I had a day off one day last week and spent the day doing what I love, but rarely get to do anymore – walk around the city by myself for hours. No kids, no family, no friends. Maybe it’s because the big birthday is coming up, but I’ve been thinking and reflecting a lot about stuff that I’ve done in my life, the past, the city and other places I’ve lived.
It’s really interesting to have this blog document the last 2 years of our lives. Maybe in 10 years if the site is still up or archived somewhere, I’ll laugh, cringe or roll my eyes at some of the stuff I’ve written. The only other time I had a journal of any kind was in the mid-nineties when I was living in Olympia and Portland after having fled early 90s NYC, but I have no written record, a single photo or anything to remember the years right before that were, perhaps, the most interesting years of my life. They just live in my head. Lately, however, I’ve been feeling compelled to start writing these stories down, maybe in bits and pieces here. Those memories are just an impression at best, but I don’t want to forget things even more. It’s funny how opposite life is now, where everything is blogged about, photographed, uploaded, backed up, facebooked, tweeted, emailed and bookmarked.
Big milestone birthday aside, walking around the city reminds me that I feel lucky to have lived here and witnessed so many decades, eras and transformations of the city. Growing up in Queens, my friends and I would take the subway into Manhattan as soon as our parents let us venture out alone, back when we were in high school in the 80s. We’d shop the shoe stores up and down 8th street looking for creepers, sometimes with fake fur, or really pointy, shiny, patent leather black shoes (roach killers as we called them). We’d buy vintage shirts, dresses and granny sweaters all up along Broadway between 8th Street and Canal. If you’re of this era then you’ll remember these shops by name: Unique Clothing, Antique Boutique, Zoot, Canal Jeans, Andy’s Cheepees, Cheap Jack’s. At 16 we thought we were so cool with our black dyed, Robert Smith-inspired hair cuts, Doc Martens, buttoned up collared shirts over red plaid skirts and under black leather jackets. We thought we fit in. In reality, we were just kids from Queens spending the day in the Village trying not to look like kids from Queens. We’d fantasize about living there, going to art school, drinking coffee, not having to cross the river on a train at the end of the day.
A few years later, we did just that.
I’m grateful to be old enough to have memories of what NYC was like in the late 80s when the East Village was still gritty, vibrant and full of tension. It opened my eyes. I was far more interested in what was going on out there in the world and in the streets around me than going to art school in the East Village. The art became secondary, but my whole world changed when I moved out on my own. After less than a year of living in Chinatown with a high school friend, I moved on to a shitty studio apartment on St. Mark’s and Avenue A, 4 blocks from school and right at the top of Tompkins Square Park. This was after the Tompkins Square Riots and the East Village was still tense.
Alphabet City was considered sketchy back then and we didn’t walk past Avenue C too often. Too many drug pushers, skinheads, addicts and homeless people. Not all the skinheads were scary though and I knew a few, but I mostly hung out with a group of vegan punks, anarchists, and hippies. Some went to my school and some just lived in the neighborhood. During this time, I also met a few squatters who lived in abandoned buildings that were established squats and had names like Umbrella House and C Squat. I’ve been in these buildings and it was amazing to see how they were inhabited and made into homes from the crummiest of conditions. I remember whole floors and ceilings being gone while sleeping bags and other belongings marked off territories, often a few feet away from these gaping holes, and encountering broken stairs as you were trying to make the climb. And cats. I remember there were a lot of cats in those buildings. But I couldn’t tell you where these squats are. I don’t remember (actually, I just found this article and another one here that might be an interesting read if you’re curious about the squats from the 80’s and what happened to them in subsequent years. Many are still around).
Now, of course, there are condos, boutiques and restaurants and people in suits walking to the train headed to work. The East Village and the Lower East Side are nothing like they used to be. I hardly recognize it when I’m back in the neighborhood. It feels really weird to walk around with all these memories of what used to be, the struggles that the neighborhood represented, to have witnessed part of that era and to see how gentrification has taken over.
But I’m not trying to fool anyone. Even though I lived right in the thick of things and hung out and knew a lot of people, I might have still felt like a kid from Queens some of the time. Cooper Union was free tuition, but my parents still paid my way through college. I wasn’t homeless or a drug addict or a squatter or an anarchist. I wasn’t even a struggling artist (well, I was struggling, but not in that way). Maybe that made me a poseur. Maybe some of my friends were too. Or maybe we were still just kids trying to figure life out after just having left our homes. We went to school (mostly) and had families in the city and childhood homes to go back to on the occasional weekends. We didn’t feel like poseurs though. I don’t think we were. Just part of the many cast of characters that made up that East Village scene in the late 80s.
This was 20 years ago. Geez, we were all so young.