Friday, February 09, 2007

Alphabet City

When I was growing up, the East Village was known as Alphabet City. In those days the Bowery still had Bowery bums, and the residential hotels and dive bars that catered to them. (My favorite of which was called "Hank's Crystal Palace" -- constanly filled with guys that came in and threw piles of change on the bar to get their alchohol fix. It wouldn't be uncommon for one of these gentlemen to nod off and fall right off their bar stool. At this no one would bat an eye or go to help the poor soul either, as I guess it was par for the course.)

The first time I ventured past 3rd Avenue/Bowery and into what was then the heart of Alphabet City, Tompkins Square Park, I felt like a rebel. Today that sounds ridiculous, but Alphabet City was once a much more dangerous (and interesting) place. Avenue A was really bohemian, a lot of artists and poets and punk rockers. Tompkins Square was the social center of a punk rock and anarchist movement and housed a shantytown filled with homeless people. Once you ventured past Tompkins Square you really were in the ghetto. The city let this entire neighborhood -- from Avenue A to Avenue D completely disintegrate. Most buildings were barely standing. It looked like, and to some extent was, a war zone. I found these pictures to illustrate my point. It's hard to equate these images to the Alphabet City of today, but this is what it was when I was growing up, and when I first lived there:

I also found this amazing picture on Flickr. Most buildings in Alphabet City back were surrounded by lots with leftover demolition, burned out cars, ripped up furniture, etc. This proves the point:

When I was in high school I spent a lot of my time in this area. I went to the matinees at CBGB which were hardcore, occasionally ska and filled with young angry youth (so much so that they eventually cancelled them permanently due to the excessive figthing that took place). There were also a lot of local bands that were famous in punk rock circles: Nausea, Reagan Youth, the Casualties. They did a lot of shows at the Tompkins Square Bandshell and in squats. Things eventually moved over to ABC No Rio, a punk rock collective that still exists today on Rivington Street.

Most of the buildings between Avenue B and Avenue D were not legally livable so the young punk runaways/artists/anarchists took them over and lived in them. I spent a lot of time in burned out buildings in my teen years as a result. It was pretty dangerous -- the buildings were not secure and back then there was a lot of crime in the area -- it was a huge drug neighborhood at the time and well into the 90s. Also, the buildings were literally falling apart, alot of them had no windows, missing floors, no ceilings, were filled with rats. There were a few that were well known as shooting galleries which we steered clear of. Some people put incredible effort into their spaces, and they ended up being pretty nice. Most squatters figtured out ways to steal electricity from street lamps, so they had lights and a few even had heat. Suffice it to say it was a pretty different place then it is today.

One of the squats was called Lucky 13, and I remember going to shows there. The shows were held in the basement with jerry-rigged lightbulbs and electricity for amps etc. A bunch of 16-21 year olds squeezed into a basement of an illegal squat with illegal electricity -- it's a wonder we all didn't die in some kind of horrible inferno. There were also shows at Charas Hall which up until not too long ago was a community center. I got into a fight with a Puerto Rican dude outside one of those shows and we ended up chasing the guy down the street. I got into a lot of trouble for this at the time, as there was an uneasy truce between the punk rock kids and the large Puerto Rican community that inhabited the area. It's hard to imagine how disenfranchised people felt back then, but the city had simply completely abandoned large areas of the city including the South Bronx and the Lower East Side, and there was a really high level of poverty and crime, and with it a lot of anger and resentment that came with it.

My first apartment was on Avenue B and was really dicey. The first day in my apartment I came home to find crow bar marks on my door signifying someone's attempt at a break-in. There was a heroin "store" around the corner: Back then there was a huge heroin trade in the area, and they had a pretty orderly system--they would take over a store front or a garage or something and then people would show up, get in line, go in, buy, shoot and then stumble down the street until they passed out. Many times I would find junkies in the hallway of my building with needles still in their arms. That building at the time housed young musicians, and everyone not only lived in their apartments, but rehearsed there as well. At any given moment you could hear the sounds of wailing guitars and crashing drums. Todd from Murphy's Law lived there, the Clowns for Progress were right next door. (Johnny T. who is now Ryan Adams drummer was there at the time). My friend Roy who was in Nausea crashed there for a while (he went on to play with Ozzy and Dave Navarro). I feel a lot of buildings back then were like that: The area sucked so the only people that wanted to live in them were the young artists who all already knew each other. There was a real sense of community back then which had a lot to do with your day to day health and survival. Of course, we didn't see it that way then. At the time, we were just having fun.


Blogger Will Hines said...

