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The strange history of the East Village's most famous street

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St. Marks Place may not be long, but it's got a weird, storied history

Corbis via Getty Images

St. Marks Place—the three blocks of East Eighth Street that run from Astor Place to Tompkins Square Park—has become a symbol of the East Village. Head shops serve as a reminder of the street's hippie heyday, while stalwart Federal mansions remain a link to the area's more distant—and upscale—past. If something has happened in the East Village in the last two centuries, there's a good chance St. Marks Place has played a role. Yet the street has never been a perfect microcosm of the East Village; those mansions were an anomaly, and the hippies were, too. St. Marks is the most famous street in the East Village, but is it a part of the "real" neighborhood at all?

The farmland that today comprises St. Marks Place was originally owned by Dutch Director General Peter Stuyvesant, who bought the bouwerij (or "Bowery" as it came to be known) in 1651. Few traces of Stuyvesant's era remain beyond his own grave, which lies in a vault at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, the Episcopal parish constructed in 1799 on the site of what had once been Stuyvesant's private chapel. The church sits just off Stuyvesant Street, which ran from the Bowery Lane into the heart of the property; it and the Bowery are the only colonial farm roads in the area that survived the implementation of the Commissioners' Plan for the city in 1811.

[Randal Farm Map showing East 8th Street. Image courtesy of the Office of the Manhattan Borough President.]

On that original grid plan, Eighth Street terminated at Avenue C, where a large "Market Place" had been carved out to serve future residents. But by the time New Yorkers began moving uptown in the 1820s, the market idea had been scrapped. Instead, in 1833, one of Peter Stuyvesant's heirs donated a parcel of land between Avenues A and B for the creation of Tompkins Square, which opened the following year. Named for the deceased New York governor and U.S. vice president Daniel Tompkins (who is also buried at St. Mark's church), the park was one of the first acknowledgments that the city had erred in creating a relentless grid with few open spaces.

In the 1820s and '30s, a few streets "above Bleecker" (as the neighborhood came to be known) began luring Manhattan's wealthiest citizens away from the district below City Hall. Washington Square opened in 1826, John Jacob Astor developed Lafayette Street and La Grange Terrace in 1833, and Bond, Great Jones, and East Fourth streets all became fashionable addresses. In 1835, the orphaned blocks of Eighth Street between Astor Place and Tompkins Square were dubbed St. Marks Place, the name probably the work of real estate developer Thomas E. Davis, who was trading on the cachet of the area's most famous landmark. Though St. Marks Place never gained the same stature as "The Row" on Washington Square or La Grange Terrace, some of its early residents were well known, including James Fenimore Cooper and Alexander Hamilton's widow, Eliza, whose house at No. 4 still stands.

The entire block of St. Marks between Third and Second avenues was built by Davis in 1831-32; originally both sides of the street would have been a terrace of oversized Federal homes. Of these, only three remain (mostly) intact: the Hamilton-Holly house (right) at No. 4, No. 20 (in relatively good shape) and No. 25 (which hasn't fared so well).

Pressed for cash, Eliza Hamilton moved into No. 4 in 1833 with her adult son (and his wife) and daughter (and her husband). Eliza's late husband, the former treasury secretary, had left many debts and Mrs. Hamilton was trying to economize. It didn't work: she was forced out of the house in 1842 after the bank foreclosed. During her time on St. Marks, Hamilton's next-door neighbor was noted American author James Fenimore Cooper, who lived at No. 6. (He did not live with the Hamiltons, as some sources erroneously suggest.)

By the time the Hamiltons were leaving St. Marks Place, the area around Tompkins Square was filling up with German immigrants; by the Civil War what we know today as the East Village was called Kleindeutschland ("Little Germany"). While New York had seen a steady stream of immigrants through the first half of the nineteenth century, the 1840s and 1850s saw that stream turn into a deluge, with the Irish who fled the potato famine settling in Five Points (today's Chinatown) and the bulk of the Germans moving into the East Village.

To better serve these new immigrants, social service agencies sprung up; for example, just in time for the cholera epidemic of 1854, Mary DuBois founded the Nursery for the Children of Poor Women—the first of its kind—out of an "ill-ventilated" house on St. Marks, something that would have been unheard of when Eliza Hamilton was living there a decade earlier.

