After the recent closings of Phil Hartman's Two Boots Pioneer Theater
and Mondo Kim's video store in the East Village, MATT HARVEY wanders
the streets searching for what is lost. If it ever existed.
By Matt Harvey
Dusk is settling over Avenue A and Phil Hartman, dog-tired Two Boots
founder and punk rock mythologist, is unwittingly acting out a
canonical hymn in his church of East Village Preservation. I can't
get the soaring chorus from Television's famous 10-minute Punk
fantasia, "Marquee Moon""He's standing under the marquee moon …
hesitating"out of my head.
The marquee in question is the small un-illuminated signboard of
Hartman's recently closed Pioneer Theater, not the imposing
black-and-white neon that jutted out from Max's Kansas City's in the
early 1970s. A faint echo of the song's original symbolist imagery.
The term "East Village" is of relatively recent origin. Who coined
it? Ukranian landlords and café owners carving out an oasis in the
teeming slums? Bop-worshipping journalists searching for a racially
mixed bohemia? It doesn't matter. By the time I was growing up
therein the 1980sthe nabe had been embraced by several waves of the
counter-culture. At that moment it was about cheap performance spaces
opened to counteract the perceived consumerism of the Soho galleries.
The squatter movement was in full flower. But it was also the
beginning of gentrification.
For my dad, moving there in the '70s meant avoiding the straitjacket
of his father's life in Levittown. His idea of the neighborhood had
been forged in the late 1960s: longhairs trying to score acid on St.
Marks; hairy mobs of proto squatterslike the Motherfuckers; and the
first woman he ever beheld with a see-through shirt and no bra.
"Scandalous even today," he'd say wistfully.
As the hippies faltered, speedfreaks and junkies at Max's Kansas City
were forging a path directly opposed to social protest. Poets and
Warhol Superstars watched the late iteration of the Velvet
Underground take to a small stage in leather jackets. Reed's
operettasabout S&M, homosexuality and hard drugscreated the
blueprint for a way of life set to a fuzz-drenched thrum.
Queens-born wiseacres The New York Dolls played there, too. The
influences of these hometown groups (along with The Stooges) spawned
Punk Rock; in the shadow of Punk's legacy, the other East Village
hipster myths are dim echoes.
After the 1987 stock market crash, Pete Hamill wrote an impassioned
elegy about his "Lost City" in New York magazine. It contained
hundreds of memories about the way things were before the late-1960s,
when the middle class started to lose its grip on the city. The crack
wars were starting to rage in earnest, and his crowd looked back in
time to a gentler, safer city. What he missed about St. Marks was
watching Thelonious Monk blow at the Five Spot and coming home
without getting his wallet stolen.
Now I miss watching my friends re-enact the modes of their 1970s
heroes on stage at the old Continental. Objectively, were the '90s
Punkswith their secondhand idealsas cool as the Bop cats? Probably
not. Did I still have a great fucking time, and do I miss it like a
bitch? Yes, I do. It's a perpetual cycle; people mourn the East
Villageand citythat they remember. The rest of a neighborhood's
history becomes a faint echo in the collective unconscious.
There's never been so much piercing and tattooing as there are now.
Shopslike Trash and Vaudevilledo a brisk trade in cheap clothing
stamped with punk iconography. But it's meaninglessa received idea
taken to abstraction. Even post-crash, St. Marks is thronged with
thousands of fratty loudmouths staggering from one bar to the next.
Mountainous bouncers stand outside The Continentalwhich was stripped
of its stagechecking IDs. The douche throng extends all the way to
Avenue C. So I avoid all my old haunts on the weekends. Most of them
are gone anyway. Who the fuck cares? St. Marks is the new Bleecker
Street, which was the old Upper East Side. You get the picture…
Who gets the blame? Big real estate and NYUbecause the huge
glass-and-steel towers blot out the sun. Internet nerdsfor draining
the cultural pool dry. The Cult of Punk Rockfor holding on too long.