This blog is blowing my mind. I love it.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Geth said...

holy shit dude.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Rachael Mason said...

Thanks guys! It really means a lot that you guys like it, especiallly since you are such great writers and storytellers yourselves. Stay tuned, more to come....

2:38 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

My dad's family has been in this neighborhood for over 100 years; my grandmother, who's 90, was born on First Avenue. I live within blocks of most of my relatives who grew up here. My great grandma lived on 7th between B and C when it was awful (she was mugged, robbed), and I remember my dad rolling passed out homeless guys off her stoop at her 'new' place on 9th and A.

Do you remember a bar called Alcatraz? St Marks & A? My cousin was a bouncer there, so I always got drinks.

Sorry for the long comment, but I remember this stuff happening, and how the neighborhood looked.

great stuff!

7:52 PM  
Blogger Rachael Mason said...

Hey Michelle--
Alcatraz! Yes, I hung out there many many times...I knew the bouncer James who would let me in even though I was clearly 17.

4:16 PM  
Blogger ak said...

oh - hank's crystal palace.

i'm fairly certain my boss used to own that joint. i'm also fairly certain that my job occasionally resembles what you've described hank's crystal palace as being...granted not all the time but there are those moments....funfun.

12:26 PM  
Blogger CrazyMeow said...

OMG OMG, James? Alcatraz??
I just can't believe that I heard these names again! I used to go there every weekend, sometimes more than that. I was living less than a block away from there...good ol' days...

10:42 PM  
Blogger jack said...

My family is from the lower east side.My great grandparents lived at the bottom of Essex Street near East Broadway.I grew up on Grand St by the east river.Went to PS 110 next to the Williamsburg Bridge and graduated from Seward Park HS on Grand at Ludlow.That was in 1972.
I'm 55.
Too many stories to tell here.
I've seen all the changes in the EV since it was first called the "East Village".That was when the hippies arrived in '66.And yeah,it was a term dreamt up by realtors of course.Trying to tie the neighborhood to the much more expensive Greenwich Village.
Until the 1990's the EV was a glorious mess.So much of what occured was just improvised from the rubble and neglect.A gig?
"The Fort" A PA set up between burned out buildings and a trash can full of beer.A home?
Or share a place and split the 250 dollar rent.Best of all the squares were afraid to set foot east of 1st ave.It was our invisable shield.
It's all gone now.Even if the neighborhood somehow fell apart again [which I would wholeheartedly welcome] it wouldn't bring back the past.The people who made the EV such a bizarre and wonderful stew are gone and this generation is just dull.Most of those who come in search of what once was are just looking to recreate the past rather than create something new.
But,damn,it was a blazing fireball of fun in it's time.And it lasted for 25 years,a much longer run than most "notorius" neighborhoods enjoy before fading out.The Haight only lasted for two years.
So I raise my glass to what once was and will be grateful until death I was there.
And crazy enough to participate.

3:34 AM  
Blogger First said...

awesome post, i just stumbled upon your blog from a google search. i have never been to NYC but have this intoxication/romanticizrion with urban decay (im from a ghetto in Pittsburgh [yup we have em, but no this bad, and live now in oakland ca which is scary]) and really enjoy reading this 1st hand experience, thank you a lot.

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7:33 AM  
Blogger tornandfrayed said...

this is from Torn and Frayed--Alcatraz was my place, and then wawa hut. I remember one day we were on bleeker st coming from the scrap bar and this limo goes by and my drummer and best friend frankie goes up to the limo and this shit band was in there tesla. At least not my kind of music and they wanted coke so we got in and I took them up to washington hieghts scored some coke and then said lets go to alcatraz, so the limo pulled up right in front and I got out and all the punks outside alcatraz started whipping bottles at the limo when I told them who was in their. Funny story they took off. The whole night I was telling them how I hate their music and that I should be in their place, and I also wouldn't beleive them that it was tesla. So I woke up about 12 noon put on mtv and that song that cover their famous for came on (signs) and I'm like holy shit it really was them. ahhhhh the good ole days. I remember copping hits like a 15 on 15 every other day and just going crazy in that bar now there are only pictures of us with the cycle sluts who were bartending at the time does anyone remember the cycle sluts from hell, Daniel Rakowitz was still hanging across the street with a rooster on his shoulder before he got busted for make head soup wackadoo, two boots pizza witch is still there great pizza, essex st , ludlow, rivington I was getting fucked up all over their..I loved that place at that time , st. Marks bar and grill, St. Marks Place, Tompkins Sqaure Park, Washington Square Park nothing is the same..........

7:21 AM  

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