In the years following the Civil War, Kleindeutschland's population grew to over 50,000 people. To better accommodate the burgeoning population, many of the single-family homes became profitable boarding houses. This wasn't unique to St. Marks—as many as thirty percent of New Yorkers lived in boarding houses by the middle of the nineteenth century, their ranks drawn from all social classes—but while St. Marks held onto its fading charm, much of the rest of Kleindeutschland was taken over by the newest innovation in immigrant housing: the tenement.

[The German American Protection Society. Edmund V. Gillon/Museum of the City of New York.]

Only a few traces of the German era remain on St. Marks: two of the original Davis houses at 19-21 St. Marks Place were joined together in 1870 and re-opened as the headquarters of the Arion Society, a German music club. Across the street at No. 12, the Deutsche-Amerikanische Schützen Gesellschaft ("German American Protection Society") was built in 1889; today, you can still see its name emblazoned across the front below a giant terracotta target. Inside, members of two dozen German-American militia companies could meet for (in the words of the building's Landmarks Designation Report) "beer drinking and partying." As some Germans had become more affluent, many had moved away from St. Marks Place; buildings like this clubhouse provided a vital link back to the old neighborhood.

Though Kleindeutschland was already shrinking by the turn of the twentieth century, it splintered apart on June 15, 1904, when the steamship General Slocum, chartered to take neighborhood families on a Sunday School outing, caught fire in the East River, killing 1,021. A memorial stele to the many children who perished that day sits tucked away in a playground in Tompkins Square.

As the German population thinned, other immigrants arrived, including Jews displaced by the pogroms in Europe, along with Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. The area around St. Marks Place was firmly subsumed into the Lower East Side. In the winter of 1917, Leon Trotsky arrived on St. Marks Place, where he wrote for the Novy Mir ("New World"), headquartered at 77 St. Marks (and edited by fellow revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin) while living with his family across the street in an apartment at 80 St. Marks, above the space that later held a speakeasy and then a theater. Just a few years earlier, Socialist/Anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman (famous for, among other things, attempting to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick) opened the progressive Modern School at No. 6; when it moved out, it was replaced by a Russian public bath.

[The demolition of the Third Avenue El. Calvin S. Hathaway/Museum of the City of New York.]

During all this time, the neighborhood had been well served by public transportation. Starting in 1878, the Third Avenue El stopped at Ninth Street; just two years later, the Second Avenue El opened a station at St. Marks Place. However, as more subways were constructed in the twentieth century, elevated trains fell out of favor. The Second Avenue El was torn down in 1942 and the Third Avenue line—the last in the system—ceased operation in 1955, effectively cutting off wide swaths of the Lower East Side from public transit. As real estate in the rest of the city began to recover from the Depression and World War II, the area around St. Marks Place was slow to rebound. Around this time, some enterprising real estate agent came up with the idea of the "East Village" moniker to brighten the prospects of the area.

"Head east from Greenwich Village, and when it starts to look squalid, around the Bowery and Third Avenue, you know you're there.—Newsweek, 1965

By 1960, the term was edging into the culture. In an article entitled "'Village' Spills Across 3d Avenue," the Times talked about the availability of apartments for "$40 and down" in an area "increasingly [known as] Village East or East Village." The term Village East didn't stick around for long. By 1963, Cue's New York: A Leisurely Guide to Manhattan, was already sending folks to the East Village for its cafes, galleries, and charming Beatniks—people like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, a longtime area resident and denizen of Gem Spa at the corner of St. Marks and Second Avenue. Despite Ginsberg's eventual place among the first ranks of American poets, the most influential poet to live in the East Village at the time wasn't a Beat at all—it was W.H. Auden, who resided at 77 St. Marks (former home of Trotsky's Novy Mir), drank copious amount of booze at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge next door at No. 75, and went to the bathroom at the liquor store on the corner because his apartment apparently had no facilities.

Auden's situation wasn't atypical. In 1965, a Newsweek writer noted that those looking for the East Village should "head east from Greenwich Village, and when it starts to look squalid, around the Bowery and Third Avenue, you know you're there." For those not trying to sell real estate, the area's lack of gentrification and general isolation was the appeal. As Ronald Sukenick wrote in his neighborhood memoir Down and In, the West Village "is removed from Uptown by long subway rides, [but] the East Village is twice underground underneath the underground."

