lower east side 1981 photo by Brian Rose
Nobody sat me down and said, Go East Young Man, while I was apartment searching for the first time. Frankly, I had no idea where I was going or what I was getting into, or I wouldn’t have gone. Not so soon, anyway. Negotiating the area around the alphabet avenues – A, B, C, D between 14th and Houston Streets — was no joke. I learned the hard way: all that time-honored guff I’d bought into about living in a bohemian garrote suddenly stunk like bullshit. This was a ghetto.
I read “East Village” in the apartment for rent ad and assumed this signaled a geographical and spiritual connection to Greenwich Village, the famed bohemian quarter I’d visited a couple times as a tourist during college breaks. My grasp of the terrain was tenuous enough that I didn’t realize how far east “The Village” extended, way past the historic McSorely’s Ale House and the baroque subway station at Astor Place. Geographically, and spiritually, the East Village was another neighborhood if not another world.
Naturally, as a cultured young person, I’d already made the pilgrimage to CBGB on the eastern periphery. The grungy punk bar was a well-lit oasis on the Bowery amid the sleazy hotels, storefront Jesus missions and restaurant supply stores with hulking old stoves left out on the sidewalk. Here the squalor was contained. The Bowery bums of legend were definitely still around, just not stumbling into the club (too often).
Indeed it was the deluge of fresh, outrageous music coming out of New York in the mid 70s – punk rock, new wave — that triggered my fascination with the city itself. Just reading the names of all those bands playing CBGB and Max’s was so exotic, so exciting in those heady days of discovery: Theoretical Girls on the same bill with Sick Dick & the Volkswagens! In late 1977 I subscribed to The Village Voice in order to keep up with the scene. Pretty soon I was devouring the entire newspaper every week: the sharp-shooting columnists and critics, the zealous investigative reporting and most important, the weirdly mesmerizing features, where more often than not the writer became part of the story.
Even the advertising in back was a constant source of wonder. Next to the club and concert notices, there existed a nether region: page after page of in-your-face ads for pornographic movies, massage parlors, escort services. The Voice also boasted a hefty and slightly more conventional classified ad section. Next to the infamous personals was column after column of apartment listings. Upon arriving in the city, the Voice classifieds were, naturally, the first place I turned to look for housing. I felt somewhat confident, now that I was reasonably assured of a job at a business magazine. With only a few days left on my hotel room, obviously I also needed to move soon. The only Manhattan apartments in my price range — $200 max – seemed to be in the East Village. Armed with a roll of dimes, I commandeered a phone booth in the lobby and started dialing. Out of dozens of calls, two struck pay dirt.
Pitt Street, the youthful-sounding woman on the phone explained before I asked, was the continuation of Avenue D south of Houston St. I felt relieved at this evidence of Pitt Street’s obscurity: apparently other people hadn’t heard of it either. “Eve” blandly described both the apartment overall and the vacant bedroom in particular as being small; she shared the larger bedroom with her husband. We arranged a meeting the next day.
Feeling edgy, I also hedged my bets with a long shot at an actual lease, inquiring about a one-bedroom apartment for rent on 5th Street east of Avenue B. An unfamiliarly accented voice on the line gruffly scheduled a tour for the next afternoon, conveniently timed right after my Pitt Street interview at noon. “Yus’ buzz thee super,” he said before abruptly hanging up. After awhile, I realized he meant ring the superintendent’s doorbell.
Turn left on Houston Street when you get off the subway, Eve said with a rehearsed chuckle, and keep going till you hit Pitt.
Houston I vaguely knew as the east-west artery that bisected the Village and the lower depths of downtown. To the immediate south lurked Soho’s cast-iron corridors, the old country bustle of Little Italy and Chinatown, and nearer the river, the Lower East Side proper, where narrow side streets lined with ancient tenements huddled beside the block-long housing projects. My East Village odyssey began as a stroll along the southern outskirts of Greenwich Village: an Italian neighborhood, with a huge Catholic church and many small restaurants, old row houses alternating with modest modern apartment buildings, clumps of medieval elderly people and shrieking kids crowding a “park” of concrete and benches. Despite the proximity of cross town traffic and its attendant exhaust fumes, olfactory evidence of pizza and bakeries in the vicinity was everywhere: more nauseating than appetizing, but perhaps I was nervous. Heading due east, the dorms and lecture halls of New York University soon occupied the north side of my vision, almost campus-like. So far, so scenic.
