NOTew york is still reeling from the pandemic. Nearly 35,000 people have died from covid in the city; temporary morgues, in the form of refrigerated vans, were set up to store the bodies of the victims. Many residents have moved from dense urban areas to greener suburbs elsewhere in the state or New Jersey. For some, the future of the metropolis seems uncertain.
New cultural center shows that good things can emerge from a changing city. Yell! Arts / Howls! Archive (Ha/Ha), which opened on September 19, celebrates the art scene that began in the East Village in the aftermath of World War II. It’s a reminder of how New York has dealt with calamities in the past, often with the help of artists and storytellers.
At the start of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was mainly occupied by immigrants from Italy, Jews, Poland and Ukraine. After the war, he attracted Mavericks in search of cheap rent and an escape from the restrictions of American society. Writers including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer settled there; Ginsberg and Kerouac could often be spotted at the Harmony Bar & Restaurant with Lucien Carr, another key member of the Beat Generation group. WH Auden lived in a building in St. Mark’s Square for almost 20 years (her friend, political theorist Hannah Arendt, complained that her apartment was cold and run down). Leon Trotsky had previously used the same building to write his dispatches for Novy Mir, a Russian newspaper.
In the 1960s, the neighborhood had its own character and was renamed accordingly. As Ada Calhoun writes in “St. Mark’s Is Dead,” her book about the neighborhood around this street, this group of writers “redefined the neighborhood as a literary scene, creating an idea about the East Village – like unsuitable refuge, as proudly anti-American, as the most modern place on earth, would last for decades. Soon Jean-Michel Basquiat, Candy Darling, Keith Haring, Sam Shepard, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol moved in, reinventing art, theater and music.
They did so at a time when the idea of the city itself was under scrutiny. In the 1950s and 1960s, in response to the inward migration of black residents, the “flight of whites” to the suburbs took place across America. In the 1970s, New York City lost more than 800,000 people, which contributed to the fiscal crisis of 1975; it seemed that the city was no longer the “center of the universe”. But as Dick Manitoba, frontman of punk band The Dictators, told Ms. Calhoun: drug addicts.
However, the marginal eventually became the mainstream, and such hip enclaves drew people to the city. The price of real estate has risen, and many arts institutions and long-time residents have been forced to leave due to rising rents. The AIDS The crisis of the 1980s also decimated the community that had formed in the East Village. Many singular talents have died of illness, taking with them both the spirit and the specific history of the place. Their deaths helped spur gentrification in the area, with landlords renting apartments in this now fashionable area to new, richer tenants.
Jane Friedman, who advertised the Woodstock Festival in her twenties and then led Ms Smith’s career, says she founded Howl! Arts as a non-profit organization in 2003 “as a direct result of [her] concern about the loss of East Village history due to the AIDS pandemic ”and because of the aging of artists. She opened the first permanent Howl! held in 2015, a space celebrating the work and legacy of Arturo Vega, who died in 2013 and known as “Fifth Ramone”. (He was the group’s artistic director – see photo – and created their famous logo.) Ms Friedman’s colleague, Susan Martin, one of the company’s creative directors, says Vega embodied the spirit of Howl! because he “represented someone who was completely immersed in the culture, and who also reached out and encouraged young designers.”
With its stylish new galleries overlooking the Bowery, the new Ha/Ha The site includes a library and an archive of over 3,000 objects. It is an invaluable treasure that could easily have been lost to history without such a concerted effort. The collection includes works by artists such as Scooter LaForge, Richard Hambleton, John Kelly and David Wojnarowicz, as well as archives from the estates of Brian Butterick (aka Hattie Hathaway, one of New York’s most famous drag queens), Darling and many others. Showcases display photographs and letters as well as a selection of writings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima. Many of these objects are included in “Icons, Iconoclasts, and Outsiders”, the inaugural exhibition.
Maintaining the spirit of the East Village, suggests Ms. Friedman, means supporting local and underrepresented artists today. This involves showcasing their work (which might not reach commercial galleries) and, if necessary, offering financial assistance. “On a personal level, I just couldn’t let the spirit of the neighborhood die,” says Ms. Friedman. “The past is not over: it is alive and prosperous, hand in hand with young people who seek the freedom, values and creativity that this district embodies. The East Village is a state of mind, accessible to all the curious. ■