Judging just by the looks of its current commercial occupants, the stretch of Second Avenue between Houston on the south and 14th Street to the north appears primarily as a food destination. Dozens of restaurants and bars crowd both sides of the eclectic-looking avenue, offering an impressive array of world cuisine - Thai, Ukrainian, North African, Belgian, New American, French, and more. Several celebrated restaurants, such as Momofuku Ssäm Bar on the southwest corner of Second Avenue and E. 13th Street, have been gravitating to this part of the East Village for the past few years. Beyond its culinary moment in the sun, however, Second Avenue's famous past is increasingly hard to discern. The street served as the nerve center for many important cultural moments, but two periods of its history stand out - first, as a major center for Yiddish theatre in the early part of the 20th century, and second, as a major thoroughfare in the downtown art scene from the 1960s to 1990.
I was reminded of the avenue's theater history this week by reading the New York Times obituary of Mina Bern, 98, described there as "a plucky and versatile actress and singer who was one of the last links to the scrappy world of Yiddish theater in New York." Second Avenue was once home to over a dozen Yiddish-language theaters that catered to the nearby tenement dwellers in the Lower East Side. A couple of these old theater buildings remain, though used in a different capacity - the Village East Cinemas, formerly the Yiddish Art Theatre, and the Orpheum, a smaller theatre originally built for vaudeville but later for Yiddish theater. At the southeast corner of Second Avenue and E. 10th Street, in front of what is now a Chase bank location, look down at the sidewalk. For many years, the Second Avenue Deli (162 E 33rd St.) was at this location, and its owner, Abe Lebewohl, installed this Yiddish Walk of Fame here in front of his restaurant to celebrate the stars of the era. Presenting often innovative plays such as The Dybbuk (1919) and The Golem (1921) during its heyday, a few of the theaters continued operations into the 1960s. By then, the surrounding neighborhood, a place people considered to be the northern section of the Lower East Side, began to establish a separate identity as the East Village.
Seeing the new exhibit at NYU's Grey Art Museum, Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives, 1961-1991, reminded me of the emergence of this second wave of celebrity for Second Avenue and surrounding streets. First the Beats and then the artists associated with the Downtown Scene moved into the tenements and the theaters, making new art and new music. Second Avenue became home to gay émigré Quentin Crisp and artist David Wojnarowicz. La Mama Experimental Theater Company was located here until the late 1960s. In 1970 Jonas Mekas and others opened Anthology Film Archives in a building at the intersection of 2nd Street to showcase experimental cinema. The Warhol crowd hung out in the avenue cabaret bars. In 1968 the Fillmore East opened in a movie house and Yiddish theatre at the intersection of E. 6th Street and Second Avenue. The art, music, films, and lifestyles explored on these streets reverberated throughout the entire world.
View The Many Lives of Second Avenue, Houston to 14th Street in a larger map
Several other notable buildings along Second Avenue point to additional stories from the past. Certainly, St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery, located on the 17th century farm of Petrus Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam, connects the thoroughfare with early New York history. In modern history, the church has been associated with many arts groups such as Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater. The Ottendorfer Library, founded in 1884, and the Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital connect the area to its days as a German neighborhood. Middle Collegiate Church, housed in a renovated building from 1892, traces its history back to 1628. Several places along the way show historic links to Ukrainian culture.
Who knows what new life will unfold along this historic thoroughfare? Word comes this week that the Telephone Bar and Grill, a popular British-style pub, will close at the end of the month after 22 years on Second Avenue. The closure comes as yet another in East Village's disappearing act. No doubt other places will come and go. Beyond food and drink, however, the street awaits a new creative culture. We can only hope for that. Second Avenue needs to live up to its former billing, beyond just being a place to eat.
Images of Second Avenue by Walking Off the Big Apple from the morning of January 13, 2010. Clicking on images will enlarge them in a new window. Created with various settings of the lo-mob app for the iPhone. For more on iPhone camera apps, consult this post.