Friday, October 30, 2015

St. Marks is Dead

Whenever I would come to visit New York as a teenager or college student, a visit to St. Marks Place was always on my list. I had no good reason why, usually; no specific place I wanted to go or thing I wanted to see, but I knew the street was important. I've written before about my longstanding love affair with punk, and I knew St. Marks was one of the streets the punks frequented--I think part of me just always wanted to tread the same ground as they did, to feel the pulse of creative dissonance running under my feet as they had felt it.

To the uninitiated, St. Marks Place is in the East Village, between 3rd Avenue and Avenue A, in Manhattan; it is technically "8th Street" but nobody in their right mind calls it that (unless you are my friend Dan who is visiting from Boston and when he said it I think I visibly winced in pain). It has, as author Ada Calhoun points out in her new book St. Marks is Dead which comes out November 2 from W. W. Norton, often been a cultural hub of the neighborhood if not also lower Manhattan and even Manhattan in general. In this cultural history, Calhoun shows us the constantly changing lives of the street, the births and deaths of each experience of living there even before the street itself existed. St. Marks, one sees after reading her book, is always dying because it is always being born again.

People who lived on the street know the magic of it, too. In fact, one time I was reading the book on the train a woman peered over my shoulder. She had a grey pixie cut, gold glasses, a brown trench coat, skinny jeans and ballet flats and said to me in a German accent, "St. Marks! You know I used to live there! I should read that book." Calhoun writes in the book that for some people St. Marks is a place you live at a certain time in your life, either your best or your worst, and once you leave you don't return for fear of either not living up to those memories or having to relive them. This woman's experience seemed to be positive, though, and I of course recommended the book to her.

The book is one close to Calhoun's heart, one imagines, because she herself is from the street. She was raised there in the 1970s, often considered one of the most dangerous times to be living in the city in the last 50 years. While she shares some of her experiences of these moments in the book, she is still an appreciative narrator, one who inspires further adoration of St. Marks and its history in the reader, especially this reader, who is a raging postmodern history nerd at her core.

Calhoun narrates the history of the street through vignette-like stories she's uncovered, almost like buried treasure or precious jewels, from what is undoubtedly years of intense (and probably fascinating to conduct! I was jealous of all of the documents she was likely able to read and people she was able to talk to to tell each story) research. Through the tales she shares of everything from German boating tragedies to anarchist crust-punks, she reveals the ever-evolving lives of the street she calls America's Hippest. She writes in such an engaging manner that every era of history she covers, from the disrupted lives of the Native American Lenape tribe who populated the area in the 1600s to the bustling "Little Tokyo" as the street is now known, is equally enchanting. While I don't consider myself a revolutionary history buff, I was on the edge of my seat, nose buried in the middle of the book on the 6 train downtown, as Calhoun narrated to me the growth and decline of Peter Stuyvesant's empire.

What's also wonderful about St. Marks is Dead is that the snippets of history Calhoun chooses to share connect to a person's general knowledge of American culture or history, almost filling in the gaps and allowing one to experience "a-ha!" or "lightbulb" moments while one is on public transit, smiling and nodding to oneself, "I see what you did there! Look at you!" One moment in particular for me was when she writes about the Beastie Boys hanging out on St. Marks at Tish and Snooky's Manic Panic, one of the original punk stores on the street. Like, oh, casual, this group of kids idolizing these punk chicks on the street before they became a legendary punk/rap crew. The book is full of moments like these, of the famous and infamous casually spending their time on St. Marks simply because that's where the cool people were and that's why they wanted to be there.

Something else I loved was seeing some of the places or figures from the latter end of the century are still around, like "Mosaic Man" Jim Power whose mosaics still line the streets in the East Village and have for decades, or Gem Spa, the ages-old bodega/egg creamery which Calhoun notes was actually the background of photo on a New York Dolls album (I'm ashamed I didn't know that myself!). And then there are those I got to see before they closed/were removed/became something else, like the black cube sculpture Alamo at the corner of 4th Avenue, Kim's Video, Yaffa Cafe.

Even in the short time I've lived here in New York I've seen St. Marks change. I've seen noodle houses exchanged for new, trendy bars and my favorite, independently-owned frozen yogurt shop go the way of the wind; I signed the petition for St. Marks Bookshop to keep its lease, though it eventually moved instead of just closing; I've eaten at Korean dessert shops that just opened new locations and drunk half-price cocktails at a Thai restaurant that has since closed due to health violations. Like every New Yorker, I have a vision of the street in my head as I walk down it; I can picture where so many of the places Calhoun mentions are or once were. It's difficult to feel like you're a part of New York's history--the city is so big, filled with so many people who are doing amazing and interesting things--but then you see in histories like Ada Calhoun's St. Marks is Dead things that you too have experienced along with so many others, and it makes you feel like you matter, like you're not just another notch on New York's proverbial bedpost.

If you want to learn more about New York and about American culture, then this book is definitely for you. But then, of course, so is a walk down St. Marks.

You can also come see Ada Calhoun read at the December Miss Manhattan Non-Fiction Reading on Monday, December 7! Stay tuned for more information.