Hartmanwho has prospered by selling Cajun pizzas to college
kidswants to talk about all of these factors, save the last one.
Despite the recent closings of his movie theater and the shuttering
of Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction (a poor imitation of Max's
Kansas City) in October 2007, the pizza business seems to be going
swell. He opened a Two Boots on Grand Street last year and is busy
with a Two Boots franchise in Los Angeles and an old theater in
Bridgeport, Conn. He's a fidgety aging hipster (receding hairline,
bristly demeanor) wearing a 1950s-styled work shirt. His emotions are
hidden behind hooded eyes and a lean face that always looks a little
fatiguedafter all, he's the father of three teenagers. Injured
feelings flare up in a short whine. He responds to a question
tetchily, "What do you mean Punk Rock became an orthodoxy?"
We've been talking for over an hour about all the changes going
onwith his business, with the East Village, with the worldbut
there's more. Just a few minutes ago he thought of an idea for a
documentary. It's going to be about the East Village bohemian
holdouts. We've been seeing them file through Two Boots all
afternoon, with their kids for the after-school pizza special. "I
wish we could sit here all day and do this," he tells me in his
nasally New Yawk accent. "But, oh, God, I do have to go." After all,
he's running a successful business.
To his pre-Tompkins Square riots-era critics, such as photographer
and East Village chronicler Clayton Patterson, Phil Hartman is guilty
on two counts: being a gentrifier and embalming radical idealsPunk
Rock and performance artinto a family friendly exhibition through
HOWL! Hartman fathered the festival in 2002 with his flair for hyping
a museum-ified past. It was the signature event associated with the
Federation of East Village Artists (FEVA), an organization charged
with providing low-cost healthcare and studio space for East Village
stalwarts. In 2006 the entire enterprise faltered after Hartman ended
his association (and sizable philanthropic contributions) to the
organization and event. Yeah, Hartman is losing his fanbase.
Outside, I give a cigarette to a crooked old black bum leaning on a
metal cane. "My man, is in a rush," he says, shaking his head. I
know, Jesus H. Christor should I say Johnny A.
Thunders? Hartman sure can move fast for such a nostalgic. I give the
bum a light and kick an East Village religion around in my head.
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Ah, Television, of
Hartman's "Marquee Moon." In the early '70s, they built the one, true
church on the gray decrepit BoweryCBGBswith their bare hands. A new
bohemian Eden sprung up around it, dedicated to the words of the
prophets: Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
Now that its influence is on the wane, it causes guys older than
Hartman and as young as myself to get misty-eyed with nostalgia.
"It's always been really important to me that the East Village did
need to exist as this mythological place, 'The East Village,'"
Hartman explains. Exist for whom? I ask. "The kids in…In Yokohama, or
Last week, the rock 'n' roll Phariseesthe types that signed Punk
bands but didn't promote their recordsreassembled some of CBGB and
put it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Soho Annex. They've killed
the idea off by controlling it. Not that Hilly Kristalthe owner of
the cluband his family haven't done a pretty good job with putting
their T-shirts in malls across America (as well as an East Village
boutique). The idea dilutes every time another cultural relic closes
down. Then there's more handwringing among the flock.
The Pioneeropened in 2000 to simulate old cineaste haunts like
Theater 80 St. Markswas one of those places. Jeremiah Moss, who
writes the blog <http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/>Vanishing New
York, is a typical staunch East Village preservationist. The
self-proclaimed recluse "wants to live in the East Village of '93."
So, of course, he loved the Pioneer.
"It seemed like a labor of love, the guy never made any money on it,"
Moss tells me from his First Avenue bunker. When I asked if the Two
Boots pizza chain had a role in changing his hood into the thing he
hates so much, he lets out a heavy sigh. "It's complicated; he's
[Hartman's] getting priced out, too. But yeah, unfortunately that
generation paved the way for super-gentrification."
