Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Out and About in the East Village

In this ongoing feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

By James Maher
Name: John Von Hartz
Occupation: Writer
Location: 2nd Street between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue
Time: 11:15 on Tuesday, Aug 16

We moved to the East Village in 1965, and everybody thought we were crazy. We were, because it was really tough down here – a very heavy welfare, drug area, but it was all we could afford.

I was a writer, and once you’re a writer you’re always a writer. I worked for Time Life Books for years, the hard cover books about art, science, boating, anything. It was very interesting, and I got paid and paid fairly well for the time. It was like getting paid for a graduate program. Then I freelanced. Kathy, my wife, is an ace teacher. She teaches English as a second language. So we strung along somehow.

We discovered very quickly that you could buy brownstones for a reasonable amount of money, and the idea that you could own a brownstone in Manhattan seemed inconceivable for our socio-economic level, but we found one for what boiled down to $19,000 for three floors.

We lived in two of the floors and rented out the top one. We struggled with that for six or eight years, especially because we didn’t know that much, but we would hire people, we would watch what they did, and we would try to do it ourselves. We got pretty good at tiling and plumbing. We learned that if you can take care of a three-story brownstone, you can probably take care of the Empire State Building, because it’s all pretty much the same. There’s a plumbing core and an electrical core. It’s just segmented out. Just with the Empire State Building, there’s more of it, but the basics are the same.

So we grew confident that way, and then finally the area just got to be too noisy and too crazy for us, so we found a house. It was five stories, with ten apartments, a front and back apartment on each floor, and it was $64,000, which we couldn’t afford. But we figured we’d try it and see if it worked out. Turned out it did, but we went through very difficult times with it.

The main thing was that it was a working-class neighborhood, and so it had its ups and downs depending on what was happening on the street. Then in the 1980s, or late 1970s, the druggies started moving in. We would have to go out after dinner many nights. Somebody would come around, the word would go around, there would be a line formed behind him, the drugs would mysteriously appear from a runner on a bicycle, get handed out, and the users would disappear as quickly as they had formed, so it was very hard for the cops to catch them.

I would primarily go out, because we couldn’t get Kathy killed, and I’d just say, ‘Look we don’t want this. This is a family block here. We don’t want any trouble. Just stay away and we’ll all live happily ever after.’ They’d say, ‘We don’t want any trouble either.’ By god it worked. It took a long time and we worked with the police. We did a lot of things, but at that time the police, I won’t say they were in on it totally, but they were a lot more in on it then they were not in on it. The city was awash with drug money, and the whole area east of Avenue A was [filled with] abandoned buildings and drug-selling centers. Limousines were pulling up with UN plates on them with kids running out from the limousines to get the drugs for the diplomats. It was just a scene from a bad movie.

In time, [our street] settled down, and then we started seeing a terrific gentrification in the late 1990s maybe, which some of that was okay, but it just got… typical New York, there’s no middle ground. It’s all or nothing.

A lot of the characters on the streets have been forced out by the high rents. Our building was able to get higher rents, but that wasn’t really the point. We were surviving. We wanted artists and writers and other people to be able to live down here. Our interest wasn’t in real estate. We just happened to be people who had to live in New York and lucked into a building.

But I have to say this, and I say this every time I till this story – we didn’t know what would happen when we bought our building in 1973. The city was going broke, the middle class was abandoning it, the federal government and Ford had said drop dead to New York. We put everything we had into that building and we could have so easily been wiped out. I’m not talking about trying to make a fortune, I’m talking about just being destroyed, wiped out. We were very lucky. We rolled the dice and won that way. Nobody knew what would happen, or if they knew they weren’t willing to take the chance.

Now this is like a regular upper-middle-class neighborhood with fancy cars on the street. I couldn’t have imagined it. Cars were just fair game when we were first here. Tires were stolen or slashed, windows broken, radios stolen. It was a different ballgame.

James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.


Anonymous said...

Just please don't sell out to some greedy landlord who will tear it down.

Anonymous said...

I love this.

Anonymous said...

Like so many I moved here in 1981 not only because it was a place filled with artists but as an artist I could afford to live here with very little income. I agree the sweat spot for our neighborhood was in the mid-90's, still diverse but crime was much less than I had ever seen it.

Anonymous said...

Sweet story. He seems like a good egg.

Anderson Rowland said...

Terrific interview - Great story!

Anonymous said...

GREAT READ! I find it funny when people want to move somewhere really cheap with " very little income" like above bc they do not really want to work. I would love to paint all day or make jewelry all day long or do/teach Yoga all day but I have to do something that makes money! we all do.. we all have to contribute to society in ways that bring in funds to support schools hospitals etc..

I have lived on AVE B 20 years and been going to 7B/ Sophie's etc since the mid 80's and I still love the area! People love to hate change and growth!

