Welcome to another year of HOWL!
By Nicole Caldwell
One warm summer afternoon in 2003, artist Riki Colon was interrupted
while selling his paintings along East Sixth Street at the entrance
to a community garden. The man who approachedco-founder of the
Federation of East Village Artists, David Lesliewas taken with a
9/11-tribute piece depicting firefighters and rescue workers. He
introduced himself to Colon as art director of a new festival called
HOWL!, an event he described as a radical way to bring art back to
the East Village.
"He just came up and said there would be this festival in a few weeks
and asked if I'd like to get involved," Colon remembers. "I became a
volunteer, and two of my paintings were selected for the auction."
Now Colon, a 42-year-old East Village resident of 15 years, is
gearing up for HOWL!'s fifth anniversary as he and his fellow
neighborhood "outlaws," get ready to once again take back the neighborhood.
From Sept. 5 through 11, painters, singers, dancers, drag queens,
writers, movers, shakers, poets, outcasts, actors, puppeteers,
orators and activist reverendsin other words, everyone who made the
East Village the East Villagewill descend on Tompkins Square Park
for the HOWL! Festival's fifth edition.
Saving the iconic neighborhood from what one performer describes as
"yuppie scum," the HOWL! Festival's organizers vow to temporarily
return the East Village to its humble beginnings: Before streets
became "crowded with people drinking," as Colon says, and before the
upper middle class invested in housing while anxiously awaiting
graffiti-free streets. HOWL! seeks to revive the beat poetry shouted
from street corners and the days when artists were viewed as
visionaries. This year's festival has an additional endeavor: to make
HOWL! relevant to a new generation, thereby passing along the East
Village's explosive, controversial and irreplaceable legacy.
"HOWL! is a chance for us to bring other people in and to let them
know we are still alive and well," Colon says. "Art is a coreit's a
The East Village has been through hell.
Neighborhood stalwarts have been driven out by those notorious New
York bullies: gentrification, expanding college campuses and increased rents.
But there is an added evil. "It wasn't just the real estate business
that hurt the East Village," says Marguerite Van Cook, a neighborhood
resident for the last several decades. "We were decimated by the AIDS
epidemic in the 1980s."
The result? "We are virtually bleeding out artists, theater folk,
designers, costumers, poets and others to cities nationwide and
worldwide," says Chi Chi Valenti, director of nightlife collective
the Jackie Factory and presenter of this year's highly anticipated
spectacle, "HOWLUCINATION '08: Low Life City."
Revitalizing the East Village is no small feat. But those determined
to do so may look to the construction of the neighborhood itself,
which literally rose from garbage. All points east of Avenue C were
formed by landfill, which became the foundation for the FDR drive.
The neighborhood's layout is arguably a lesson in perseverance and
transformation. To these ends, says Valenti, HOWL! "affirms that the
neighborhood and its artists are still vibrant despite long odds."
Allen Ginsberg, that notorious beat poet who lived and died in
Colon's, Van Cook's and Valenti's neighborhood, would likely have
referred to these oddsmuch as he did in "Footnote to Howl"as, simply, "holy."
This year's event brings together thousands of organizers, vendors
and musicians, and it features acts ranging from the legendary,
gender-bending Cockettes to a silent rave presented by the nonprofit
Showpaper, an artsy newsletter distributed every other week listing
all-ages shows in the tri-state area. There is also effort to
incorporate AIDS outreach, with a memorial service on Sept. 11 at St.
Mark's Church focused on all the community's lost loved ones.
But isn't the East Village beyond repair? The neighborhood seems an
almost ironic place to hold an event celebrating transients and
bohemians of days long gone. "The thing everyone misses about the
East Village," says Joe Ahearn, a 22-year-old Queens resident who
works with Showpaper, "is a level of unpredictability lost in the
streamlining of our venues, our consumption, our culture. There's a
sense of wonder and surprise lost in the way we experience music and
art, and that's what's been so important about the East Village's
history." But for Ahearn and the others putting HOWL! together, those
pitfalls don't translate into hopelessnessthey translate, as in a
nod to Ginsberg himself, into holiness.
"I always get very angry when people say the East Village is done,"
Van Cook says. "Artists are the greatest survivors."
It was this line of thinking that got Van Cooka mother, artist,
filmmaker, writer and student of English literature at Columbia
Universityinvolved with HOWL! in 2003. Now in her second year as
executive director, Van Cook said her focus is on reaching the next
generation of artists.
"There is a really big push on the younger stage," she says, ticking
off scheduled events: an appearance by the band Fiasco; a group
reading of Ginsberg's "Howl;" a BluPrint clothing fashion show and a
hip-hop variety act in the park. "These [presenters] are a lot of
people involved in the next generation of artists," Van Cook
explains. "All of these second-generation kids know each other." She
drops names of next-generation involvement: Jane Dixon's kids, Steve
Buscemi's son and Joe Ahearn of Showpaper, her own 23-year-old son.
Laura O'Reilly, co-presenter of "HIP HOP HOWL," is a perfect example
of Van Cook's vision. "My relationship to the Lower East Side is one
of refuge," the 22-year-old, lifelong Manhattanite says. "As a
teenager, it's where I went to sit in coffee shops on school nights
'til 3 a.m.; where I felt the most comfortable being a bohemian." The
festival, she contends, "reaches across generations because there is
truly something for everyone… the art and music connects people
regardless of age."
Riki Colon agrees with this idea. Back when he was first approached
about participating in HOWL!, he kept art as a hobby and social work
as a day job. But by 2004, his involvement with the festival led him
to transform a bunch of gay ex-pats living in Chelsea Piers into a
dance troupe; and his job and hobby into one unified force.
During the festival's second year, he decided to find
childrendropouts, teenagers kicked out of their homes,
runawayswhose homosexuality had left them estranged from family and
friends. Colon nurtured them, and he taught them to dance. After
their performance at the 2004 HOWL! Festival, several of the children
went on to finish school. And Colon's House of Bon Vivant, a youth
outreach program bringing the arts to at-risk children, was born.
"House of Bon Vivant is a perfect example of HOWL! reaching across
generations," Colon says. "My dancers range in age from 9 to 46."
Colon's three children also live up to the festival's ideals of
attracting people of all ages: The youngest, 10, will be a
participant in this year's Art Around the Park; the oldest, 16, will
perform in a karate demonstration.
HOWL! promises to give the East Village's newest implants an
opportunity to "come and appreciate what's come before them,"
O'Reilly says. And what's come before is nothing if not
controversial. "We get into all kinds of trouble every year with the
strippers on stage and things like this, and we love it," Van Cook
says. "I apologize for how sketchy it is, but let me assure you: It
will continue to be sketchy."
Perhaps that sketchiness will be enough to inspire a new generation
of artists and performers; and maybe they will once again make the
streets safe for the strange, talented, offbeat, mysterious
characters that gave this city its face. Van Cook maintains that the
East Village is a "cultural locust," and will continue as such:
claiming her cross-generation reach revitalizes the community. And
for people like Riki Colon, the festival itselfregardless of its
potential rippled effectholds its own charm.
"HOWL Festival," he says, "is a reason to stay."