostitutes at the end of their hope would come to drink poison and end their dreadful lives. A sad, powerful place. By chance I passed by as the demolition happened, a huge claw tearing out the walls, exposing her insides, finally dropping this grand old building as ghosts swirled in the dust.

In this dust, in the shadow of the new massive 295, is the Liz Christie Garden, the first community garden in New York City, created from a tiny empty lot when gardeners threw seeds over the fence. It grew into a lush retreat full of vines and fruit trees, irises and daffodils and tulips in the spring, roses and ferns and turtles in a pond. Every child who grew up in the neighborhood knew those turtles. The garden was slated for demolition for the new construction, but the gardeners were fighters, and their neighbors too, and their kids, and in the end the developers left the garden alone. The turtles were taken out, for safekeeping, but they’ll be back – Lower East Side survivors.

And there’s a dark figure painted on the wall in a corner of one construction site. It’s a small remnant of the art scene that used the East Village streets as a canvas in the 1980s, and it won’t be visible for much longer. It’s a life-size “shadow figure” by Richard Hambleton, one of the artists who lived and worked out of an art space in a converted gas station called 2B that was fenced with the metal sculptural madness of the Rivington Street welders, fifteen feet high and topped with the chassis of an old car. Hambleton told how some local guys once wanted to steal a car in the lot, but were foiled by the guard they thought they saw standing by. The next day they realized they had been hiding from his painted figure and furiously cursed him out. I’m gonna miss that guy on the wall. Made me laugh every time.DESIGNER/builder Magazine

This article was made possible in part by the DESIGNER/builder Writer’s Project, through a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.