Add to this, Mondo Kim's on St. Marksthe last bastion of a
once-feared family-run chain of video and DVD rentals that stretched
from Avenue A to west Bleecker and all the way up to Morningside
Heightsis on the way to extinction.
We hope to find a sponsor to make this collection available, to the
people who have loved Kim's for two decades, a large sign on the
dusty third floor reads.
As owner Yongman Kim looks for a buyer of the 55,000 tapes (many of
them illegally pirated) and DVDs, the Internet continues to make him
obsolete. The titles he stockpiled defined the downtown
counter-cultureKilling of a Chinese Booking, Solaris, La Jetée and
Ilsa She Wolf of the SSbut now no one is that interested. And the
smaller Kim's on First Avenue will never satisfy the film students
and cinephiles like the earlier incarnation.
Cinemaespecially film noirwas essential to the New York punk
movement. I still see the hirsute, demonic looking Merle AllinG.G.'s
brotherat Kim's. And dig where the patriarchs met. "In '74, I got a
job at a movie book store called Cinemabilia," Hartman explains as we
talk. He grabs a rag to wipe off one of his pizza joint's Formica
tables and adds, "Everybody who worked thereBob Quine, Richard Hell,
Tom Verlainewas like a seminal figure in the punk rock movement.
With one exceptionme."
In the mid-'80s Hartman made a documentary called No Picnic. It's
unavailable on the Internet, and Hartman couldn't find a copy, but
the description he gave of it was tantalizing. "It's about the
dramatic change in the East Village, this was '85," Hartman explains,
emphasizing the year. "So this has been going on for a long time."
What did gentrification look like back then? "Buildings were being
gutted, and being torn down; there were these shoots that were coming
out of buildings from abandoned buildings into Dumpsters," Hartman
says, describing a frenzy of art galleries that lasted the blink of
an eye. "Before that, it was Dresden."
In 1987, around the same time Kim starting amassing his collection of
VHS, Hartman opened his first Two Boots Restaurant on East Second
Street and Avenue A. It's hard to see why it was such a lightning
rod. But it was. "Kids Friendly" meant, "Skels Keep Out." But the
junkies, whores and homeless were neighbors, too. Hartman gets upset
when I mention the old-time freaks that still hold a grudge against
him. "Some people just can't stand if you're a success."
I describe when my dad took me to the restaurant the first month it
opened because we lived only a few blocks away. "Just about everyone
was glad to have someplace to go," Hartman says, visibly calming down.
Nearly a decade after the restaurant, the Two Boots Pizzeria/Video
Store opened. Snaps of Cleopatra Jones and Mr. Pink were on the
menus, and the walls were decorated with movie postersantiseptic
kitsch. Despite the alarm of the late '80s, not too much had changed.
The nabe was about coke bodegas, dive bars and punks. I greeted it
with a shrug. The simulacra seemed harmless. The joint had a nice
bathroom, and it was a good place to meet girls. I never had too much
love for the scary dudes in the park anyway. But there was still
plenty of seediness left in the hood. Who of us recognizes the
harbingers of our culture's obsolescence?
"When I was shooting No Picnic, I thought it was the dying days of
punk," Hartman explains, wearily. "But it turns out that punk kind of
lived on." I ask Hartman if his generation had to take some
responsibility for that. Did the continual celebration of the Cult of
Punk Rockas represented by the Pioneer and Kim'scontribute to the
stagnation of the East Village? "Hey, before we got here, it was an empty lot."
"Mythology of the old East Village? Phil Hartman, the guy that owns
Two Boots?" Robert Christgau, "Dean of Rock Critics," growls at me
over the phone as if I just told him Kiss was the greatest band ever.
He went from laughing to menacing. He knows the score. Since 1969, he
spent decades in CBs and Max's with his notebook; filing serious copy
about rock 'n' roll for the old $1-a-copy Village Voice. He lives on
East 12th Streetin the nexus of the NYU behemoth, where he
teachessurrounded by wall-to-wall CDs on every conceivable genre.
