When I first started hanging out in the East Village in the mid-1970s, it was loaded with unofficial monuments to an older Lower East Side: Boarded up Yiddish theaters and a largely unused bocce ball court on Houston Street were reminders of the days when an immigrant community flourished.
About 15 years later, shortly after the 12-story, 130-rental-unit complex Red Square was constructed on Houston Street, the southeast corner of its rooftop was adorned with a 16-foot statue of Vladimir Lenin, who held up a defiant arm inciting the equally defiant locals. Although this was just after the collapse of Communism it was smack in the middle of the Tompkins Square Riots, and some thought that it was the developer’s preemptive response: I’m with you, comrades! Let go attack the Christodora! (That was the renovated condo that happened to sit on the edge of the park.)
If there was any doubt about Red Square’s iconoclastic leanings, right behind the Lenin statue was a clock tower with non-sequential numbers. It was a clear sign that the East Village, with all its political and artistic ramifications, had fully arrived.
Last week, in the middle of the night, the Lenin statue was quietly removed. The building had been sold for over a $100 million. Supposedly the old owner, Michael Rosen, bought it and took it with him. Fortunately the incorrect order of numbers of the clock tower weren’t repainted correctly — at least not yet.
The statue’s exile compelled me to recall that other missing East Village icon. Almost 50 years ago, I remember first seeing the Astor Place Cube — Bernard Rosenthal’s “The Alamo” statue — the year it was installed in 1967. I was getting off the IRT subway with my mother who was completing her MSW degree at New York University. Even at that fragile age of nine, the new black cube still made an indelible impact upon me and helped introduce me to the neighborhood that I’d eventually call home. Although it was intended as temporary installation — no longer than six months — due to local pressure, it wound up staying.
The famous war cry, “Remember The Alamo!” is accurate here, because memory, along with identity, are what’s at stake. One fades, and the other traditionally gets assimilated into the larger culture, with a kind of petting zoo gentility – welcome to Neutered York City.
In fairness, neither the Lenin statue nor the Alamo were monuments, more like icons of sensibilities for a creative and burgeoning community. And unlike Old Porn Central (aka Times Square) before it wasn’t Frankensteined into Disneyland (or whatever far freakier trans-commercial amalgam it now is.). Still, few neighborhoods in the city or country were so creative. It’s hard to think of a place, which on its own, offered inspiration, and a spring board, not only in the visual arts, but also in literature, theater, fashion, and music. And to keep it balanced, there is still stuff going on here, but all are inclined to agree that the golden days are over.
The Parks Department who removed the Alamo, to keep it “out of harm’s way” during the renovation just missed yet another deadline that they had set on returning it. Yet it’s only a symbol. Unlike the Lenin statue, I’m sure it will soon be returned. (Maybe, in keeping with the new zeitgeist, they’ll put Styrofoam cushions along its corners so that when texters bump into it they won’t be bruised.) What can’t be returned is the once vibrant culture that arose out of the old neighborhood’s low rent sensibility. The cluster of new Astor Place buildings have brought Midtown downtown. The new Cooper Union dorm and the Standard Hotel resemble a monstrous washer and dryer — part of the sanitizing of the Bowery? Tourists and students have taken over — people are who by their very definition just passing through. The old art venues have been effectively redesigned into overpriced restaurants, bars, and whatever else, to drain these passersby of every cent they can.
A couple weeks back a “festival” of the new Astor Place, supposedly a multi-million dollar celebration of the arts, occurred in the unrecognizably new Astor Place.
Candy-colored chairs surrounded three collapsible stages, showcasing, I suppose the best that NYU’s costly Tisch School among other places had to offer of music, art, and dance. With large silk screen-like posters of past East Village icons made to look their idealized best — Kerouac before he ever touched a bottle, Patti Smith when she actually was just a kid. Friendly young hostesses offered chalk to young would-be Basquiats and Harings inviting them to scrawl graffiti on a chalk board, to replicate the bad old days. (“No profanity please!”)
Not to diminish any of the fine young artists who performed, but the contextual contrast was striking. The freshly dried concrete of Astor Square was bordered in flapping white banners, which, to some of us old timers, looked like white flags of surrender. Back in the 1980s, we dissed the outer borough posers who tried to blend in. Today we are the “Bridge & Tunnelers” who have to cross the East River for what’s hip and edgy.
Maybe when Michael Rosen, the former owner of Red Square, hoisted the Lenin statue up over the area, he inadvertently found an appropriate representative — a man who tried creating a utopia and wound up making a monster.