The East Village: Fighting to Keep Artistic Memories Alive

For many years the East Village was an urban frontier. The upper half of the Lower East Side, stretching from Houston Street north to 14th Street, and from Third Avenue and the Bowery to the East River, it was a toehold in America for generations of new immigrants (Irish, German, Jewish, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican and other families) and later it became a magnet for artists, musicians, bohemians, radicals and reformers. It has often been ravaged by grueling poverty and neglect. But it has also been an area of intense cultural activity that changed the world.

Until the 1960s, the eastern side of Manhattan between 14th and Houston streets was simply the northern part of the Lower East Side, and shared much of its immigrant, working class characteristics with the area below Houston Street. A shift began in the 1950s with the migration of members of the BEAT generation into the neighborhood, and then hippies, musicians, artists and social activists in the 1960s. The area became known as the “East Village”, to dissociate it from the image of the area known as (West) Greenwich Village, which had been popular with artists, but had become more affluent by then.

Over the last 100 years, the East Village/Lower East Side neighborhood has served as the first home of cultural icons such as financial barons, political leaders and national celebrities in the performing arts. Andy Warhol and his “Superstars,” important folk, punk, rock, anti-folk and hip-hop music emerged from this area, as well as advanced education, organized activism, experimental theater and the Beat Generation. Club 57, on St. Mark’s Place, was an important incubator for performance and visual art in the late 1970s and early 1980s, followed shortly by 8BC as the East Village art gallery scene helped to galvanize modern art in America, with such artists as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons exhibiting. The East Village is also the setting for Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, which is set in the early 1990s and follows a group of friends as they spend a year struggling against AIDS, poverty, and drug abuse.

Beginning in the 1980s and quickly accelerating in the 2000s, new waves of affluent “immigrants” came to tame the frontier. Condominium towers have reared up from blocks of old tenements. Many tenements themselves were renovated, with expensive rents and lofts worth more than a million dollars. Artists’ studios and corner bodegas gave way to chic shops and trendy bistros. The East Village has been dragged up-market, but but community actiivists seem doomed in their struggles with wealthy developers and City Hall politicians.



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One Response to “The East Village: Fighting to Keep Artistic Memories Alive”

  1. Postcards From Warren: The Cinematic Legacy of Warren Sonbert « Et Cetera: Publick and Privat Curiosities Says:

    […] It was the world of Sixties urban chic, an era that witnessed an astonishing surge, especially in The East Village, of boutiques, discos, art openings, the Beat writers movement (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, […]

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