I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.
I’ve written in this space about how when I was in college I used to wander through different neighborhoods in New York City, absorbing all the sights I could. Sadly, I have very little documentary evidence of my trips, unless you count my memory. However, I recently rediscovered a whole pile of old photos I took back then, and included in this pile are some pics from a walk I took through the Lower East Side and the East Village in May 1996. In my head, 1996 seems like yesterday. In reality it’s almost 18 years ago. These pictures make that time seem even longer.
In terms of pure aesthetics, these pictures are not very good. They were taken with a crummy point-and-shoot that had no zoom. This made it very difficult to get the shots I really wanted, because that would have required standing in the middle of traffic. So I’d either have to take very close shots or stand across the street and get wide-angle shots of entire blocks while cars raced in front of me. I usually chose the latter.
Picture quality is further compromised by the fact that all shots were developed at a Genovese on 8th Street. Genovese (one of many NY stores no longer with us) was a drug store that had a photo developing department that employed very few Ansel Adams.
Despite these considerable deficiencies, I want to share these pictures because most of the sights they captured no longer exist. I look at these pictures now and I can remember what the Lower East Side felt like in the mid-90s, when it hadn’t quite become hip, and certainly hadn’t become insanely expensive. If you strolled down Rivington Street on a Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t full of people stumbling their way to brunch. It had an unsettling ancient quiet that was impossible in most of Manhattan. The only sounds you heard were old signs swaying in the breeze and neglected buildings slowly crumbling.
I try not to be one of those insufferable types who longs for a city where “realness” was exemplified by nonstop murder and romantic heroin addictions. However, I look at these pics now, particularly the ones taken on Rivington Street, deep in the heart of what is now the most insanely expensive part of the Lower East Side, and I wonder what happened to the folks who got pushed out by the unstoppable wave of gentrification and development.
One of these pics shows a huge lot on Suffolk Street. You used to see many lots in the area like this, stretches of nothing that were reclaimed by local residents to be ersatz community gardens, junk yards, and flea markets. You can’t quite make it out in the photo, but there was a shack adorned with Puerto Rican flag insignia, whose occupant played a faint salsa soundtrack at all hours. The site is now occupied by a row of very ugly and very expensive condos.
When I took these pictures, the gentrification of the Lower East Side and East Village had already begun in earnest. It was confined to very specific blocks, but a sharp eye could see that it would soon creep everywhere.
Sometimes, you didn’t even need to look very hard. It was right there in front of you. In one photo, a repair shop on West 4th and the Bowery is being converted into the Bowery Bar. The mural on the wall of the building next door is being painted over to mark the occasion, an artsy non sequitur replaced by an enormous advertisement. You can literally see both the working class and bohemia replaced by luxury.
I realize that if you didn’t live in New York back then or don’t live here now, none of this means anything to you. In an effort to display just how much has changed, I’ve paired the old photos with new ones I took recently at the same spots. I did my best to recreate the perspective of the original pics, though in many cases changes in the landscape made precision impossible. And of course, there are the differences in lighting that result from May sky vs. November sky, and the differences in overall look between cheap point-and-shoot and fancy digital camera.
Some sites changed little, synagogues and churches mostly. At St. Patrick’s on Mulberry (the original St. Patrick’s), even the road work sawhorses look the same. Most of these spots have changed, though, enormously. It almost doesn’t matter if that is a good or bad thing, because the change has happened and cannot be unchanged regardless.
While taking the new pictures, I stumbled on a bunch of storefronts that had the look of turn-of-the-20th-century, florid serifed lettering and striped awnings. I thought it was an affectation adopted by boutiques, but then remembered that a TV series was being filmed down here, one set in the early 1900s.
The bustling squalor of that time seems quaint to us now, though life was tough and cheap for the people who lived in the Lower East Side back then. Few shed tears when the residents of the 90s were slowly pushed out for luxury condos and bars. Perhaps one day we’ll see them as picturesque enough to tell their stories. Continue reading Lower East Side (Mostly), 1996
I just found out that Stefan Lutak, proprietor of the Holiday Cocktail Lounge in the East Village, died earlier this week.
Amongst friends o’ mine, the Holiday Cocktail Lounge was the go-to pregame spot for an evening’s festivities. It was rundown yet strangely elegant. It was never too crowded. The seats in the back resembled the kind you’d find in an school bus, including the super-sticky duct tape plastered over the rips. It had an excellent jukebox.
And it was super cheap. You couldn’t get beer beyond Bud, Corona, and Heineken in bottles, or mixed drinks more complicated than a rum and coke. But you could have a few drinks with friends, and leave with your wallet not completely empty.
And somehow, someway, the place was never overrun with douchebags. You would think that a very affordable joint on St. Mark’s Place would attract some vile human beings. I can’t walk into any bar in this city without spotting some loudmouth jerk whose mere presence sours my evening.
Except, amazingly, for the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. It was a rare thing: a truly pure, awesome thing that was never ruined by awful people with tiny imaginations.
The Holiday Cocktail Lounge ran counter to every modern retail impulse. It was run in the way that old family businesses were in small towns (back when family businesses and small towns still existed). The place was open as long as Stefan felt like staying open. You could stay there all night if he did, but if he felt like going to bed early, you had to pack up and continue drinking elsewhere. Even if Stefan felt like hitting the hay at 9pm on a Saturday night.
It would be great if the Holiday Cocktail Lounge could stay open just as it is, and stand as a shining bulwark against the forces of Creeping Quality-of-Life-Ism. But alas, this is New York City, and even in the midst of an economic freefall, real estate is far too valuable to allow the kind of fun-first dollar-second atmosphere Stefan’s joint fostered.
So hoist one for Stefan tonight, and for the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. We won’t see the likes of either in this city ever again.