By James Maher
Name: Philip Van Aver
Location: 6th Street and Avenue B Community Garden
Time: 3 pm on Saturday, May 2
I first came to this neighborhood in 1966. I’m originally from Bellingham, Washington. I had been living in West Hollywood and I had an opportunity to come to New York for the summer in 1966 and I ended up staying.
I started coming to this neighborhood regularly, I think it was about 1968, and there was a bar called the Old Reliable. It was located on 3rd Street between B and C and it had plays in the back. It wasn’t strictly speaking a gay bar but a lot of gay people went there. I started going there and I met a lot of great people. Eventually one of my friends decided that he wanted to go to San Francisco and so he said, ‘Would you like to take over my apartment and keep my belongings for me?’ So that’s how I moved to East 6th Street. I moved in there February of 1969 and I’ve been living there ever since.
I was 29 years old and I was kind of ready to settle down. At the time, I was working at an art gallery where the IBM building now is on 57th Street. I wanted to live in a neighborhood, which wasn’t going to, as they say now, gentrify any time soon.
I started doing freelance illustration around 1970. I’ve had jobs and employment and freelance work, but I have been active as an artist in New York for many years. I do small works on paper. I work in a consistent style that’s hard for me to describe but it’s something that has sustained me all these years.
And I’ve been lucky to have a rent-regulated apartment. Those of us who stayed in our apartments were fortunate to make that decision. It could have been the wrong decision. Many of my friends going back to the 1970s and those who are still alive were able to sustain themselves and either have a small business or to be the artist because they had this stable housing situation. Rent-regulation is generally bashed by people but it is a good program. It’s a kind of a partnership with the tenant, the landlord and the city. All three of these entities have to work together to sustain this program.
What happened to this neighborhood, very, very suddenly in the early 1970s, was that it started to deteriorate. Places like the Old Reliable closed. This happened almost like somebody had flipped off a switch. There was a suddenness about it, but I stayed on. There were a lot of people leaving New York then. Most of my college friends left in the 1970s and went back to California.
I became politically active in the 1970s. There was a sense in the 1970s that nobody was really paying much attention positively to this part of the Lower East Side. I tend to avoid the term East Village. I’m the last of the dinosaurs. In 1975, it was the Abraham Beame administration and the New York Public Library wanted to close 18 branch libraries throughout the system. One of the ones they wanted to close was on 2nd Avenue, the Ottendorfer Library.
That was the beginning of it for me, because I signed a sheet – ‘Would you be willing to volunteer?’ I think I worked with them for seven years and we formed something called the Interbranch Library Association. We had meetings downtown with Deputy Mayor Zuccotti. Our neighborhood was politically savvy. The people whom I met, they weren’t like established leftists or anything like that; they didn’t have party affiliations, but they knew how to get things done.
I also worked with other groups like the Third Avenue Tenants Association, which was opposed to the zoning on 3rd Avenue. I eventually became a member of the executive committee of an organization called the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, which was an umbrella organization for 36 independent groups. I was involved in the Friends of Tompkins Square Park, which succeeded in defeating the plan to create a policeable park in that area. So in addition to my personal life and my professional life, I was very involved in these activities.
I have been very lucky to have lived on the Lower East Side — the friendships, the atmosphere. I had a chance to be politically active, which probably wouldn’t haven’t happened if I had lived somewhere else, considering my politics and my point of view. I always found myself in sympathy with somebody. This neighborhood, as far as I’m concerned, there has been quite a lot of continuity. Of course people die, people move away, but I still have friends that go back to the 1970s. This neighborhood has a history of progressive politics and what that means, changes.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.