By James Maher
Name: Rafael Hines
Occupation: Sales Director, Morningstar, Writer
Location: Café Mogador, St. Mark's Place
Time: 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 9
I moved here with my mom in 1961, to 3rd and D. My mom is Irish Catholic from North Carolina. Her grandfather was born on a ship coming over from Ireland with my great grandfather. Back then, 3rd and D was kind of a no-fly zone, but she was like, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ We had a big apartment. It was great and there were a lot of kids coming in and out all the time.
We were there until 1968. Our upstairs neighbor was trying to date my mom. She said no, so he set our apartment on fire. Everything we had was up in flames. We were coming back from Delancey Street and we saw the fire trucks outside our house and everything was gone. I was 6 years old at the time. The whole neighborhood kind of galvanized. They got us toys, clothes, and someone actually found us this apartment on St. Mark's Place between First Avenue and Avenue A, where she lived until she passed away last year.
My mom and my stepfather were part of that hippie generation. They had a VW painted, and she made jewelry and clothes. He painted and made furniture. They had a hand in that whole hippie community. My father is a first generation immigrant from Panama and was raised in Jamaica. For my mom and her friends, they were always self-employed. I remember my mom would make necklaces and beads and sell them in Washington Square Park, and then she was making dresses. My stepfather was a painter and a cabinet maker, so he was always painting canvases and all these things. It was amazing to see all this life.
My experience was a little different. The cops would beat you up all the time and slap you around. You didn’t think anything of it. You would play hide and go seek and if they saw you hiding behind something, they would just smack you and say, ‘What are you doing,’ or hit you with the night stick. I think about my childhood and there was violence and a lot of other things like that, but now we go to Tompkins Square Park and it’s full of rats. It’s crazy. If you’re in playground past 5:30, it’s full of rats.
When we first moved to St. Mark's Place in 1968, there were the Ukrainian families that had been there. One of the guys had been born in the building in 1910. They’d tell me these stories about when the bathrooms were in the backyard. There was a Ukrainian deli on the block. We had no money back then. My mother would get less than a quarter-pound of liverwurst, because we couldn’t get a full quarter. You’d get just a couple slices and they’d give me the rest on credit. You always had a running tab with the local deli.
It was just such a community and everyone knew everybody. I feel blessed that I’ve been on this block and in this neighborhood for so long. Even though it was always rough, and still is in some areas, for me it was fantastic. The economy was rough, so my best friends’ families, they were all involved in those businesses. This was not cookie-cutter bad guys and good guys. People are complex and they have a lot of motivations. That’s just how life is.
So many of my memories were tied to… the groups that I really knew were the gangsters, the cops, and the combat veterans coming back from Vietnam. They all went to the same bar. The bar on the corner was Naja's and everyone would go there, shoot pool, and they had dice games in the back. It was just this congregation where they went, ‘All right, time out, we’re going to have drinks now. We’ll chase you later,’ and us kids would go in and they would have us running errands. Gamblers would come from different cities and different states to play dice and shoot pool there. I remember when I was 8, 9 years old, counting $75,000 in cash in 5, 10s, and 1s. They put it out on this huge craps table and all of us kids were like, ‘I’ll count this stack, you count that stack.’ The world was incredible for us as spectators.
For us it was normal, but for me, those guys they always said, ‘Listen, this is not for you.’ They would always tell me that, and they would look out for me. ‘Have fun, do your thing, but this is not your life.’ It was like a mentoring thing.
This block was also not like the low-level dealer's block. It was the guys who were running things. When I was a kid, you would see a green Rolls-Royce with the guy’s name in foam in the back window. The best way to describe it was that everyone was such great a storyteller. There were all these characters who were crazy on one side, but they were just so colorful and so full of life. You walked down the street and you’d be talking to someone for 10 minutes here. There was always something happening — action.
Then over the years, the sad and the dark side of that is that they were all destroyed, either by prison or by getting high on their own supply. They all became dope fiends and just destroyed themselves. There were really no survivors. It decimated an entire generation. A lot of friends I grew up with have been incarcerated their whole lives. There’s that heroin tattoo. It marks you.
In the 1970s, heroin hit full blast and I just remember the abandoned buildings were where we would play hide and go seek. We always had a joke, running around with 50-pound junkies and 100-pound rats. But you never felt in danger, at least for us, even though there were always people nodding out and there were so many killings on this block in the 1970s.
Then in the 1980s, crack hit, but I think gentrification had started. There was a little bit of a change just in the dynamic of the neighborhood. Even though crack was prevalent, and there was a lot of stuff still going on. I don’t know if it was because I was a little bit older, or I wasn’t so much in that circle, but I didn’t see the level of violence that I saw in the 1970s. That’s my experience. The 1980s were no joke, but the 1970s from my experience was the roughest stretch of road.
James will have more from Rafael Hines in the next Out and About in the East Village...
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.