We should all be happy we live in a growing city where there are good jobs.. many cities like Philly/Detroit/Kansas city/ most of the south and Midwest etc have nothing going on and are BROKE and not rebuilding or renovation anything! yes rents are too high but many many people have great jobs because our city is doing well!

Anonymous said...

Anon 12:08 - Writing, painting, art and the like is hard work and does contribute to society. What would life be without them? There needs to be space in any city for all types of people and all income levels because they are all important together. Creatives do not want to move to someplace cheap, they have to move to someplace cheap because the arts are severely underfunded and under-supported. It's a difficult lifestyle, but some people have brain types that push them towards the arts, while other people are pushed into other careers. And once all the creativity is pushed out, who else is going to want to live in a boring city like that?

Just because our city is financially doing well doesn't mean all is perfect and that it's doing the right things for its residents on the ground here. Change and growth are inevitable and necessary, but they should happen in a responsible way.

xOMars said...

Great read. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

If you want to read more stories by John check out the eBook Dining Tales on Kindle- It's a great read and a bargain at 99 cents

Anonymous said...

Great story. I couldn't help but think of the recent story about Mitchell-Lama people possibly cashing in. They were blasted as being greedy and some claimed that they owed money or owed the city affordable housing because they got a deal. The interviewee said it all. The city was broke. Nobody knew what was going to happen. NYC was going the way of Detroit. The middle class was abandoning it. The population dropped and subway ridership dropped 20% between 1970 and 1980. Maybe those commenters weren't born yet or still lived in Nebraska during this time. Things were really bad and that's why ML people got a 'deal'. The city was desperate to keep the few employed law abiding taxpaying middle class residents here. It worked as the area and the city have changed radically.

Anonymous said...

Love this interview! He tells it like it is (and was). Heartened to know there is still one decent landlord out there!! Keep on keepin' on.

Anonymous said...

In response to 12:08pm who responded to my comment about people in the ARTS w no income..

I guess as someone who works in the commercial Photography and as an EX actor.. I just think everyone has to find a way to make money from their art and it may not be EXACTLY what you want to do in the arts.
Who buys paintings ? Who makes money as a playwright? Maybe write for advertising? Who even makes money as an Actor?? I am around many arty types who really do not want to work doing anything that is not ideal and just found the " Very Little Income" person funny.. There is almost no where to live with " Very Little income" especially in a major city.

I do agree the non profit arts sector is very under funded though and that is the issue.. very hard to make any profit from Art in the free market.

Anonymous said...

Mitchell-Lama has sliding maintenance based on income.
goes up when income goes up, down when it goes down.
finding an affordable apartment or being eligible for benefits in nyc is not a crime.
selling subsidized apartments for millions should be.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful story and he seems like a decent guy who deserves credit for what he had to go through to maintain a home here when it was a difficult place to put down roots. People like him have been able to work with all of the different phases the neighborhood has transitioned through without getting territorial or judgmental, and a few people could learn a little from his attitude and follow that example. He took a gamble and it has finally paid off, but it wasn't without a lot of sacrifices on his part and now that he is better situated it's admirable that he not trying to make a gigantic profit off of the people he's helped out.

We should take care of our artists and respect them instead of acting like there is something wrong with them for not pursuing commercial and high paying jobs with little area for personal expression. As much as it is great that the area has improved and that things are so much better in terms of crime and safety, not all of us wanted to live in an "upscale" area with high rents, with the majority of residents working nine to five jobs. We flocked here because it was affordable, but also because there was a vibrant scene that was exciting and people were doing extraordinary things because they were free to pursue their goals without having to tailor themselves to one mold. Today people come here and want all the things that once made this place special without any of the setbacks or inconveniences. It would have been hard to predict when he bought his homes that this whole neighborhood would be catering to the bourgeoise in a relatively short period of time, much less demanding the sort of rents that these slightly remodeled flats go for now.

Writers without a lot of money can't come here today and manage to succeed just by pulling themselves up from their bootstraps and there was a certain beauty in being able to do that. When the city was floundering and there were problems there also was magic, the unexpected was always around the corner, and several different types of people existed together and somehow made it work. One thing that is inevitable about New York is that it's a place that has consistently changed in leaps and bounds and that can always be counted on, but the opportunity for those who do not aspire to the status quo is unfortunately disappearing.

Anonymous said...

@12:08 PM

You suggested I moved here to be a free loader but that is not true. I was an art student full time and worked early morning before school, and a some hours after school most days. My second year at school was lighter so I ended up working a 40 hour week. minimum wage which at the time may have been $3.50 per hour.
If you know anything about pursuing a career in the arts than you would understand you don't become a musician, dancer, painter unless you practice which means grabbing any time you can for that pursuit. I eventually gave up my ambition to be a full time artist for several reasons one of which was I was actually becoming ill due to my poor diet. Although I remain here all these years later and my rent is much higher I pursue a creative career and have gained plenty of weight in case your actually really cared.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this story especially since My husband's family has been there for 112 years.