St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Streetby Ada Calhoun
A vibrant narrative history of three hallowed Manhattan blocksthe epicenter of American cool.St. Marks Place in New York City has spawned countless artistic and political movements. Here Frank O’Hara caroused, Emma Goldman plotted, and the Velvet Underground wailed. But every generation of miscreant denizens believes that their era, and no other, marked
A vibrant narrative history of three hallowed Manhattan blocksthe epicenter of American cool.St. Marks Place in New York City has spawned countless artistic and political movements. Here Frank O’Hara caroused, Emma Goldman plotted, and the Velvet Underground wailed. But every generation of miscreant denizens believes that their era, and no other, marked the street’s apex. This idiosyncratic work of reportage tells the many layered history of the streetfrom its beginnings as Colonial Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s pear orchard to today’s hipster playgroundorganized around those pivotal moments when critics declared “St. Marks is dead.”In a narrative enriched by hundreds of interviews and dozens of rare images, St. Marks native Ada Calhoun profiles iconic characters from W. H. Auden to Abbie Hoffman, from Keith Haring to the Beastie Boys, among many others. She argues that St. Marks has variously been an elite address, an immigrants’ haven, a mafia warzone, a hippie paradise, and a backdrop to the film Kidsbut it has always been a place that outsiders call home.
Calhoun, a journalist who grew up on New York City’s St. Marks Place, delivers a captivating, multidimensional history of her native stomping ground, long a magnet for the counterculture. In a vivid and fluid narrative that draws on interviews with over 200 current and former residents, Calhoun highlights pivotal aspects of St. Marks’s 400-year history: the 19th- and 20th-century social reformers who founded schools and services for the indigent, Emma Goldman and her plot to assassinate Henry Frick, the successive waves of immigration and resultant ethnic tensions, a thriving music scene that’s included both Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the Beastie Boys, the AIDS crisis, the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot, the skater scene of the 1990s, and much more. She also brings many famous and infamous residents to life, including mobster Benny “Dopey” Fein, W.H. Auden, Amiri Baraka (when he was known as LeRoi Jones), and Father Michael Allen, the “hippie” priest of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, who saw the future of religion in jazz and poetry. As Calhoun traces the neighborhood’s evolution from wealthy and respectable to gritty and poverty-stricken and back again, she shows how one street can become a microcosm of America’s political and cultural history. (Nov.)
In her debut work, journalist Calhoun (New York Post, New York Times Magazine, The New Republic) focuses on immense societal and historical change, looking at the history of one particular place that experienced, what seems like, every revolution possible. St. Marks Place, located in New York City's East Village, hosted a wide variety of people and businesses as well as artistic and political movements. Calhoun covers the area from ancient times to the present, peeling into the lives of major players such as poet W.H. Auden, artist Andy Warhol, and musicians such as the Beastie Boys, while also showcasing interviews and images from everyday visitors, including shop owners and terrified residents. VERDICT Keeping track of this book's wide cast of characters can be challenging, but it is riveting to get an up-close and personal look at the broad range of changes in such a small area. Observing the city evolve through the narratives of people that were actually there makes for an absorbing read. Those interested in NYC history and its many revolutions will enjoy. [See Prepub Alert, 5/11/15.]—Rebecca Kluberdanz, GB65 Lib., New York
An illuminating stroll through the decades of one of the most culturally significant streets in America. The first book by journalist Calhoun vividly details the long legacy of artistic upheaval, political foment, demographic transformation, and resistance to gentrification along the street on New York's Lower East Side where she grew up. St. Marks Place doesn't submit to the easy stereotyping of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, perhaps because "hippies" and "Summer of Love" represented such a comparatively brief blip in American culture. The hippies of St. Marks preferred to be called "freaks," with less of an emphasis on love and more on the liberation of anarchy. But as the author traces the legacy of St. Marks back four centuries, she shows how the street has long served as a magnet for radical visionaries, crackpot artists, self-proclaimed prophets, and runaways with nowhere else to go. "Disillusioned St. Marks Place bohemians—those who were Beats in the fifties, hippies in the sixties, punks in the seventies, or anarchists in the eighties—often say the street is dead now, with only the time of death a matter of debate," she writes, and then counters, "but this book will show that every cohort's arrival, the flowering of its utopia, killed someone else's." In quickly paced, anecdotal fashion, Calhoun connects the dots between Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman, Charlie Parker and the Velvet Underground, those who occupied the neighborhood during different decades but sustained its character as kindred spirits. While readers looking for a more thorough documentation of the Beats or CBGB might consider the narrative a little hit-and-run, the breezy approach underscores the radical, significant transformations experienced by St. Marks and leads to her engagingly personal reflection on how a child raised there might not feel much nostalgia for blocks of discarded needles, used condoms, and threats of pedophilia: "though St. Marks Place will probably always elude true respectability, the street today is safer and more pleasant than at any point in the last fifty years." Rather than a nostalgic lament, this revelatory book celebrates an indelible cultural imprint.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author
Journalist Ada Calhoun is the author of St. Marks Is Dead, named one of the best books of the year by the Boston Globe, Kirkus, and the Village Voice. She has written essays and criticism for the New York Times, including one of its most-read stories of 2015, Modern Love essay "The Wedding Toast I'll Never Give".
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