Volume 79, Number 20 | October 21 - 27, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
East Meets East
The East Village and Lower East Side | A special Villager supplement
Villager photo by Q. Sakamaki
A graffiti artist painted a mural at Art Around the Park at Tompkins Square Park during this summer’s annual HOWL Festival.
East Village by any other name is L.E.S., or is it?
By Bonnie Rosenstock
Where do you live? That simple question was posed to residents living within the geographical boundaries of 14th St. to Houston St., Fourth Ave./Bowery to the East River, generally known as the East Village. The responses, however, turned out to be varied, nuanced and more complex than one would imagine.
“It depends,” answered Katherine Wolpe, past president of the Village Independent Democrats political club. She usually uses “East Village” when talking to people outside the neighborhood. To longtime residents or neighbors she might say “Lower East Side.”
“I am well aware that the term ‘East Village’ was created by real estate interests to encourage gentrification of the neighborhood, just like Clinton, formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen,” she said.
Crystal Field, executive director of Theater for the New City, at 155 First Ave. and 10th St., said, “I’ve always considered it the Lower East Side. But I’ve never not said I’m not in the East Village. If you said East Village to me, I’d say O.K.,” continued Field, who has familial roots below Houston St. In 1905, her Russian-immigrant mother lived on Cherry St., one of the worst neighborhoods. In a much earlier era, George Washington briefly lived on what was then a prestigious block. “The differentiations are not so great because of the economic downturn,” Field noted. “Things are changing in interesting ways.”
Indeed, things and the times they are a’changin’ since the breakaway republic of the East Village was created in a gradual bloodless coup. After World War II, in the 1950s, artists and the Beats led the long march eastward in search of cheaper rents as they began to be priced out of Greenwich Village. Hippies, squatters, activists and more artists flocked to the area in droves in the 1960s, living side by side with multigenerational longtime residents.
According to Eric Ferrara, executive director of the Lower East Side History Project, at 308 Bowery, the commonly accepted understanding is that “East Village” was coined and commercialized by real estate developers in the 1960s as a way to attract renters by linking the area above Houston St. with the Greenwich Village counterculture and disassociating it from the Lower East Side’s immigrant and working-class roots and slum reputation.
By way of illustrating this point, City Councilmember Rosie Mendez related in an e-mail an anecdote told to her by her chief of staff, Lisa Kaplan, who has lived here for 36 years.
“She often recalls listening to a radio newscast in the late 1970s which mentioned two events,” Mendez wrote. “One was an Off-Broadway show opening up in the East Village and another was about a stabbing on the Lower East Side. Because of her familiarity with the community, she happened to know that these things actually occurred less than a block away from each other — near E. Fourth St. and Second Ave.,” wrote Mendez.
Repackaging neighborhoods is nothing new in the annals of New York City history. More than a century ago, the area above Fourth St./Cooper Square became South Third Ave. to distance it from the blighted Bowery
“The change was suggested by certain storekeepers, with whom business far outweighs all sentimental considerations, and who considered it somewhat injurious to their dignity to print ‘Bowery’ on their business cards,” reported The New York Times on Sept. 21, 1892.
Ferrara noted that the earliest Times reference to the East Village was reported in the real estate section on Feb. 7, 1960: “Village Spills Across 3D Ave.; Demolition of El Opened the Way for Bohemia’s Expression.” First the artists, then the speculators, which paved the way for rising property values and higher rents.
While the newly arriving hippies began using the term East Village, Herbert Charles Newman could be one of the people who sparked the name, reported Ferrara, by leasing 17 E. 13th St. for his real estate office in 1959. On Dec. 15, 1960, Newman placed two ads for apartments in the Village Voice, reading: “East Village Terrace [no address given], ten 3-room apts, some with fireplaces, terraces or gardens, $95-$165”; and “East Village Arms, 184 E. 3rd Street, modern elev. bldg., beautiful lobby, 1 ½ - 2 lux. studio apts, quiet, sound-proofed latest color appliances, air-conditioning, master antenna, from $100.”
