To honour Fourth of July, Vacay.ca writers are wandering south to offer glimpses of life in choice destinations in the United States. In this article, Mary Alice Downie drops in on an under-appreciated part of Manhattan.
Story by Mary Alice Downie
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK — “Don’t go out in daylight,” Will Smith advised a group of attentive aliens in Men in Black II, “except in the East Village. That will be okay.” Then I watched Rent, the smash rock opera, based on La Boheme, about artists being evicted from their squats in derelict buildings in the late 1980s. I wondered, did I really want to spend time there during a brief visit to New York, even if it was to visit an expat daughter and her husband?
According to the New York Times: “The East Village has been dragged up-market, but it isn’t doing so without a fight.” Once known as the Haight-Ashbury of the East Coast, despite the pressures of gentrification, it still retains much of its gritty charm. Inhabitants take pride in keeping out chain stores. (They’re fighting the good fight against a 7-Eleven at the moment.) There are thrift and boutique stores, cafes and bars. Rich and poor, dogs, and cats, tattooed persons, and the occasional ghost, crowd the streets.
The area is layered in history. In the mid -17th century, Petrus Stuyvesant, last director-general of New Amsterdam (before the English took over) developed a country estate in the area. Although not many traces of his Bouwerij remain, a plaque on the side of Kiehl’s, “Purveyors of the Finest Skin Care since 1851,” records where he planted a pear tree from Holland. It flourished for 200 years until destroyed by a collision between two horse-drawn carriages in 1867.
After colonial days, the Lower East Side became a working-class district, swarming with immigrants. (The name East Village was coined in the 1960s.) Artists in search of cheap rent came in the early 20th century. In 1917, Leon Trotsky briefly worked for Novy Mir in the basement of 77 St. Mark’s Place. W.H. Auden lived in a coldwater flat on the second floor from 1953-72. Now La Palapa, a highly regarded Mexican restaurant that anchors the site. The three-block street has been occupied by jazz clubs, innumerable artists, activists, musicians. The likes of The Beatles, Andy Warhol, Abby Hoffman hung out here.
We had no particular touristic game plan, but drifted about, sampling a few of my daughter’s favourite things. First stop, a cappuccino from OST café (on A and 12th) to take along to the 12th Street garden (between A & B). This garden bursts with chives, peonies, ferns and allium, a green space among the apartment buildings. East Villagers are passionate about their community gardens, alert to protect these leafy oases. Tucked into spare corners, transformed from rubble heaps, the 39 gardens are still under threat from bulldozing developers.
Shopping and Sightseeing in Bohemian New York
Then on to Union Square Market. Even on a Monday, it was humming with stalls offering”100 per cent grassfed New York Beef,” city honey, foraged food and herbs. Fresh apple cider for $1 quenched our thirst. An entire stall was devoted to bunches of lilac, startlingly priced at $12. Further along they were a bargain for $8. There were wreaths of dried flowers, the usual seasonal fruit and vegetables, a Community Compost Dropoff, textile recycling, windpower books and an entire stall devoted to white orchids.
Nearby is the Nordstrom Rack where she finds bargain shoes and T-shirts. Just along the street is a Trader Joe’s liquor store. A Canadian can only weep with envy at the wine prices.
She likes to phone home on Sundays from Tompkins Square Park, which was salt marsh and swamp in Stuyvesant’s time. Despite its serene appearance these days, it’s had a violent past. There were riots in the 19th century as immigrants, protesting dire living conditions, clashed with police. There were Vietnam protests. By the 1980s, serious crime and drugs took over. In 1988, there were more riots as police tried to evict the homeless from their encampment, in 1989 a murder too gruesome to be described. The park was closed down for a year and has been rehabilitated. Now in its 10.5 acres there are basketball and handball courts, outdoor chess tables, and many festivals, such as Howl in honour of Allen Ginsberg and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. Most pleasing of all, is the Dog Park, one for small dogs and one for large dogs, with “pools and tennis balls provided.”
East Village Haunts
For gifts for the nieces and nephews she heads to Dinosaur Hill, the name is outlined in marbles at the entrance. There are toys old and new, from a Magritte Rubix Cube to Hebrew alphabet blocks.
They enjoy the poetry readings at St. Marks-in-the-Bowery on New Year’s Day. It is the second-oldest church in the city (after Trinity Church) and has had an artistic as well as religious impact on the community. Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham danced here. Houdini, Khalil Gibran, Ginsberg have been involved.
And then there’s the food, reputedly as good as Upper Manhattan, and cheaper! There are outdoor cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, any ethnic menu you want, courtesy of the village’s immigrant roots, although you’ll have to go to Brooklyn for Montreal bagels.
For breakfast, she haunts Ciao for Now, which offers a scrupulous account of sources and “quadruple filtered water.” Items range from organic steel cut oats to a Vegan Chocolate Espresso Cookie.
For lunch Veselka has been sustaining homesick Ukrainians since 1954. Jon Stewart goes there too when he has a 3 a.m. pierogi emergency — it’s open 24 hours a day. I’m not that fond of borscht, nor do I normally have two courses of blintzes, but I enjoyed every slurp and bite.
Taralluci e Vino Café: Not just homesick Italians will enjoy splitting a prosciutto/tomato panini with salad for an economical $10.
Perhaps best of all, was a take-out pizza from Artichoke, with red wine from Trader Joe’s in the expats’ 1880’s studio apartment. We adjourned to the tiny private garden outside for dessert from The Black Hound, which creates treats so beautiful they seemingly can’t be as good as they look, but they are.
Where to Find the East Village
East from Broadway to Avenue D, north from Houston Streets to 14th Street.
A cab from midtown Manhattan is reasonable or the 4, 5, or 6 subway trains disembark at Union Square, or the L or F trains take you to 1st Avenue. Click here for a New York City subway map.
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