By James Maher
Name: Elisabeth Diekmann
Occupation: Office Manager and Writer
Location: 7th Street between 2nd and Cooper Square
Time: 5:15pm on Saturday, June 8
I’m from New England originally. I came to New York in late ’77 when I was 20. I came down here for love. A boyfriend brought me here but I kind of had it in my mind to come here anyhow. I met him up in Maine and he lived in the City at the time. My father lived in Boston, I loved to travel, and I wanted to come to New York. I wanted to experience it. We got an apartment on 37 First Avenue.
I also subletted on 5th and A and on 12th Street. For awhile I lived in abandoned buildings, a couple of working ones, squatters. I had a lot of problems that I hadn’t dealt with that surfaced. I was ripe for addiction and I had an alcohol problem. But I survived. I lived in a good squat that was on 7th Street. There were a lot of politics and game playing within them. It was not the greatest experience, but I’m glad that I had it and I’m glad that I saw it. I had some friends that bought the buildings for $1 and worked on paying the back taxes. I have two friends that still have them. Then I got an apartment on 3rd Street and that’s where I lived for 17 years.
I loved walking down the street, I loved sitting on the stoops, even though there were drugs. In general, I always had really good experiences here. People sat on the stoops until around the late 80s when that became more forbidden. People began putting gates up by the end of the 80s when they started working on the real estate here. One of the things was to put gates up and not let people sit.
There were so many great people around. Keith Haring was a good friend of mine. He lived below me. Keith was just a really great, sweet guy — very low key, calm, casual. Before he even became well-known he used to have these art parties. He was very prolific and he would invite you to his space and he had his art all over. It was like a gallery showing but informal, with all kinds of drawings all over. You hung out and he’d try to sell stuff to pay his rent and whatever. He gave me a couple of pieces, which my boyfriend and I argued about who owned when we broke up.
There’s very few of us left that had survived all of the changes — a lot of people sold out, but they sold out for nothing. It’s hard to convey to the young people now what it was like then. It wasn’t what the outsiders think of it. It was the kind of community and the sense of comfort walking out on the street. Maybe the word comfort isn’t good. There was a dynamic or an energy, but to me it was very comfortable because I felt good in it.
And there was always something happening. Even if it was just on the street, there was an energy. You’d find things happening by walking down the street. There were also so many great, cheap places to eat. That’s where a lot of people would meet in the mornings, at Leshko’s and the one right next to it [the Odessa]. There were a lot of cheap breakfast meetings and gatherings.
I’m reading a historical novel by Jeannette Walls, who I really like, called "Half Broke Horses." Her writing is really amazing. "The Glass Castle" was her first book and was the memoir of her being brought up by a very transient family. Her father had a hard time holding a job and living in normal society and so he and his wife traveled a lot and it was the experience of the children and what they had to go through. The kids were more of the parents and they finally broke away. The first child moved to New York back in the mid 1980s and came to this neighborhood. True Story. And the parents eventually followed them here, no kidding, and lived in an abandoned building on 9th Street. Jeannette had gotten a good job by then and remembers in a cab seeing her mother on 3rd Avenue, right up there, picking garbage out of a dumpster. It was really an incredible story about coming out of a difficult life.
It’s been very inspirational, especially for my historical novel, which I’ve been working on. This whole time I’ve always wanted to be a writer or an artist. That was really my goal so I’m still working on that in my spare time.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
Here's a photo of Elisabeth on a stoop on St. Mark's Place in 1985...