By James Maher
Name: Felix Velazquez
Occupation: Social Worker
Location: 6th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A
Time: 3:50 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 21
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I came here when I was 13 years old — I’m going to be 70. I came to this neighborhood right after I got out of the Navy. I’d been in Vietnam and I came back to this neighborhood around 1969 or 1970. This was free love, drop out, lots of upheaval throughout the United States against the Vietnam War.
This was a neighborhood where my first rent was $73 a month. Basically when I came here, this was a slum. The demarcation line was Avenue A. There was a lot of abandonment in the early 1970s. The other side of First Avenue was, not very expensive, but the difference was major. Even the other side of First Avenue on St. Mark's was pretty much abandoned. Second Avenue was blithe.
This was a marginal community, but there was also a community of immigrants. You had a lot of Polish, Russian, Latinos, Puerto Ricans. There were hardly any Dominicans at that time – they came later. Since it was an immigrant neighborhood, you had lots and lots of churches, and you still have a lot of churches. The city was pretty rough, and I think the only places that didn’t change were probably Park Avenue, 5th Avenue, but most of the other neighborhoods went through some heavy-duty stuff.
I’ve been working in the neighborhood for a long time. I graduated from social work school in 1979, and most of my social work has been in this neighborhood. There was a lot of organizing in this neighborhood. I did some organizing for housing, because of the gentrification going on. I became a member of the Community Board for awhile – I was vice chairman and I was chairman of the Housing Committee for Community Board 3 for a long time. This was a fighting community; it still is a fighting community, but it had been slowly changing with gentrification. Organizing is still going on. There are still a lot of people doing it. It’s always been kind of a leftist community.
On a day-to-day basis, I lived in the neighborhood and I survived. It was fun, and it’s always been a neighborhood where you have lots of live music, art, poetry. The Nuyorican Poets Café was formed at that time in the 1970s. In the Latino community, in the Puerto Rican community, you had El Teatro, El CoCo que Habla, which was a group of young kids who were involved in theater, and Miguel Piñero came out of there. So there was a lot of activity and a lot of fun. You were young.
And there were a lot of drugs — a lot of easy access to just about any kind of drug you wanted, so it was always a struggle to not get caught up in that kind of thing. As a social worker I helped a lot of people get out of drugs. I worked for St. Mark's Place Institute for Metal Health for many years.
I love New York and I love this neighborhood. It’s a 24-hour neighborhood — 24-hour supermarkets, delis. If you like witchcraft, you can find it down here. If you like stand-up comedy, you find it down here ... live music, rock and roll, salsa, whatever you like, you got it. You’ve got lots and lots of clubs with live music. If you’re into music, this is the place – outdoor concerts, jazz festivals. It’s a great neighborhood – I love it.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
"It was a slum—and we liked it that way! We loved it!"
Or as when I said to Irving Stettner over 20 years ago when we were sitting at the counter at Veselka, "This neighborhood used to be a slum, didn't it?" he replied, "It still is!"
What a cool dude....
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