Wednesday, September 20, 2017

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 or Lower East Side.

By James Maher

Name: Pepe Flores (who was a little camera shy)
Occupation: Retired, Daycare Teacher
Location: Avenue C and 4th Street
Time: 3:30 pm on Friday, Sept 15

I was born in Puerto Rico in 1951 in public housing near the docks in Old San Juan, but then we moved to the countryside when I was 4 years old. I was raised on the sugar cane plantation.

I went to college at the University of Puerto Rico. I got involved in the left [political movement], and I had to leave because my life was in danger. There is political persecution in Puerto Rico — it’s been going on since 1898, the minute that we were invaded. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, so anybody who looks for the independence for Puerto Rico, in a pacific way or in a violent way, is a threat. So I moved to this neighborhood 45 years ago when I was 20 years old.

There was a two-bedroom apartment for $90 on 3rd Street between C and D. In those days, New York was affordable, you know what I mean? There was a big Puerto Rican population when I got here. There was a barrio uptown, one in the Bronx, then one in the Lower East Side. There was a big community, working class. We don’t consider ourselves immigrants because we are American citizens. I have an American passport.

I didn’t plan to live here — it was just that I was working in a bilingual program on 4th Street and all of a sudden I found myself in this community. I met somebody who was part of the adopt-a-building program, to adopt buildings that landlords had abandoned. So I got involved with the organization and I got an apartment in there. From there I moved to 11th Street. That’s where I got involved with the homesteading, with the renovation on the building. And now I’ve been in the same apartment on Avenue C for 35 years.

This is the first place where I saw performance art, the mix between dance, music, video, and all kinds of styles of creativity. One of the famous places for that was out on the corner on 2nd Street and Avenue B where the gas station used to be. The Gas Station was the abandoned gas station. These people took over and that’s where they had their performances.

And then you had the Nuyorican Poets Café that started on 6th Street between A and B and then they moved to 3rd Street. There was another place also that I collaborated with, it was called the Nuyorican Village. It was where the Jazz Boat used to be. The Jazz Boat was a jazz club on Avenue A between 6th and 7th Street, and when it was abandoned this guy Eddie Figueroa took it over. His approach was that, because the term Nuyorican can be a little bit of a put down, he believed that it was the “New Rican,” it was a new kind of Puerto Rican — we were vegetarian, macrobiotic. It was a very vibrant cultural community here.

People tend to treat this area as a drug haven, but it wasn’t like that. There was a working-class community. The people portrayed us as living on welfare, but you know what? In my building, out of 16 units, 14 people were working people, and I don’t know anybody who used to live on welfare. We were all working-class people, and most of the people in this neighborhood, or a lot of people that I know, they used to work in the Garment District, because the Garment District had steady jobs. It was close to the people, and it had pretty good paying jobs – enough to pay rent and live a decent life.

I would associate the decay to the disappearance of the Garment Center as a place for jobs. All these people lost their jobs. All these people that come from Puerto Rico, most of the people were people who came from the countryside. Once we lost jobs, then drugs came in, heavy drugs, heroin, cocaine. Those are hard, and it turned around the neighborhood. And then AIDS — I buried so many people here who died of AIDS, young people, adolescents, children, and they didn’t care.

They knew what was going on over here. They knew. I mean, if you see at 6 in the morning on 5th Street, 80 people lining up, you’re a cop, you say coño. They’re not going to church. They were there to score, at 6 in the morning. [The city] knew the whole thing about the drug trade that was going on here. They didn’t do nothing because that was a way to gentrify the neighborhood. That was a way to get people out of here. It’s a way that the system, the powers that be use to oppressed people. When you’re doing drugs, you don’t care about housing, education. You just care about your habit and that’s it.

And then with the economic depression that turned out, the landlords, they couldn’t collect the rents, and the easy way was to burn the buildings. They would pay somebody to go and burn a building with people in it. The building that I lived in, and all the buildings, we had to have volunteers to be security at night, especially at night because that’s when people came to burn out the buildings. They wanted to get the insurance money.

Besides that, I was a daycare teacher for 30 years of my life. It used to be on First Avenue and 9th Street, where P.S. 122 is. I took care of the children of Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman. After 30 years I left, but I’m still involved in the community. The things that you have to provide for the community are housing, education and health services. I consider myself a community activist. I’ve been involved with the gardens. There is a center on 9th Street between C and D called Loisaida Center, and I’m volunteering with them. My motto is, I’m not a volunteer, I donate my time. That’s another way to look at it.

I’m still here, I have two children even though they’re grown ups now, They’re doing great. I love this neighborhood. I want to give you an example – I used to walk out of the door and before you got to the corner you say, ‘hello’ to 5 or 10 people. It’s the community, the sense of community, the sense of caring about each other. You care about the old, the young, the adolescents. There are parks, youth centers. This is my neighborhood; this is my barrio. I think that concept comes from agrarian societies – that concept of barrio, of community. For some reason, the people who moved here had that spirit of community. The gardens are an example of that. People get together — the old, the young — and plant. There are more gardens between Houston and 14th, from A to D, than in any other neighborhood in New York City – and great, incredible gardens. I don’t play favorites – I love all of them.

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


Anonymous said...

A wonderful oral history of our neighborhood from someone that see and lived for all these years.

Anonymous said...

It looks like Pepe has great style! I love the gardens too. There will be lot and lots of arts and cultural events in them at this weekend's LUNGS Harvest Arts Festival. A liot like what used to take place at The Gas Station (miss that crazy place!)

Anonymous said...

Amazing story. Thanks, Pepe for sharing man.

Anonymous said...

I wish people who keep saying that the old EV was all about drugs and crime would read this first-hand account of what it was actually living here back then, instead of getting their info from TV shows such as Law and Order and NYPD Blue and FOX news and other fake news.

I've accepted or tolerated gentrification as long as the neighborhood being "gentrified" or improved was nothing or rundoen before, e.g., abandoned buildings in a former industrialized area. Closest thing for this would be parts in Newark and Long Island City.

But the neighborhood being destroyed and gentrified. esp. EV and Williamsburg (well this one is a goner) already have a vibrant community and character filled with characters. And now, historical buildings, pastel colored and such, who are inhabited by long term residents are being destroyed and for what? for more glass generic condos, to be inhabited by same pod people. And for the almighty dollar. No sense of community or giving one's time to help others out. It's all about 'me'.

Anonymous said...

Pepe, well said! You've given a very eloquent history of the area!

I agree with everything you said, and I wish we could drum this particular item into the awareness of people of all ages & stripes: "It’s a way that the system, the powers that be use to oppressed people. When you’re doing drugs, you don’t care about housing, education. You just care about your habit and that’s it."

Anonymous said...

Speak for yourself 2:52pm. I still feel a strong sense of community over her on 9th Street.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the history of this place. Always wondered when the tide turned, there is ample reference available about the setting up of the east village and stuy town, but nothing much about why and when things changed.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has lived here since 1975 - I will say that the decline started after the Lindsay administration allowed the looting to occur.

Most of the HDFC buildings are located on the avenues. Why? Because zoning regulations allowed for stores in those buildings. Most of the time the store owners were also the building owners, and most of them did not consider the apartments as a source of income (vide the large fabric store on Orchard Street just south of Houston). Once the stores were looted the store owners had to make a decision - return and reopen the stores and repair whatever other damages had occured - or quietly retire.

Most store owners decided to retire.

It was not simply owners burning their buildings - that is a simplistic Marxist approach.

The residents of the community also need to take responsibility for their actions in the decline.