Passing Broadway and that rarest of sights in Manhattan, a gas station, I was engulfed by a stunningly different vista to the east. Reaching Third Avenue a few minutes later felt like entering an alternate universe, at least to my naïve imagination. I had crossed over into an apocalyptic sci-fi landscape that could’ve been dreamed up by my then-favorite authors Philip K Dick and J.G. Ballard. Everything — buildings, sidewalk, street, cars and trucks, even my fellow pedestrians — looked older and neglected, if not flat-out damaged by the passage of time, and definitely dirtier than the rest of the city, if that was possible. Layers of indecipherable graffiti and grime covered every exposed surface. Tumbleweeds of windblown trash bounced on the streets. An alarming number of parked cars appeared to be abandoned. Every third or fourth building sported broken windows and barricaded doors.
The distance between avenues seemed to shorten as the numbers on the street signs turned into letters; the buildings got smaller, narrower, more residential than business. Here the ubiquitous corner grocery stores or delis all displayed the same yellow awnings with red-lettered bilingual signs. Bodega. Crossing over to the south side of Houston, my path traced the perimeter of a two block-long park. Ten yards away, a cluster of lost souls shivered on a pair of benches, despite the fact it was unseasonably warm. Three big Latin dudes in ski parkas and sweat pants stood facing the benches and before I could avert my gaze, the biggest one turned and fixed me in his: WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LOOKING AT…
When I turned around two breathless blocks later, the coast was clear. Nobody had followed me, but the sidewalk was teeming with people – for the first time I really understood that hoary old expression. Hot and flushed from speed-walking, I slowed down as much as possible without stopping. Another concrete park loomed up on the next block, and I glimpsed a vast empty swimming pool, complete with lifeguard chairs, lying behind the rusted fence. As predicted, the street sign above read Pitt Street so I made a right turn. In the middle of the block sat my destination: a decrepit brick building, shuffled into a deck of near-identical structures, each one hastily painted in muddy shades of brown. As instructed, I had telephoned Eve from a pay phone on Houston and she met me at the front door. She looked even younger than I’d imagined, too young to have a husband. Short and pixie-like, with streaks of black in her bottle-blonde hair, Eve confidently padded up the warped staircase like a mountain-climbing guide. The incline made me feel light-headed.
When we got to the apartment on the fifth floor there wasn’t a whole lot to see. The long narrow living room opened into the kitchen area where a greasy white refrigerator and range shared space with a bathtub. I was shown the windowless bedroom for rent – more like a storeroom or closet – in a manner of seconds.
We sat in the living room for a few semi-excruciating minutes, I stared at undecorated walls and dusty, half-full shelves while Eve bluntly apprised me of the dangers of the neighborhood. But I’d decided against the place before she told me there’d been two break-ins just in the year they’d lived here. The drug scene, she said, shaking her head. My share of $400 a month would’ve been $150, cheap for New York. But for all that you paid an exorbitant price in terms of personal safety, and maybe in self-respect too. At any rate I wasn’t ready to live like this. Not yet, at any rate.
Down on the street, I easily retraced my steps on Houston for two blocks and then proceeded due north on Avenue B. Every corner was occupied by a bodega and loud, shuffling groups of young men. Glancing down the passing sidestreets, I saw children milling around the front stoops, and older men sitting on upended crates, drinking beer and playing dominoes. I carefully avoided all eye contact and briskly made my way to 5th Street. Rounding the corner on the home stretch, I was stopped in my path by one of the locals hanging out in front of the store. He looked to be my age.
“Works! Five, five bucks.”
Oh shit, I thought, he wants to sell me a syringe. This was serious.
“Look no thanks man, I don’t use that stuff.”
“Then what THE FUCK you doing here…”
It wasn’t the way he said it that intimidated me as much as the accompanying look: cruel, cold, crazy. Walking down his block no longer seemed like a practical idea – forget living on it – so I beat a retreat before our conversation went any further. As I continued up Avenue A, headed toward 8th street and eventually the subway, a squad of beefy men in shiny suits plowed past me on their way downtown. Now what? Stepping aside, I spotted a telegenic bald spot bobbing up and down amid these obvious bodyguards. It was Ed Koch. Not yet an official constituent, I held my tongue as the mayor passed. What I wanted to ask him was “how’m I doing?”