August 4, 2021

Counterculture in New York: A Virtual Walk Through the History of the East Village

In 1975, New York faced one of the deepest economic crises in its history. Poor administration by the authorities and cuts in the fiscal budget caused the crime rate in “serious crimes” to rise 13% during the term of Democrat Abraham Beame between 1976 and 1977, according to The New York Times. in its edition of March 5 of that last year. On the other hand, the newspaper stated that unemployment reached 10.9% at the state level.

Such a state of decadence led to it being nicknamed “the city of terror” and, even, visitors received brochures at the airport, which had recommendations to survive the Big Apple.

1975 New York pamphlet, published in The Guardian.

That scenario led middle-class families, who previously lived in the East Village, to leave the neighborhood for security reasons and rent their apartments at affordable prices. The result was that various groups of young people came to the neighborhood; among them, artists who wanted to live off their works, but lacked the resources to sustain themselves in other spaces in New York.

Thus, the East Village became a Mecca for the American counterculture.

While it was in the second half of the 1970s that the East Village welcomed a massive number of new residents, the sector had already hosted authors for a decade earlier. The well-known St. Mark’s Place is the stretch of 8th Street that runs from 6th to 3rd avenue, which is named for its proximity to St. Mark’s Church, built in 1799.

Photography of St. Mark’s Place, published by The New York Times

This space gained fundamental relevance in the development of the beat generation. Poets such as WH Auden, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs frequented the cafes and art galleries in the area, while Allen Ginsberg was a regular customer of the Gem Spa, a place that offered sweets, cigarettes and where the poet bought egg creams. that they sold back then. That place is still operational in the East Village.

Photograph of Gem Spa, published in The New York Times

In 1956, The Five Spot was founded in Cooper Square, and then moved to Bowey in 1962. This jazz club received musicians of different variants of the genre, as well as avant-garde artists and writers who attended the shows.

Photograph of John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Tholonious Monk and Amel Abdul-Malik in concert at The Five Spot; published in The Jazz Times.

Drummers like Elvin Jones, pianist Blossom Dearie, and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley frequented the venue, while names like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Thelonious Monk, performed inside.

Charles Mingus and his band in The Five Spot, photograph taken by Fred. W. McDarrah and published in Village Preservation

Although the cafe closed in 1976, because its owners could not renew the cabaret license; the last mentioned jazz player managed to record two albums live from there, which are titled Thelonious in Action (1958) and Mysterious (1958).

Over time, the arrival of new artists and the fusion between emerging cultures developed diversity in meeting spaces. Between 1967 and September 1971, he operated the disco Electric Circus with the phrase “play, dress as you want, dance, sit, think, tune in and turn on.”

Photograph taken by Christian Montone and published in The Bowery Boys

That place was known for its large number of lights and for hosting independent theater companies, as well as psychedelic and experimental bands; among them were The Velvet Underground, the Grateful Dead and the minimalist composer Terry Riley.

One of the genres that gained more relevance within the East Village was punk. CBGB & OMFUG was inaugurated in 1973 as a club that, in its origins, received country, blues and bluegrass musicians (hence its initials), but little by little it became one of the key points for the development of punk culture and new wave in the United States.

CBGB in 1983; photograph taken by Jack Vartoogian and published in Louder

Names like Blondie, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Television, Bad Brains, Sonic Youth, Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Talking Heads and The Runaways performed at the venue, while British groups such as The Police also performed at the venue. Likewise, artist Andy Warhol was known for frequenting events.

Finally, it was closed in 2006, due to the financial debts that the owners had.

Photograph of CBGB after being closed; posted on the radio site WQXR

But New York punk culture was not only reduced to music, but also manifested itself in the field of fashion. Manic Panic was the name of one of the most iconic boutiques in The Big Apple, which was founded in 1977 by sisters Tish and Snooky Bellomo. This was characterized by selling stiletto pants, leather gloves, hair extensions and makeup of extravagant colors.

Photograph of the Bellomo sisters inside Manic Panic; published in Atlas Obscura

His clients included names like Debbie Harry, Cindy Lauper, Joey Ramone and David Bowie, who according to an article in The New York Times, lived in the 285 Lafayette Street building.

Façade of Lafayette 285, the building where David Bowie lived in New York; photograph published in Street Easy

From 1978 to 1983, Club 57 in the East Village was the meeting place for various artists of pop culture and graffiti. Exponents such as Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf presented their works in the nightclub, while they also dabbled in performance art.

Keith Haring during a performance at Club 57 during 1980; photograph taken by Joseph Szkodzinski and published in Hero Magazine

Although the commercial success of some of them caused them to migrate to more affluent neighborhoods, galleries such as The Fun Gallery emerged to position themselves as centers dedicated to the exhibition of graffiti; a discipline that previously shared – in the background – its exhibition spaces.

The Fun Gallery in 1983; photograph of Patti Astor, published in People Magazine

This was founded in 1981 by a group of artists, among whom was the performer Patti Astor. At first, she was familiar with the punk scene, but little by little she became involved in the emergence of hip hop culture, in which the spray technique takes on a leading role. While The Fun only operated for four years in the East Village, this was a pivotal space for artists like Jean Michel Basquiat.

The explosion of various artistic disciplines on the streets of the New York neighborhood brought with it the inclusion of different identities and sexual preferences. A key space in this area was the Pyramid Club, which was founded in 1979 at 101 Avenue A.

Lady Bunny and RuPaul at the Piramyd Club during 1987. Photograph captured by Out and published in Village Preservation

The space, which is still operational, is characterized by receiving people from the LGBTIQ + community at its parties and for having promoted drag presentations. Visitors have included Madonna, Keith Harring, Basquiat and Cindi Lauper; While according to their official website, both Nirvana and Red Hot Chilli Peppers played their first concerts in New York inside their space.

The Pyramid Club; Photograph by Sally Davies and published in Village Preservation

Today the Pyramid is known for its parties with an eighties atmosphere, in which New Wave, Synth Pop, gothic, punk and alternative music abound.