January 22, 2010

Postcards from a Walk on St. Mark's Place and W. 8th Street

A walk along the colorful streets of St. Mark's Place in the East Village and west on 8th Street in Greenwich Village offers an overdose of visual pleasures but also a sense of the ephemeral nature of the contemporary urban experience. Like many other streets of the city, favorite places come and go so quickly here that repeating the walk at regular intervals teases with the memory. Where was that Mexican restaurant I visited last year? Where has it gone? Many New York residents and visitors with a strong sense of place must surely share this sense of confusion and displacement; yet, technological changes in how we relate to the city make me wonder. On a recent walk here I also noticed several people walking slowly along the street, heads down, eyes on the cell phone in their hand in front of them. Oblivious to the sights of the street, except maybe for the sidewalk, they seemed to occupy a separate reality.

If the walking residents of cyberspace would look up and observe, they might notice that St. Marks Place, just to the west of Tompkins Square Park, is lined with tenement buildings, intimate shops, and small restaurants that often sport splashy hues of color. A bright rose-colored brick building sits over a storefront cafe trimmed in electric neon green. A little farther down the street, the green restaurant awnings mix it up with storefronts painted turquoise or mustard color and lovely stoops set into arched doorways crowned with carved faces. Mosaics, painted metal storefront grates, round sidewalk tables, a bright blue door, and a street level apartment painted in an intense purple eggplant color, all elements in what could be called an East Village style, give way to a restrained and subtle stretch of buildings with facades in the Italianate style.

After crossing Second Avenue, St. Mark's Place becomes an amusement park. Suddenly, it's all wild hats for sale on the street, Asian and Middle Eastern food, pizza booths, tattoo parlors, yogurt-gelato in all its forms, a chain bourgeois Mexican food place, stores that sell ironic gifts, body therapy and karate studios, an upscale grocery, and yet more Asian fusion restaurants. The block is packed.
Go to this block of St. Marks Place on a warm night, and you'll see many people spilling out into the street. Though many of the scene makers that originally made this block a center of downtown hip-beat-punk-metal culture in the 1970s and 1980s have moved on, the remnants have crystallized into a kind of ersatz living history museum. Yet, the street seems to change constantly with places opening and closing, most notably changing during the most recent housing bubble and its recessionary bust. There's much colorful pre-bourgeois history here, for sure, with stories involving homeless encampments, Leon Trotsky, alternative film, the Rolling Stones, Keith Haring, eggcreams, Andy Warhol, the first cooking school, and Lenny Bruce, but it remains to be seen how long the street's psychedelic reverberations can last. An 18-year-old walking down this street now, staring into the cell phone and in some other world, could be perfectly oblivious of the surrounding pretty colors.


View St. Mark's Place/8th Street in a larger map

The scene shifts dramatically walking into Astor Place, with vistas opening wide to the north and south. Passing the massive Cooper Union building and then the late Charles Gwathmey's tall undulating glassy Sculpture for Living tower, veer to the right of the cubed sculpture, the Alamo, to continue on 8th Street. You know, next to the Kmart. Ahead on E. 8th, postwar apartment buildings and the long row of a bricked shopping mall give the street a far different character and scale than St. Marks Place. Crossing University Place, it's hard not to notice Harvey Wiley Corbett's theatrical village-like 8th Street apartments on the left and beyond, his distinctive setback skyscraper, One Fifth Avenue. It looks like something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

On the other side of Fifth Avenue, older buildings come back into view. The New York Studio School, the former home of the Whitney Museum, is here. Once a bustling bohemian street with popular eateries, the street later picked up the countercultural vibes of the 1960s and 1970s, a kind of hippie counterpoint to the punk sensibility of St. Mark's Place. The blocks have also been known as a destination for shoes, and many of these stores are still in evidence. In 2006 the street suffered from several closures, as rising rents forced longtime business away. Not long ago, the Salvation Army store closed, but the Army-Navy place is still around. Like St. Mark's Place, West 8th still wrestles with how to celebrate its own nostalgia. At the end of the block, where the street intersects with 6th Avenue, Gray's Papaya will be happy to sell you a "Recession Special."

Enlarging the embedded map in Street View reveals the streets on a warm and sunny day. Leaves are on the trees. Walking the virtual W. 8th Street, I can still see the sign for Pio Maya, the Mexican taco place I liked but that is now gone. The image shows it's shuttered. Down the block, rental signs are posted in one or two storefront windows. One is now the 8th Street Kitchen. Walking down the street and looking at a cell phone, it's sometimes hard to notice the instant fading postcard views of the contemporary city. But it is easy to make them.

Hey, man, walking down a real street is cool. It's so retro. It's so analog.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from the morning of January 19, 2010 created with the iPhone app, Lo-Mob. For a longer trip, the self-guided walk illustrated here can easily be stretched from the East River, via a walkway on E. 6th Street over the FDR, to the Hudson River, via Christopher Street.

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