I made this video for David, a dear teacher and friend who lived on E. 4th St in his Bohemian days. He lives in California, recently turned 80, and will probably never see this street again. Different friends who lived there tell me it was a dynamic, exciting place in the 50s and 60s. And I think it’s still creative & dynamic, human, real. Sit back and groove…
The Wikipedia history of Alphabet City (a term mayor Ed Koch used in a New York Times article he published in 1984) indicates this was a dangerous part of New York until crime rates dropped in the late 90s and early oughts. I wanted to show my friend how the street he grew up on has changed. That there is love, hope, and people helping each other. He became a spiritual teacher and showed me tremendous kindness on my journey. He helped me experiment, find myself, and mature. I was thrilled to discover the value of teaching expressed in the street art of this block of E. 4th St, between Ave. A and Ave. B. As harsh as it was when he lived here, I think there must be a channel of the ultimate goodness of reality and human nature that rises out of the old salt marshes, up through the earth and concrete, and into the souls of the street’s inhabitants.
Another dear friend, Allan, also a teacher, moved to this block from Long Island in the 60s, the minute he turned 18. That’s why I focused on #217, so he could see how his seedy apartment looks now. He told me about artist-nudist-humanist-activist Louis Abolafia’s presidential campaign in 1967-1968. My friend had just moved to E. 4th St., and Abolafia’s headquarters were in the same street. This street was in the heart of the Lower East Side drug culture in the 60s. Sadly Abolafia died of a drug overdose in California in 1995.
Allan said “I remember Louis Abolafia very well, used to pass his storefront campaign headquarters all the time. I can feel an affectionate warmth for that time and place, and for that young soul wondering, ‘which way from here?’ Everything was alive with possibility, in the neighborhood and the culture, on the streets and in the air. I’m lucky to have lived there and then. It was still slum when I got there, as it was when David grew up. People were just beginning to call it the East Village. But I think that sounded pretentious to many of us who lived there. It was just the Lower East Side, as it had always been.”
Dorian Gray Pub
I am a writer, and I wondered about the pub in this block called Dorian Gray, with the Canadian flag included among the string of flags out front. (David taught a group in Vancouver, BC, for 15 years, and I thought this Canadian flag was a nice reminder of our group and those years.) I wondered if it was some young hipster who didn’t know a thing about Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, first released in a periodical in 1890. A little research revealed that Oscar Wilde’s great-grandnephew opened this pub, and it is a literary hangout. As you will see, Jason Darling is purported to play there on Wednesday nights!
I put a few historical clippings about themes from this block at the end of the video. You can press the Pause button to read them, if you like.
The Blizzard of 2016
I invite you to take some time to sink into the groove and drink in the details of this diverse—alternately rough and polished—creative, expressive street. People might say New York has been gentrified beyond recognition, but I think this block of E. 4th St. shows that it is still a home, a place for children to grow up, a place where people stand on the street together and enjoy each other’s company, and a place for discovery through graffiti, art, theatre, religion, law, psychic consultation, and liquor! And, on special days like this one, a place to chuck a few snowballs.
P.S. Another luminary lived in this block, in a fifth-floor walk-up. Hint: Like a Virgin! Ooh, touched for the very first time… She moved here in about 1978—it was her second New York apartment after moving from Detroit with $35 in her pocket—and she lived in this apartment for a few years before her music career began to take off and she moved to a loft on Broome St. Her song Ray of Light, “And I feel, like I just got home…” feels like an expression of spiritual ecstasy to me, flying through the stars, faster than a ray of light. “Waiting for a time when earth shall be as one.” On E. 4th St., I think it’s like that. Each One Teach One.
Production and Editing Notes
I shot the material for this video during an afternoon a few days after a January snowfall (the blizzard of 2016, during which the mayor closed down the city of Manhattan to wait it out).
This piece is an experiment with moving from stillness into motion and back again. I wanted to linger on some shots to give a longing heart time to drink in every detail of the bricks and paint and tiles and people. Then move more quickly with others to bring dynamism and a hunger for more time. The moving clips bring the immediacy of being there, enhanced by the focus on the sounds of the street.
I used an ancient iPhone 5S! Corel PaintShop Pro Photo for the photo editing. Camtasia Studio to put the video together, with QuickTime Player and Windows Media Player as support for planning the music.
I opened with Richard Hell and the Voidoid’s Blank Generation—a classic that kicked off the punk music wave, influencing Britain’s Sex Pistols and many others. Richard lives in the East Village. I think these lyrics are brilliant, and point to the mysteries of birth, life, and death—something my friend taught me about.
The next two segments had to be Lou Reed. I played around with different alternatives, but for me, Lou Reed’s music epitomizes the East Village, and it had to be him. Looking at these buildings, thinking about his painful life and the poignancy, despair, hope, and joy he wrung out of it through his musical genius, pulls on my heart to soar in that same way.
The closing credit music is Jason Darling playing at the Dorian Gray pub. The sound of breaking glass, a happy crowd, a local musician, and a song about California seemed like a perfect closing for David. Thanks to Tadhg Ennis for posting this recording on YouTube.
Here is an alternative version, with Lou Reed’s Heroin as the only music. Let me know which one you like better!