Yeah, that guy, I tell him.
"What a load of horseshit," Christgau says. "I'm not putting him
down. I like the theater, and it's all fine with me, but he's not
protecting anything." I've touched a raw nerve in the old
curmudgeonwho maintains a "militant anti-nostalgia" stanceand he
presses on. "That kind of bohemian territoriality is always nonsense.
People who lived in the Village in the'20s were actually nostalgic
about the Village of the pre–World War I period. Look it up."
Then Christgau nails it. "No, I'm much more interested in real estate
than I am in this mythology shit." He wants the mom-and-pop stores
back, the newspaper and coffee in its blue Greco container. "The
economy, absolutely," he says. Believing the crash might help bring
things around, he adds, "But Marx is my man, and that's what I
believe." He produces a grumbling laugh. I hear: Hartman can have his
silly Punk Rock myths; I'll stick with mine, thank you.
So what was good about the good old days? "There were a shitload of
good bands," Christgau says matter-a-factly. "It was CBs itself,
which was the great symbolic place and vital up to, I guess, '79 or '80."
Then the old guy makes another really good point when he reminds me
the "East Village" wasn't even in the East Village. "We've been
talking about almost nothing in the East Village, certainly speaking,
because it's either a little north of 14th like Irving Plaza, or
Max's, or south like the Mudd."
Talk turns to the guys he saw from the old days. "I used to see Fred
Smith [from Television] because he lived on my block; but he moved
away," he says. Christgau's wife, Carola Dibbell, is in the
background and claims she had just seen Tom Verlaine in The Strand
bookstore. "I see Richard Hell," says Christgau. "I don't really
actually see him because he almost never leaves his apartment. We
used to go to Washington Square Park and play with our kids."
In the early '70s Richard Meyers rechristened himself Richard Hell.
He wrapped himself in a few archetypal signifiers (one part 1950s
Brando, mix with Highway 61 Dylan and then shred). He copped a heroin
habit, and his vocals became a vaguely menacing howl. That style
defined the East Villagemusically, at leastthrough The Strokes.
That's all the dead, old nabe needed to shake it up in the 1970s. And
not just his aesthetictheir melodic, jumpy riffs and Casablancas'
stoned yelp is just highly polished Junkerr Punk Rock a la the Voidoids.
I slide a pack of cigarettes into my black leather jacket, look down
at my boots and get a shiverI'm wearing the outfit right now. The
look is fucking everywhere.
"Richard is a difficult person, but yeah, I've known him for a long
time: 30 or 40 years," Hartman says. "It's one of the great things
about the East Village, is you can kind of not run into people. He
lives next door to one of my best friends, and he never sees him.
They share a wall, right? Literally, they share a wall."
A kind of roundtable of old East Village holdouts has gathered around
Phil Hartman while we're sitting in a booth at Two Boots. Others just
tap on the window and wave to him. Fifty-year-old Rachel Amodeowho
directed Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone and Hell in What About Me in
the late 1980shas stopped by to chat.
Her film is a naturalist document of pre–Tompkins Square Park riot
days. Filmed in black and whiteand set to a score by Thunders and
Bob QuineAmodeo's East Village is a claustrophobic, small town of
decrepit storefronts, graffiti, peeling paint; cons, hookers,
junkies, lowlifes. The kind of people Travis Bickle wanted the rain
to sweep away. Her character is conned, raped, thrown out of her
apartment and run over by a motorcycle; but somehow it's believable.
The East Village is seen as something to escapenot buy into.
She smokes crack with Nick Zedd in an unheated apartment and hangs
out with bums warming themselves with trashcan fires. During filming,
they tried to find real crack for the scene, but Zedd couldn't find
any, according to Amodeo. "That's what the '80s was about: dark
lighting, and no electricity, experimenting with drugs," Amodeo tells
me in her hoarse voice.
