Friday, June 13, 2008

"The neighborhood was desolate, so underpopulated that landlords would give you a month's free rent just for signing a lease"

[Photo of 216 E. 7th St. in 1979 by Marlis Momber]

My obsession with the East Village in the 1970s and early 1980s continues.

In November 2003, new editions of the bible, Luc Sante's "Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), included an afterword, which was also published in The New York Review of Books on Nov. 6, 2003. (I have an old copy of the book, and was unaware of the essay. By the way, the essay also appears in the booklet that accompanies the Stranger Than Paradise Criterion Collection.)

Here are a few of the many compelling passages from My Lost City:

I drifted down from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side in 1978. Most of my friends made the transition around the same time. You could have an apartment all to yourself for less than $150 a month. In addition, the place was happening. It was happening, that is, in two or at most three dingy bars that doubled as clubs, a bookstore or record store or two, and a bunch of individual apartments and individual imaginations. All of us were in that stage of youth when your star may not yet have risen, but your moment is the only one on the clock. We had the temerity to laugh at the hippies, shamefully backdated by half a decade. In our arrogance we were barely conscious of the much deeper past that lay all around. We didn't ask ourselves why the name carved above the door of the public library on Second Avenue was in German, or why busts of nineteenth-century composers could be seen on a second-story lintel on Fourth Street. Our neighborhood was so chockablock with ruins we didn't question the existence of vast bulks of shuttered theaters, or wonder when they had been new. Our apartments were furnished exclusively through scavenging, but we didn't find it notable that nearly all our living rooms featured sewing-machine tables with cast-iron bases.

The neighborhood was desolate, so underpopulated that landlords would give you a month's free rent just for signing a lease, many buildings being less than half-full, but it was far from tranquil. We might feel smug about being robbed on the street, since none of us had any money, and we looked it, and junkies—as distinct from the crackheads of a decade later—would generally not stab you for chump change. Nevertheless, if you did not have the wherewithal to install gates on your windows you would be burglarized repeatedly, and where would you be without your stereo? In the blocks east of Avenue A the situation was dramatically worse. In 1978 I got used to seeing large fires in that direction every night, usually set by arsonists hired by landlords of empty buildings who found it an easy choice to make, between paying property taxes and collecting insurance. By 1980 Avenue C was a lunar landscape of vacant blocks and hollow tenement shells. Over there, commerce—in food or clothing, say—was often conducted out of car trunks, but the most thriving industry was junk, and it alone made use of marginally viable specimens of the building stock. The charred stairwells, the gaping floorboards, the lack of lighting, the entryways consisting of holes torn in ground-floor walls—all served the psychological imperatives of the heroin trade. . . .

Now, more than a decade after I finally finished my book Low Life, the city has changed in ways I could not have pictured. The tenements are mostly still standing, but I could not afford to live in any of my former apartments, including the ones I found desperately shabby when I was much more inured to shabbiness.

[For more amazing photos by Marlis Momber like the one above, please visit her Web site.]


emily xyz said...

When Luc says you could have an "apartment for less than $150," what he means is a space that would nowadays be called "distressed." Most buildings in the LES/"alphabet city" were 100-year-old tenements that had never been that good to begin with, and by the 70s/80s were partially burned, or had bad electricity, not hot water, etc etc. The first apt I rented on my own in NYC was at 82 Clinton St., near Stanton (I think). It was basically trashed and had no heat or hot water. I paid $100 when I moved in. It had no *window* -- I had to build and install one myself. It had holes in the walls. I had to learn to put up sheetrock. I at least had a working bathroom, unlike my friend upstairs, whose bathroom was just a bombed-out wreck. We got rent credits for the "improvements" we did. Half the people in this bldg at the time were handyperson/artists, the other half very poor hispanic families who would run wires from apt to apt when Con Ed turned off somebody's electricity. One of these geniuses put a penny on a breaker once, thinking he could increase the am't of power to his apt. Instead he almost burned down the building (that's why my apt didn't have a window).

That place was as dangerous and dirty as they come. The people who succeeded there were the ones who could really do carpentry, plumbing, electriical, etc., could put up with the constant bullshit of fires and crime, and didn't mind walking out into a nasty, hostile, dirty, druggy scene every morning. Nowadays it's a much nicer street -- there are shade trees! Those weren't there in 1982, or if they were they were just saplings. I only stayed there about 3 months, then I moved to Ludlow St. That's a whole nother story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this, Emily. Did you ever think for a moment in the early 1980s that Ludlow Street would look like it does today?

Anonymous said...

Just walked by 216 East 7th Street and there is a nice brownstone building and on both sides look like luxury condos--
I remember when you could not sell your one bedroom coop in NYC--for any decent price--then it did not look bright--then things changed-- for the better?????I doubt it

Anonymous said...

In the early 1980's I remember having to hop over people sleeping in the vestibule of my apartment and having regulars sleeping on the top floor--I could go out all hours and not be afraid--the night people looked after you-

Anonymous said...

Emily's comment reflects the difference between 1982 and 1978, which is when I moved to St. Mark's Place and got a perfectly decent one-bedroom railroad, semi-furnished (by hastily departed previous tenants) for $140 a month. I had to do a bit of sheetrocking, and taped plastic bags to the bedroom ceiling to collect rain before I could get the landlord to fix the roof, but those things were minor compared to the desolation east of Avenue A at the time. By 1982 the beginnings of the rush were on, and to get something that cheap you had to put up with much more squalor.

Jill said...

That photo is great. It really wasn't that long ago that buildings like that were still all over the East Village. It was within the last 10 or so years that the police unit they set up on 13th bet A/B was in place to stop the squatters from re-entering so Giuliani could pull it down.

It would be good if you posted a photo of that same building today, before and after.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sophie!

I don't know your email, but truly enjoy your blog, and since it's about the wonderful East Village and all its happenings, I thought you might be interested in some rental price trends in the area--which I'm commenting about on this post because the "free month's rent" bit really resonated with me. That's what's happening right now! Landlords are totally offering incentives just like that to get their apartments rented this summer.

Anyway, here's what else is happening: Right now, there's a huge amount of rental inventory on the market and landlords are trying to figure out how to get rid of it. Different landlords are using different strategies, but it seems that the ones in the East Village know what they're doing because inventories are decreasing. Huzzah!

Non-doorman studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms went down in price by 4.6%, 1.5% and 0.3%, respectively, while doorman two-bedroom rents dropped by 3%.

Here's an excerpt from the "Notable Trends" section of The Real Estate Group's Manhattan Rental Market Report for July 2008:

"Non-doorman inventories and prices, however, are down--Non-doorman rents, particularly in Manhattan's trendier neighborhoods, are lower this month and so are vacancies. Popular areas such as Greenwich Village and the East Village, as well as SoHo and TriBeCa, experienced a decline in non-doorman prices, a trend that may be helping keep inventories tight and demand high for those units. Studio rents in particular decreased rather significantly, by as much as 4.6% in the East Village and 4.5% in SoHo."

You can check out the report in its entirety at

Have a great day!