By James Maher
Name: John Von Hartz
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.