Hell plays a more tentative version of himself: a moping punk who
can't pick up girls. The figure on screen looks uncomfortable on
camera, like he feels strange in his own bodyhe looks more like a
tortured writer than a rock star.
Amodeo lives in two-bedroom rent-controlled apartment near Avenue A
with her boyfriend, gallery owner M. Henry Jones. The rent is cheap
enough that she refuses to specify it. Hell has rent-controlled turf
a block west, that hein her wordsis "so, so grateful for." But most
of the rest of her friends have vanished from the nabe. "I think,
some of them had families and they all lived in one-room studios, and
they had to move, others just vanished," she trails off as if she
wasn't too sure. "It's kind of scary."
I ask her when the hood started to feel different for her, and she
replies: "I think when Johnny [Thunders] died, it felt like a
different place. Stuff was starting to open up."
Thunders died mysteriously in New Orleans when the film was in
post-production. In other words, by the time the film was released it
was already a relic of another time. "God," she adds, "people used to
live in the storefronts."
I email Hell to tell him that he keeps coming up in my conversations
around the dusky old town. What's the deal man, are you up in your
rent-controlled apartment with just your memories and Rimbaud? Have
you withdrawn from the street and all humanlike zones? He politely
replies that he doesn't want to be bothered. It reads, in part:
"Sorry to be a disappointment, I can't work up much fresh to say on
the subject." When the cultural embodiment of the East Village can't
work up a single quote about his neighborhood, it's in a lot of trouble.
Hartman and I are going back and forth about what the East Village
meant when a man with mutton-chop sideburns topped with a Panama hat
wanders in with a tow-headed boy clasping his hand. He and his son
interacted like equals: In the old Beatnik tradition, the boy called
him by his first name. "Look at that. He was one of the last of the
old East Village eccentrics. And they are so great," Hartman says,
referring to the father-and-son duo. "He works by two names," Hartman
whispers to me, gesturing the man over.
I show him the recorder, and he gives me a look of serene calm. "Oh,
OK. Oh, hi," he says dreamily. Then he takes me back in time. "My
name's Kim, I came here many, many years ago. It was the summertime,
walking down St. Marks Place for the first time. It was the most
colorful, aromatic experience."
I would have thought he was in a fugue, but he's not completely
ignoring his 10-year-old tugging at his sleeve.
"OK. I'm getting inspired. I've got to do a documentary about these
people and their kids. Look at this kid," Hartman says excitedly. Kim
reminds me of the guys that I used to see all the time when I was a
kid. They're all gone now. He's the type that can match a flash of
brilliance with an utterly incomprehensible statement. "If you have
access to a computer, there's a thing called the Fillmore East." Kim
winds me through the 1960s for a few: health food stores, Beats,
hippies, Hassids. He projects a swirling psychedelic Casbahthe
opposite of Rachel Amodeo's dark, godless ravine.
Hartman interjects to tell him that I'm more into Punk Rock and what
came after it. "Oh, that whole picture," Kim says, his icy blues
dulling a bit. He lays his Zen on me again: "I feel both good and bad
[about the East Village]. You know. Everywhere, the whole world is
changing." Then he looks at his kid playing by the window and adds,
"He will take over our apartment. But, for him to live in the East
Village, he'd have to be working a job making tons and tons of money.
I can't help but think about the tiny brick walkup my dad moved
intoFirst Avenue and East 10thwhen I was 10 with a tinge of
jealousy. Jesus, Dad, why didn't you buy it? Right next to Rose's
Pizza and gleaming douchepit Ko, it had three floors, a fucking
backyard and he paid less than my rent now. Vanishing New York just
announced Rose's would be closing. It's amazing it lasted so long; it
seems like it's been empty since the '80s. There used to be a lot of
places like that: Lanza's and John's. Mob fronts. All gone.
