Sometime ago, my friend Armen sent me a video from the now-revived Gothamist, containing some rediscovered footage of singer and East Village resident (at least in 1993), Iggy Pop giving a tour of the neighborhood I would leave behind a year later. At the time, he was living at Christodora House, a high-rise luxury condo conversion built in 1986 at the corner of East 9th and Avenue B that was the first nail in the coffin of gentrification to this once-anarchic oasis; and a far cry from this building's philanthropic origins as a settlement house for low-income and immigrant residents when it was erected in 1928.
In 1993, lived at the southwest corner of East 6th and Avenue B, which looked upon the community garden, so this retro tour of an East Village I left 20+ years ago was bizarre in the extreme, especially since I have mixed feelings about the three years I lived there: I was back at school, at Columbia, where I’d left a suite in university housing to move in with my brother, who’d occupied several East Village apartments since the ’80s and now had a vacancy in his then-current two-bedroom flat: a spacious domain-cum-salon, of sorts, furnished with the overflow of art and books we collected, not unlike our current Upper East Side dwelling and not unlike Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who seemed to popularize this interior mode unbeknownst to either of us, as we were more preoccupied with the spate of weekly dinner parties we gave, as well as the larger 75+ oyster and drinks bacchanals with which we enticed intrepid friends generally too fearful to venture past Avenue A.
I spent a lot of time walking this neighborhood, known as the Lower East Side well before the colonization of the actual LES below Houston; since today’s LES was, at least in 1993, still completely off-limits to nice white colonists, like me, who knew little about the local proclivities for heroin and gang violence, two attractions that flew in the face of my more pressing interests in cashmere sweaters and Belgian shoes; neither of which I could afford on a student’s work-study stipend, but neither of which were impervious to my recklessness with what few reserves I had, obviated by pleas to my Mother for additional school books and the like, that necessitated augmenting funds to my allowance. Apparently 1993 was a seminal year in the life of this neighborhood, as evinced by the nostalgic show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art some years back; a fitting locale, since they led the revival of what was once the big bad Bowery back in the day, with its flophouses, jakey bums and other undesirables.
But if the cultural and political tides were turning in 1993, this was relatively lost on a still 1980s-esque East Village, where an eager Iggy walks his beat in this video, identifying his favorite haunts like the late and lamented Pedro's Bakery, home to what were comically cheap and corpulent sandwiches, right there, on Avenue C, then still a grotty and rather dangerous destination for most — but not for Iggy and certainly not for me. The centerpiece of this video, from my perspective, is the recorded capture of street peddlers, purveying their wares each Sunday, when these merchants of theft were out, en masse, their teeming inventory of fenced goods from the better neighborhoods sprawled across the sidewalks, typically on blankets, like an urban Harrods for the underclass. Ever the eager consumer — endowed with impeccable taste but impecunious otherwise — I made out like the proverbial bandit in these parts: a frontier of drugs and guns at night, to be sure; but on Sunday mornings, the sabbath for those of us who get high off a bargain.
I would rise at 6am to be the first one on the scene — not easy with the previous evenings often spent on a stool at the recently lost Temple Bar on Lafayette. If ever I’d had an athletic bone in my body, I don’t think it’s bragging to say how quickly I could scan the merchandise for the kinds of items that most of the neighborhood patrons ignored. This shit went for literally nothing: gorgeous tweed jackets, $2 and $3; silver tea services, $10; so much Staffordshire and English ceramics and transferware, I could plate a banquet; club chairs (I picked up two Harvard chairs for a friend of mine, $5 the pair) and ottomans, objets d’art and the other decorative adornments to a drawing room so favored by the rich: a globe on a mahogany pedestal, some representational sculpture that would make for tasteful bookends, and lots of botanical prints and art that never offends; linens aplenty and other outrageous deals.
Because the bulk of the shopping demographic hailed from the projects on Avenue D, where only the electronics, kitchen items and other devices that either glittered or held some sort of sheen were coveted, I had little competition for the finer neckties and the like. The vendors all knew me, and knew my scam, but they also knew they could count on me. In a day’s grab, I’d drop $40, which was a ton, considering how much I’d bring home; and sometimes I'd have to dash back home to drop off my treasures and grab two more empty tote bags. I was addicted to Avenue C, and the high that came from stealing was staggeringly euphoric. Of course, my proximity lent itself to getting there before this market caught on — like all good things in this town — with those in-the-know bargain hunters, venturing from other neighborhoods and bringing about the eventual dégringolade of this “flea market.” Some of them would see me with bags piled with fresh plunder, and I’d lie and tell them it was a dry day, to discourage them from staying. I’m not proud of my bloodthirsty avarice in those days: a student’s life left my purse strings hamstrung by anything retail.
But back to the video: Iggy walks by a maroon Volvo wagon at one point, just like the one I had: a 1981 DL. (How I loved that car. Got me through five accidents and a DUI, but I digress...again.) Back to the video. In it, the NYPD’s cars were still light blue, still late ’80s-era Chevy Caprices. I love that Iggy hates cops and details his various arrests for us. I’ll certainly spare you mine. I also love that Iggy cannot pronounce Lois-I-EEDA, despite an international existence that finds him saying something in French and German and letting us know he’s lived in Paris and Berlin. In all, he’s actually quite conventional for someone I always thought was “[In New York] the streets are laid out a certain way....” Do you mean, a grid, Iggy? No, he’s not articulate, alas. But he’s earnest as hell and I like that. As I watch, I wonder, too, if that squatter’s park on East 9th between B and C is still there...and that hideously painted façade Iggy liked a little up from that park? Oh, that’s right, Iggy was making “Coffee and Cigarettes” for Jim Jarmusch when I lived there. Yeah, I wouldn’t call it acting either, Iggy. I hate when people say CON, for Cannes; it’s not that it’s pretentious, it’s that it’s ignorant.
So funny to see those streets as they were, still abandoned, occupied by the squatters, whom Giuliani would later evict with his power of eminent domain. It was still such a chill place to live, back then, in that there was nothing to see, or go to, past Avenue B, which itself was lean on attractions, outside of a bodega or two, and a couple of bars for the locals, mostly, and Time Café, which served great drinks but had an awful menu. Iggy moving into the Christodora must have been scandalous: it was considered blasphemy among the locals to even look in that direction; and sheer sedition if one moved in, especially if having already lived elsewhere in the ’hood. Sleeping with the enemy and all that jazz.
Of course, Mars Bar is now gone, so how long before 7B becomes a Le Pain Quotidien? It was a small neighborhood in those days; but by the following year, I saw the writing on the wall, and when I had to leave for Savannah, I said goodbye for good to heroin addicts in my stairwell and Jersey boys peeing on my front stoop. I was over it.
I never should have left Morningside Heights.