By James Maher
Name: John Ellert and Sam
Occupation: Retired, director of nonprofit, Vietnam veteran.
Location: Tompkins Square Park
Time: 1:30 p.m. on Monday, May 9
I was born in Far Rockaway, Queens. I’m from the south shore. I started coming around here with the influx of the counter-culture influence in the mid-60s. I was hanging out down here when I got drafted and went to Vietnam. Actually my last night in New York, I spent over on St. Mark's Place at the Electric Circus – it was either the Electric Circus or the Balloon Farm.
I lived around here in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1960s, there was a mixture of people that were living here. A, B, and C – it was nothing like it is now. There were a lot of kids. There was a lot of flops, and hippie kind of culture, and there was also a Latino culture, very very strong, from the neighborhood. Sometimes [the groups] butted heads.
In the 1970s, with the influx of hard drugs it became very different. This was a very hard neighborhood. If you moved in here in the early 1970s and got a place on Avenue A or Avenue D, you might have some kid using a carjack to bring up your window guards, to keep people out. The smallest kid would come in — they might clean you out while you stepped out to go to the store. It was a tough place to live.
Then in the 1980s, I lived over on the Bowery. There were a lot of flops. There were places like the Whitehouse, the Sunshine, different places. I lived across the street from CBGBs. I’ve also been homeless down here, and now I have a co-op down here.
I’m a street guy, a blue-collar guy. I went back to school kind of late in life. I went to graduate school and then I became the director of a program in Lower Manhattan. They worked with homeless people and helping people to get back to work. I left there a couple years ago.
I was living on 73rd Street and I would come downtown once in awhile to do stuff when I wasn’t working in SoHo, but I’d come right around here and the feeling would change immediately. I said, ‘I gotta get back here.’ Just cruising around and going into different stores and noticing the restaurants and the people that I would meet. Then I got this co-op. It’s my favorite neighborhood in the world. There’s diversity, and kind of just the spirit of acceptance of all kinds of lifestyle that you don’t feel everywhere. You hear it spoken but… you know there’s music in the air down here.
I constantly question myself, you know, or the people that walk by. I just did it — a guy asked me for change, and I was listening to one of my favorite old songs and I didn’t really… I said no. But ordinarily, what’s a little change, and he deserves some acknowledgement. It’s a neighborhood that if you’re going to be part of it, be part of it. Don’t be part of some of it. Say hi to people. Acknowledge their existence. Although none of us are perfect and we don’t always do it, I think it’s important to keep questioning ourselves. I always question myself, if I’m being part of what this is about down here, or what is should be about.
I’ve been a drug addict and an alcoholic. I mean, that’s how I ended up homeless on different occasions. I’ve gone through a lot of things. I remember getting sober in 1990 and coming down here and watching punk kids drawing up needles out of the water fountains on a Sunday afternoon when people had their kids here. This was strange even for me. Even I used to hide somewhere.
What do we want this to be? New York has been deprived of its neighborhoods. Everything keeps changing and this is going to change, and what do we want it to be? It’s up to each one of us individually.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.