By James Maher
Name: Grant Stitt
Location: Tompkins Square Park
Time: 11:45am on Tuesday, Oct 11th
I’ve been here since the early 1980s. I was born in New Zealand, and I went to Canada on a graduate degree scholarship when I was a young man and dropped out of a Ph.D. program and came to New York City. I originally lived on 1st Avenue and 9th Street.
It was completely like a foreign culture. Canada was very restrained, like where I grew up, and New York City was very exuberant and brash. It took me a year, at least, to find a voice loud enough to be part of it. It was a bit of a culture clash almost, even though we both spoke English.
Everyone had aspirations; they were aspiring dancers, or models, or singers, or actors — or something like that. They were very self-centered in a way. It was hard to break through to them, so I didn’t really pick up friends from there, but eventually I picked up friends from other places.
I had sort of clubby friends, and one of them was Ann Magnuson. She moved to Avenue A around this time in the early 80s, and that was considered radical. I moved across the park to Avenue B, and it wasn’t safe, but nothing happened to me. My partner got stabbed once. Someone stole his backpack and then stabbed him in the back. I was always a little bit cautious, but I was never that worried.
One of my first friends in New York City who is a friend today, he and his brother opened a nightclub in the 1980s called Area. These were the days where sort of anything went. After work I would go there. It was very exciting. I was not a drug taker like everybody else but that didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy myself.
At the time, I worked in restaurants like everybody else. Like a lot of people who dropped out of Ph.D. programs in the 1970s, I ended up cooking for a living. I had my own restaurant called the New Nile. A Spanish friend of ours did a huge magical mural on the inside. The restaurant that I owned was one of the originals in Tribeca, down on Warren Street in the City Hall area. It was open at night, and there was only one restaurant down there — the Odeon.
There was only one condominium that was residential in that neighborhood and it was across the street, and so we had neighbors and friends at first, but because we were close to City Hall our business was stronger at lunch than it was in the evenings. I wouldn’t say it was a financially a hugely successful place, but socially it was pretty great. It was very fun. Then I went back to school, and now I have a psychotherapy practice.
I’m still very fond of the East Village, and I like the fact that I can go to a concert or a play, and I can come back at 11 pm and still have dinner. I think something similar about the neighborhood then and now is the diversity. We have a very diverse community. People have been living there for as long as I have, and there are new ones. I don’t mind the students.
The strange thing is that my building is sort of a micro-perspective of the neighborhood — it changed extraordinarily. I live over on Avenue B and 9th Street with my partner of 30 years, and there are a few oldsters in the building, but the majority of the apartments have been renovated and they’re [full of] NYU students. You get a contact high as you walk up to your apartment, and they’re paying five times the amount that I am.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.