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St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street

St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street

by Ada Calhoun

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A vibrant narrative history of three hallowed Manhattan blocks—the 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 blocks—the 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 street—from its beginnings as Colonial Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s pear orchard to today’s hipster playground—organized 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 Kids—but it has always been a place that outsiders call home.

Editorial Reviews

New York
“Highbrow / Brilliant.”
The New York Times Book Review - Sasha Frere-Jones
New York breeds mourners. If you grow up anywhere in the city, there is a good chance your childhood memories will be bundled with tangible goods and sold to the highest bidder before you reach adulthood. You won't be invited to the memorial service—New York runs a red light past sentiment. The city grows on the frictional power of millions chasing The Now. Money is New York's longest-running Now, and it probably just ate your favorite sandwich shop, the apartment you first rented or your go-to record store…Ada Calhoun's St. Marks Is Dead marks these deaths without becoming an obituary or a good-old-days lament…Calhoun, who grew up on St. Mark's Place, is careful not to romanticize any one era of the East Village (which serves as a suitable proxy for much of New York City during the past century). St. Marks Is Dead is an ecstatic roll call…of those who set up shop in a part of town that has never felt entirely settled, no matter whose side you're on.
Publishers Weekly
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.)
From the Publisher
"Rather than a nostalgic lament, this revelatory book celebrates an indelible cultural imprint." ---Kirkus Starred Review
Jay Ruttenberg - Village Voice
“Fascinating…through exhaustive research and vivid storytelling, Calhoun recounts the happenings and personalities that dotted both the literal and metaphorical landscape of the iconic East Village Street.”
John McMillan - The Atlantic
“A timely, provocative, and stylishly written book.”
John McMillian - The Atlantic
“A timely, provocative, and stylishly written book.”
Emily Colucci - Los Angeles Review of Books
“A nuanced, captivating, and thoroughly fun ride through St. Marks’s lineage, celebrating the radical and downright weird nature that has drawn people to it for generations.”
Luc Sante
“Ada Calhoun has nailed St. Mark's Place. With her fluid prose, wide-angle focus, and eye for detail, she brings to life the brilliant tumble of personalities and ephemeral but reverberating events that have marked it since the nineteenth century. And she leaves open the possibility, faint but thrilling, that its term as a beacon of alternative culture might not be over.”
Jami Attenberg
“What an entertaining and exhilarating read. Deeply researched and thought-provoking, this book is a joyride through the history of New York.”
Karen Abbott
“St. Marks Is Dead is a rich, gorgeously woven tapestry of capitalism, anarchy, riots, organized crime, literary feuds, con artists, hippies, hipsters, beatniks, deadbeats, punks, revolutionaries, drag queens, chaos, and thrilling, only-in-New York adventure. With a reporter’s eye for detail and a poet’s flair for language, Ada Calhoun has crafted a lush love letter to America’s most fascinating street.”
Kathleen Hanna
“The New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Velvet Underground, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and a million other bands (including mine) spent time on St. Marks Place. Ada Calhoun’s wonderful book tells punk’s story in a totally new and exciting way. Plus, it has more sex-per-page than any cultural history I’ve ever read.”
Adam Horovitz
“As a teenager I skateboarded, wrote music, and drank malt liquor on St. Marks Place. After the early ’80s, I thought the street was dead. But in this terrific book Ada Calhoun proves that every generation had its moment.”
Colin Quinn
“I love this funny, sad, amazing book. St. Marks Place is the most interesting street in the world, because it doesn’t try to be; it’s abnormal and impossible and ugly and sexy and annoying and inspiring. And the story was written by a St. Marks child, which is probably the only way it could’ve been told.”
Tim Gunn
“Ada Calhoun’s spellbinding book contains so much riveting history that was heretofore unknown to me, and her portrayal of the characters brings the history alive as vividly as an epic TV drama. For me, St. Marks Place Is Dead rivals Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.”
Lili Taylor
“Roll up. Roll up for the St. Marks Place tour! Ada Calhoun will take you on a hilarious and poignant ride through the history of one of the world’s most storied streets. At once an archaeologist, detective, and charismatic tour guide, Ada unearths the hidden historical gems that give the street its richness and depth.”
Library Journal
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
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2015-08-15
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.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

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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