“Nobody goes there anymore,” the late Yogi Berra once said of a New York nightspot, adding, by way of explanation, “It’s too crowded.” It’s in that light that the title of New York journalist Ada Calhoun’s lively new book St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street should be read: for generations, she notes, the residents of “America’s hippest street” have lamented that its last, best days were sometime before the present, when rent was cheap, the wine flowed freely, and peace and love prevailed in the streets.
For a moment or two, such things did happen on St. Marks Place, which lies in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village. Leon Trotsky lived there, at no. 77. Allen Ginsberg, Bill Graham, Bob Dylan, W. H. Auden, Jean Shepherd, Joey Ramone, Paul Krassner—all had their moments in the sun on its leafy length, the epicenter of the capital of the world, just a few blocks in extent. You should have been there, man—it was really something.
“I think it’s funny that so many people have loved this street so much,” Calhoun says, “and yet all have this conviction that the place and the good times ended at some point.” In her anecdotally rich history of the street’s many guises over time, she chronicles the days when it harbored orphanages and saw battles between police and what the newspapers called “riotous Communist workmen” and documents its later role in the birth of numerous cultural and social movements, from gay rights to punk rock to anarchism to the Weather Underground.
Calhoun was casting about for a book project when, she says, she crossed the river from Brooklyn to visit her parents and had a flash of inspiration. “I started to think about the roster of names of people who had lived on St. Marks in the last 400 years, all the way back to Peter Stuyvesant. It’s like any other street in New York in some ways, though it seemed to me that from the beginning to the present, people have felt more intensely about St. Marks than about other streets and were more convinced that of all the places in New York, theirs was the one that was being destroyed.”
The current battle over gentrification marks a point in a long cycle of what Calhoun calls “rich and poor and rich again.” During the late ’60s, a time she admits to finding “mysterious,” it was a blend of Eastern European, black, and Hispanic enclaves, sometimes locked in struggle over control of a place where it was possible to be poor. Through the 1980s and ’90s, before the Giuliani crackdown and the Starbucks explosion, the street remained poor—and, for the most part, happily so.
It’s prohibitively expensive now, allowing for the few remaining residents of old rent-stabilized apartments and dorm dwellers from nearby New York University. Yet, as Calhoun brightly says, “the streets are free.” As in the 1960s and ’70s, there are teenagers on every corner at every hour of the day, and St. Marks remains a beckoning lantern to runaways, misfits, and bohemians despite all the barriers to entry.
St. Marks isn’t dead, but sometimes it looks a little green around the gills. “I navigated sidewalks cluttered with crack vials, used condoms, and junkies on the nod, and witnessed the Tompkins Square Park riots from my window,” writes Calhoun without a trace of nostalgia for a time not so long ago, one that some St. Marks dwellers think of as a golden age. In her engaging, provocative book, she takes readers down a short street that is extraordinarily long on memory—and, as those readers will discover, long on wonderful stories.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.