It was also in 1965 that the term "hippie" came into common use to replace Bohemian or Beatnik to describe the new generation of rebellious youth. Within a year, St. Marks Place had become the magnet for the East Coast counter-culture. For years, the old Arlington Hall (having been expanded one more building to the east) had been owned by a Polish social club; known as the Dom, it became a popular hangout for the Beats and then a nightclub. In 1966, Andy Warhol opened the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in the Dom's upstairs space, installing the Velvet Underground as the house band. The space then morphed into the Electric Circus, where patrons were invited to "play games, dress as they like, dance, sit, think, tune in and turn on.'' Among the most famous denizens of St. Marks during its '60s heyday were Abbie Hoffman, who co-founded the Youth International Party ("Yippies") at No. 30 with Jerry Rubin, and Lenny Bruce, who lived at No. 13.

By 1968, St. Marks Place was so popular that tour buses changed their routes from MacDougal Street in the West Village to St. Marks, the tourists snapping pictures of every long-haired, bead-wearing hippie they could. Fed up with this, artist Joey Skaggs decided to turn the tables, and on September 22, 1968, he hired a Greyhound bus and a tour guide and took 60 hippies on a guided tour of residential Queens so that they could laugh and point and take photos of the "squares" mowing their lawns and washing their cars.

But St. Marks Place as a hippie enclave was actually a great contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, where no tour bus would go—an area still dominated by immigrants, including Ukrainians who had arrived during World War II and Puerto Ricans who'd settled in the area in the 1950s. Because St. Marks dead-ends into Tompkins Square, the park became a de facto extension of the street, causing friction between the hippies and the larger immigrant population. On Memorial Day 1967, complaints from area residents about the noise from the Hare Krishnas and the bongo players brought the police, who arrested 38 people. (The charges were later dropped, the judge noting that he could not deny "equal protection to the unwashed, unshod, unkempt, and uninhibited.")

A few days later, on June 1, a parade of hippies (with police escort) marched down St. Marks to the park to present a "key to the East Village" to the Grateful Dead (accepted by Pigpen) who were making their New York debut at the park's bandshell that afternoon. But tensions soon rose again, with the Puerto Ricans wondering why only white bands were represented and not Latino music. Abbie Hoffman stepped in to propose that the parks department help bring more ethnic music to the park.

The economic downturn of the 1970s decimated real estate in much of the East Village—leading to the sort of squats later popularized and sanitized by the musical Rent—and the neighborhood did little to shake its "squalid" reputation. As early as 1969, after a horrific murder on East First Street, the Times described the area as a "nether world" of "violence and crime…as alien to most New Yorkers as the dark side of the moon."

Yet St. Marks Place, buffered by its commercial real estate, continued to remain distinct from the rest of the neighborhood (even the rundown tenements at No. 96-98 that grace the cover of Led Zeppelin's 1975 album Physical Graffiti don't seem that bad). In part, this was because of its ability to keep up with the times. In 1977, Manic Panic, the country's first punk boutique, opened at No. 33; Theatre 80, which had seen, somewhat incongruously, the premiere of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1967, became a movie revival house in 1971, drawing crowds of cinephiles. The former Russian baths at No. 6 became the New St. Marks Bath, purportedly the world's largest gay bathhouse when the Department of Health shut it down in the midst of the AIDS crisis in 1985. In 1989, Crunch Fitness opened in a studio at 37 St. Marks, a sign not only of the coming fitness craze, but also of St. Marks' ongoing curb appeal. That a gym could exist an eight-minute walk from Tompkins Square Park, where a riot had broken out the previous summer over park curfews and gentrification, was another sign that St. Marks existed in a parallel universe—a street in the East Village while never exactly of the East Village.

That St. Marks has kept up with accelerating trends in retail and housing has also brought consternation from long-time residents (chronicled on a daily basis by EV Grieve), who see the uniqueness of the street fading. A Chipotle occupies part of the old Dom building; a 7-Eleven lasted eighteen months down the block and is now gone. Mondo Kim's, the beloved video store that folded in 2008 (in the former bathhouse space) has seen a revolving door of small-scale tenants who can't quite make the space work, while the Pinkberry down the street at No. 24 soldiers on. Sure, St. Marks is still the "bong capital of the world," but how much longer can that remain true? As the rest of the East Village gentrifies, is it possible for St. Marks to hold onto its unique status—or does it run the real danger of becoming just like every place else?

This article has been updated to translate Deutsche-Amerikanische Schützen Gesellschaft as “German American Protection Society.”

James Nevius is the author of three books about New York City, the most recent of which is Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.

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