Back in the mid-'90s, the streets were flooded with dope. And that
shit was good. Looking across the street, I catch a gust of cold air
as I pass the supermarket on East Fifth, and I'm hit with a
heightened sense of awareness. Think now. Fuck, that's where I bought
my first bags of dopeon the street. On Fifth between A and B; the
street was piled high with fresh snow in the middle of January.
We called them "Spots" as opposed to house connections, or guys you'd
page and meet on Astor Place. I was 18, and my friend Pretty Boy Jim
was wearing a black motorcycle jacket and a silk scarf like Keith
Richardshe seemed so old but was younger than I am now. He kept
paging dealers and not getting calls back. Paging themfrom pay
phones. We walked to the well-known placesBag and Bag and
Laundromatbut kept coming up empty, freezing. He pointed to some
guys in red and black North Face parkas in front of the church. "They
look open, but Puerto Rican kids always think I'm a cop."
I walk East on Seventh, past Avenue C, and things begin to get more
old school. Later tonight they'll be plenty of frat kids screaming at
the tops of their lungs and gnawing on greasy slices of pizza as they
walk down C. But noweven though there's a precinct on the blockit
has that small-town feel, about the same as when two desperate
crackheads tried to mug me in broad daylight. The Puerto Rican flag
still flies over a neighborhood garden. The side of a building reads,
La Lucha Continuaan old anarchist sloganin Spanish and English: The
The street is deserted except for a squat old mamá with her
daughterand a friend. Mama's upset about something. She's yelling up
at a tenement window, "Mira, Eduardo, Eduardo, mira, la poca, la poca."
Huh, I'm thinking, clutching my notebook, about to ask her how the
Loisaida has changed. She takes out a few glassine bags, no stamp
nowthe dealers are more carefuland shows it to her friend. "Mira,
poca?" Look, it's short! She's been shorted a bag.
It leaves me cold, and I wonder what was ever so thrilling about
dope. It seems squalid, small and ugly. Definitely not some
Eucharist; certainly not the stuff of leather-clad heroes that used
to roam these parts. I find another fatter, older woman walking and
ask her if she's seen a lot of changes around the nabe. "I live here
46 years, and I never get in any trouble," the Puerto Rican woman
says in tortured English. "I like it here, if someone messes with me,
I hit him in the face."
After spending all this time with him, it pains me to tar Hartman
with the gentrifier brush, while shoddily made towers are blotting
out the sky over the East Village. His earnest, sincere attitude
toward the neighborhood he's lived in for close to three decades,
raising a family and dedicating his life is evident.
I miss the place where the hipster bourgeoisie didn't rule. I miss
feeling safe to fuck around to my own lights, discover myself in the
dilapidated darkness: an adult playground where you could delay
growing up, all set to a thrash-punk soundtrack. Were there harsh
consequences sometimes? Of course. Ask Thunders. Or Nick Zedd. Ask my
friends who are dead or anyone who really lived in the East
Villageto the fullestthrough the mid-1990s. If they're honest,
they'll tell you about some times when they were scared. But hey,
we're all adults here. At least we used to be.
When we discuss how back in the 1980s there were hardly any kids in
the neighborhood, Hartman perks up. "When that place [Two Boots]
opened, I had a 3-year-old, and there were virtually no kids in the
East Village," he explains, seemingly amazed. "I was out here the
other night for HalloweenI'm not exaggeratingthere must have been
500 kids out here. It was crazy."
Despite his attempts, it's obvious Hartman can't make up his mind
about what the neighborhood means to him. So he stands under the
marquee moon … hesitating. One foot is in its dilapidated
adult-playground past and another toward its continual evolution into
a streamlined theme park.
Hartman's certainly an entrepreneur, and it's easy to label someone
who's making money off the idea of a bohemian past as hypocritical.
But perhaps Hartman should be labeled something gentler. He seems to
have already decided what it should be, from the name of his failed