Pamela Harris

The East Village July 5, 2015

I miss seeing the old punks around.

Up until maybe five years ago, I could walk through the East Village and see some elder wreck coming up the street, hair akimbo, make-up a mess. I loved it, since they were often the original squatters, the souls living in rotting apartments who brought an organized lawlessness to the East Village back when you could still be lawless in New York City.

That's when I came to NYC, in the '80s, when the East Village had a punk music and heroin and an established personality. Walking near Avenue A to get my hair cut back then I'd pass broken buildings with fronts covered in plywood. Junkies and crackheads would slip in and out from behind the plywood, which meant a shooting gallery or cop spot was back there.

At night I'd head east to visit friends, to see music or art, to find trouble, and I'd pass Keith Haring graffiti mixed with 'Die Yuppie Scum.' Galleries would open on blocks that were totally blown out, wastelands of broken glass, dead couches, an occasional torched car. Openings would be packed, people in the streets all through the night, the same faces showing up for whatever art thing was going on night after night.

The first apartment I ever looked at was a little south of there, just below East Houston Street. I got chased north by a crackhead with a machete. A homeless woman spit in my face on Avenue C. I didn't want to live in the East Village.

Then, like slow motion, Christodora House, on Avenue B near Thompson Square Park, was converted to high-end residential living. The Thompson Square Park riots came. Gentrification became real.

For a few months in the mid-90s I lived on First Street near Avenue A. Though east of me wasn't the safest place at night, change was coming swiftly from the west. Mostly in the form of bulldozers, since everything that surrounded me there is now gone.

I've almost always lived downtown and west, in places zoned more for commercial than residential. Once in a while I'll see a few old punks over here, maybe Patti Smith, maybe a Talking Head or two. My favorite is a tall, gaunt man, 60-ish, always in a black suit with a blue button-down shirt. He wears pancake make-up that's perfectly applied and has the face of a saint framed by long dark hair. He's quite stooped and now uses a cane, and he looks right out of an Edward Gorey cartoon. My heart always warms when I see him coming.

Change is inevitable and when it's from within it always takes me to a better place. I don't know what's next for this city given how now one neighborhood blends into the next with a bank on every corner, a chain restaurant mid-block and a new high rise residential complex that no one seems to live in. I'm glad I got to experience NYC as where you had to be if you wanted to do anything creative.

There is one change happening that's a throwback with a twist: when Joe takes Ginger out in the middle of the night they walk past a park in Soho. In it, nodding on benches are clean cut 20-something white men who, in the '80s, you'd say look like yuppies. Junkies? Homeless? Evicted from Christodora House?


Brings back many memories. In the 70's and 80's, spent many wondrous days walking the grimy, beautiful streets in the Village.
I've had an apartment near the U N for over 35 years. Just sold it last year.

paul murphy | July 13, 2015 at 08:32 am

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