By James Maher
Name: Ilyse Kazar (and Shiro)
Occupation: ‘Professional Dilettante’
Location: 4th Street between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue
Time: 6 pm on Wednesday, June 10
I’m from very far away in the nether regions of Long Island — a universe away. I moved here when I was 20, so I’ve done my major growing up here. I was going to school in Long Island and I had picked my courses out there. I came here for the summer just to experience the city — 38 years ago. It’s been a long summer.
I actually started out on the Upper West Side, but I got my first job at Phebe’s, when it used to be Phebe’s. I just fell in love with New York and I still am. I’m hanging on here in the East Village.
But more than anything it was, for me, the foundation of what this neighborhood used to be, which was an incredible network of people who formed an adoptive family. That started right of the bat for me in this neighborhood, whereas on the Upper West Side at the time, particularly in the area of Columbia University where I had my first sublet, I wasn’t feeling it at all and they weren’t feeling me. I couldn’t find a job.
Somehow just by happenstance or by fate, I ended up all the way down on 4th Street and the Bowery, and got a job. I walked in, said I was looking for a job for the summer, because that’s what I thought. I was tired of lying trying to get a job, so I just said I have no experience but I’m just here for the summer, and I got the job on the spot.
Imagine being from suburbia, having gone to a suburban high school that had tennis courts and then coming here and getting your first job in a restaurant where everyone you worked with and almost everyone that came in was an actor, a dancer, an artist, a writer, a musician, a composer. It was amazing. It wasn’t uptown art. It was that downtown spirit. I was 20 years old. I was fresh blood.
It was a community of people who were misfits, where they came from, and of course there was the continuous population of immigrants. I think there probably was always a high population of students and artists because it was just so low rent. When I moved in my apartment was $135 a month. I’ve been in the same place [ever since]. I was 20 and I have two daughters who I raised here and the baby is 22 now.
I worked at Phebe’s for a couple years and then did a number of restaurant, food and beverage service stints. Then computers came in and I picked up on that, everything from temp office work to starting my own tech business. Mainly I’ve just lived a very unstructured East Village life. I’ve raised my kids… now I’m just rethinking things. I’m the crazy lady — you might find me after a good rainstorm scavenging umbrellas. I snip the fabric off of them. I’m involved in composting, in particular with an organization called Earth Matter that’s headquartered in the Lower East Side and their facility is on Governors Island.
It’s hard to explain. It was just like a big soup pot that was spiced just right. Back in the day, which is some extent to this day, you could interact with people of every type, the person who hands you the slice of pizza, the person standing on line with you at the bodega, the people who used to be in my building. You could knock on your neighbors door and ask, do you have a Q-tip? We knew everyone by first name; we’d have dinner at each other’s houses; we raised kids together. And now I actually find with the people moving in that when you try to introduce yourself, ‘Hey I live in this apartment. I’ve lived here a long time, if you have any questions. I just want you to know who your neighbor is and knock on my door any time you need.’ They actually look at you like you’re weird and they literally back up. Who’s this strange lady talking to me?
But that’s my strongest memory of this neighborhood … that as much as there was a range of ethnic backgrounds, a certain range of income level, and everything from blue collar to complete drop outs, to well-known artists, who were all able to talk to each other. There was a lot of inspiration and cross-pollination going on.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.