It's 1971, and the Voice is Already Nostalgic for the 1960s
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August 26, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 34
By Lucian K. Truscott IV
Last Wednesday was hot and sunny. On St. Mark's Place, once the home of James Fenimore Cooper and later W. H. Auden and Abbie Hoffman, the air hung in soggy, heavy clumps. Not even the passing of an occasional truck helped stir it.
On the low step of number 26, four young men sat together and passed a switchblade knife around. It was new, with a five-inch blade, and its imitation mother of pearl handle gleamed in the sun as a particularly dirty individual in the group turned it over and over in his hand.
"This is a six-finger blade," he explained to the others, holding three fingers of his left hand at the base of the blade. "That's how you measure switchblades, see. They're either three finger, or six finger, or nine. This one's only six." He moved his fingers the rest of the way up the blade in proof that he was right, a smug look crossing his hollow, carnivorous face. The others nodded in agreement. Yeah, it's a six-finger blade all right. There was more talk about the blade, more passing and admiring and stories of blades that had come and gone before.
Then the dirtiest of the group, John, who was attired in what must have been a uniform of sorts -- dirty levis and a vest festooned with bits of leather, seashells, and long curls of human hair -- plugged the blade in his pocket an sauntered on down the street to Gem's Spa. On the way he accosted passersby with whatever scrap of mindless hustle his fizzled-out brain could muster. His friends looked on admiringly. They own the corner at Second Avenue and St. Mark's Place, the most recent crew of that sort in an ever-changing scene of drugs, low-grade hustle, and disease that has changed St. Mark's Place from a hippie haven to Desolation Row.
* * *
Life is slow on St. Mark's Place these days. The Electric Circus closed last week, the latest victim of the hip capitalist recession sweeping the city. In its final days, the Circus's great womb of a ballroom was host to a diminishing crowd of tourists from New Jersey and a few local crazies, many of whom could find one way or another of wangling their way in for free. A far cry from the days when the place, minus electric blue paint, was the Balloon Farm, the site of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Back then, Nico, that white, stark creature Nico, was up on stage with the Velvet Underground, and outside the street was a confusion of limousines and levies, tall ladies in the first silver lame mini-dresses, men with long sideburns and mustaches, and the crazy, crazy, crazy Warholoids freaking out the columnists and art elite with long eyelashes, white cake make-up, and casual conversation about drugs, needles, and rushes. Everything was just so fabulous, dear, just fabulous. The way they talked. My god. You'd think that was all they did -- go out at night and talk like that. And you could never figure out who was sleeping with who, or who was supposed to sleep with what, or if they were sleeping at all.
Down the street was the Bridge Theatre, where Limbo is now. You could see the same people posed there on its metal steps, stopping amid flashbulbs and cameras to smile wanly, perhaps blow a kiss or two, like you're supposed to before a happening or something really avant garde. Avant garde. Whew. How long has it been since anything was avant garde?
Limbo, in those days, was at number 24, a narrow crowded storefront lit by a giant Tiffany lampshade hanging over the counter that gave everything a mellow glow. There you could find old uniforms, suits, knickers, bell-bottoms, leather jackets, t-shirts, and not much else. Wearing something from Limbo then was a "where did you get that" experience, not the "I bet that came from Limbo" of today.
Next to the Bridge was the Five Spot Cafe, moved around the corner from its old location on Third Avenue. The Five Spot was a dimly lit jazz joint, crowded with tables, its walls hung with album covers and posters from the greats who had played there: Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Freddie Hubbard, Charles McPherson, Bill Evans -- the list goes on and on. In the days before St. Mark's Place turned into the exploding plastic scene the Warhol ballroom obliquely but so accurately predicted, the Five Spot was crowded night after night with the denizens of the East Village bohemia, which by that time, thou sill young, was already beginning its self-sacrifice. Ahead lay the summer of love, free stores, community switchboards, community service organizations, revolutionaries, bikers, and later the tough breed of street kid that has survived.
The street had its finest hour during the days of the Balloon Farm and the Five Spot, before a massive influx of boutiques, antique fur stores, hairdressing shops, and pizza and ice cream beaneries turned the block into a limp Times Square. Back then, the street had a fleeting sense of glamor and importance, the kind that precedes the opening of an uptown movie, sure, but glamor and excitement and suspense nevertheless.
Today even the boutiques and beaneries aren't doing well. The only business on the block that seems to have survived on an even keel is the St. Mark's Baths, located on the site of James Fenimore Cooper's old house. The rest of the scene is going the slow way of the Electric Circus, from excitement to doldrums to death. Even Gem's Spa, the classic egg cream and newspaper emporium on the corner, is feeling the crush. A permanent cluster of junkies using its doorways and newspaper benches as home base hasn't helped business any. Residents of the area, in fact, give St. Mark's Place a couple of years. Outside estimates say five. The East Village by that time, they say, will have returned to its former incarnation. Already the kids on the street refer to the area as "the neighborhood," or the Lower East Side. I can't recall the last time I heard anyone talk about a community. Maybe it was Bill Graham when he closed the Fillmore and picked up stakes for the West Coast. I don't know. And somehow, with that street the way it is, with the complete absence of the "peaceful people" who made the Lower East Side the East Village a few years ago, it doesn't make any difference.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]