By James Maher
Name: Arthur Rivers
Occupation: Retired, Hair Stylist
Location: 2nd Street between Avenue A and B
Time: 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 10
I was born in Harlem, back in the day, in 1938. I’m 77. I was raised in the South Bronx. Being brought up in the Bronx, it was a lot of fun. It was all Irish and Italian in the neighborhood we moved to. I come from an interracial marriage, so it was hard there for awhile because my mother looked white, basically was. But it was good. We had neighbors who were good.
As a kid, I knew there was more to it than living in the Bronx, so I started venturing downtown, checking out different neighborhoods. I would just walk around and see what was going on. Back in 1965 or ’66, I moved to St. Mark's Place and stayed there for a couple years. I was living there with this woman. I had a lot of artists friends. That was when the artists were moving from the West Village to the East Village, and the apartments were cheap here compared to the West Village. I lived there for two years and then I went uptown and lived on the Upper West Side.
When I was about 19 I worked in this kosher butcher shop in the Bronx ... and one guy there, his name was Steve Sportz. He looked like Robert Redford to be honest. He took me up to his friend’s salon on 84th Street and Grand Concourse and when I walked in — bright lights, music and women. All I really saw were some women. I said, ‘This is what I want to do when I grew up.’
So I went to school and I did a lot of traveling. I became a successful hair stylist. I did a lot of entertainers’ hair, magazine work, commercials and stuff. Then I got tired of it, to be honest because there were too many things going on. There were a lot of drugs in the salon and this and that and a lot of my friends died from the virus. The next thing I knew a lot of them were just gone.
I was tired of living uptown so I got out of that and I moved down here. This is where I’ve lived for the last 27 or 28 years. The neighborhood down here has changed immensely. As a kid I lived in Harlem too. My mother was able to buy a brownstone in the Bronx, but the reason why Harlem changed, and a lot of people don’t take this into consideration. It wasn’t just the heroin that came in there. It was the supers. Back in the day the buildings had coal burners, so you had to have a super on the property. Once the oil burners came, you didn’t need the supers anymore.
So that’s how the neighborhood changed. The buildings went down and then crack and heroin and everything else came. Think about what happens when you don’t have a super. When I was a kid they kicked you off the stoop; you weren’t allowed to hang out on the stoop and stuff. Then once they left, the buildings went down. That sort of happened around here, but not as much.
When I first moved here, when you went into the building your doormen were drug dealers and they took care of the building. They took care of the people in the building. This area here, Avenue A all the way over to Avenue D, was drug infested. You didn’t come out.
Now I notice, Thursday through Sunday, you can’t walk on Avenue A – the traffic, millions of people. At one time you were in the house by 9. You didn’t come out again unless you knew some people out here. And you know, I miss that. It might sound crazy. I don’t miss the drugs and stuff but I miss the people who were around here. It really was a neighborhood and everybody knew everybody. If somebody got in trouble you were there for them. It was just a lot of different things that were happening. There was always something nice happening. You knew your neighbor; you hung out with your neighbor. You had your little block parties and stuff.
I’m a New Yorker. I’m an original. There are not that many of us around who are still here. I don’t mind people moving into the neighborhood but just have respect for the people who are here. It’s a community.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.