By James Maher
Occupation: Retired, Economist for NY Department of Transportation.
Location: 5th Street and 2nd Avenue
Time: 4:15 pm on Friday, July 31
I’m Puerto Rican. I moved to the city in 1981 to finish my studies. I was exposed to the neighborhood in the 1970s because my maternal grandmother used to live on 11th Street between 2nd and 3rd. I moved to 11th Street and 2nd Avenue, then I moved to Clinton Street for a couple of months, but it was drug heaven with too much heroin. That was in 1983. I couldn’t stand it. Then I moved to 13th Street, lived there for 15 years, and I’ve been living here on 2nd Street since 2000.
In the 1970s, when I was is my teens, my grandmother told me, ‘Norman don’t go below First Avenue.’ However, on Avenue B, I remember in 1973 or 1974, I used to get lunch for $1.25. Italian — a good meal. I was about 15. The baby boomers had just moved. People were moving and the baby boomers were moving along.
It was a low-key working neighborhood. We used to play ball in the streets. We were skateboarding. There is no graffiti now. There used to be graffiti everywhere. It was a good community. Rent was cheap. Food was really cheap. There were plenty of supermarkets. A beer cost 35 cents; soda cost a quarter; cigarettes were $1.30, I think. I worked in a hardware store in the 1970s. I used to earn $2.30 an hour. I learned my grandmother was paying my salary because she didn’t want to see me in the street.
The buildings started to get burned, badly, by 1974 and 1975. It was really bad. My building was a burnout building. The whole street was burned out. There was no traffic.
I moved to 13th Street in 1983. They used to have an Italian Street festival and there was a grotto, a small church that later burned. It was used as a shooting gallery. A lot of artists moved in. People were carrying their canvases through the neighborhood. That’s when they started changing the neighborhood. The buildings started getting renovations. The city started to give them away for a dollar to do whatever you want.
Back in the early 1980s as a gay guy here, it was kind of heaven. There were a lot of gay bars. [I remember] going to the gay bathhouse for the first time, underage. I went there when I was 16. I saw men going in there and I asked one of them who was a little bit older to take me along. It used to be on 1st Avenue – the building that had Lucky Cheng’s. They called it Club Baths. If you go to the basement you can still see one of the whirlpools.
I retired last year. I did economics for the New York Department of Transportation. I pushed paper. Pushing the paper. When I started working we didn’t have computers in our office. I used to have an adding machine and a typewriter. We used to have Teletype in the office.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.