Annette Hendrikse, owner of Planet One restaurant on E. Seventh St. and resident of Second Ave. between Third and Fourth Sts. for the last 34 years, recalled looking for an apartment in the 1970s.
“Ads would say ‘East of Village,’ and then all of a sudden ‘of’ was gone, and then it was ‘East Village.’ I started out by living on the Lower East Side, and ended up living in the East Village. You go with the changes,” she said.
But even 50 years later, the tenants at 184 E. Third St. have differing opinions about where home is. One 13-year resident, who didn’t want to give him name, who pays $775 for his large rent-stabilized studio, said he has arguments about it all the time.
“People from uptown tell me I live on the Lower East Side, that I am glorifying it to say the East Village. But for me, geographically, it is,” he said.
His neighbor, Sy, a black man with a foreign accent, who has lived there for 20 years, rejects the East Village label. He states unequivocally that he lives on the Lower East Side. The building is between First Avenue and Avenue A, but to him, “Alphabet City is a real estate name.”
Alphabet City, as another demarcated entity within an entity, makes up around two-thirds of the East Village, from Houston St. to the south and 14th St. to the north and eastward through the first four letters of the alphabet. Twenty or so years ago, the name East Village was generally used for the “safer” parts of the neighborhood and was not applied to areas like Avenues B, C and D, which were more likely to be referred to as “Alphabet City” or “Loisaida,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 232 E. 11th St., in an e-mail.
“Loisaida” was coined in 1974 by the late poet/activist Bittman “Bimbo” Rivas to recognize the mainly Puerto Rican/Nuyorican presence since the late 1960s. This area, once dangerous, drug-ridden and derelict, has been cleaned up substantially, gentrified and is as safe as the rest of the East Village, and is “becoming increasingly referred to as part of the Lower East Side again,” stated Berman.
Is there a discrete distinction between the East Village and the Lower East Side, and should the two be reunited in name?
“I think the East Village does have a clear identity separate from the broader Lower East Side, but it clearly also has an identity as part of it, as well,” stated Berman. “It seems that of late there has been a revival of that thinking, and I find many people, especially neighborhood activists, are seeking to rejoin the East Village to the broader Lower East Side and re-identify with it. Interestingly, this may reflect the fact that today the East Village and the Lower East Side in many ways share more in common than they have since the 1960s when the ‘East Village’ identity was first created and the blocks north of Houston St. began to develop a distinct ‘bohemian’ character.”
Both areas are struggling equally with issues of overdevelopment, large-scale gentrification and the difficulty of longtime residents and businesses being able to afford to stay here.
“Not only are they once again very similar in character,” Berman said of the two areas, “but I think in many ways they are seeking to hearken back to the days before the big high-rises, frat bars and exorbitant rents swept over the neighborhood — and the name ‘Lower East Side,’ which is less associated with the gentrification process than ‘East Village,’ may be one way of doing that.”
Ferrara has also rebranded his organization’s name, which was formerly called the East Village History Project. Ferrara, who grew up on Suffolk St., says he has received irate e-mails from people telling him that he is in the East Village. He defends the name change as being more fitting.
“The East Village is part of the Lower East Side historically,” he declared, a mindset gaining traction in the East Village.
Berman pointed out that from 2007 to 2008, when the coalition of community groups was formed to support the rezoning of the East Village and the Lower East Side to protect the neighborhood character and preserve and promote affordable housing, they chose the name Lower East Side Coalition for Accountable Zoning (LESCAZ), eschewing the East Village name altogether, even though the bulk of the rezoning affected was north of Houston St. Moreover, the veteran tenant advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) primarily serves a north of Houston St. population.
And a majority of the participating artists (full disclosure, including this writer) in the exhibit “Menagerie, Creative ExPression of the Lower East Side 2009,” currently at the Tompkins Square Library Gallery, live within the geographic confines of the East Village. But to curator/photographer Shell Sheddy, to have said “East Village” would have been more limiting.
“It’s a narrow definition from real estate marketing, a made-up, trendy place,” Sheddy said. “Over all, I wanted to encompass the whole area of the Lower East Side and be more inclusive, more alternative, more working-class, everyday people.”