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St. Mark’s Place: Still lively after all these years

BY MARTHA WILKIE | St. Mark’s Place in the East Village has had many more than nine lives. It’s been home to Peter Stuyvesant’s fruit orchards, waves of immigrants and, eventually, poets (Auden), artists (Joan Mitchell), musicians (Debbie Harry), counterculture figures (Leon Trotsky, Lenny Bruce) and countless other creative types.

By the 1960s, St. Mark’s Place was the epicenter of hippie counterculture, and in the 1970s, of rock, punk and new wave music. Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Physical Graffiti” album cover was shot there, as was a Rolling Stones video on the stoop of the same building. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin founded the Yippies on St. Mark’s Place and it was home to radical shops such as Trash and Vaudeville and Manic Panic.

Famed photographer Roberta Bayley, who chronicled the punk/new wave scene (Blondie, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols) has lived on St. Mark’s Place since 1975. I recently spoke with her after she’d just returned from Buenos Aires where her work is featured in museums and galleries. (The Ramones are huge in Argentina, who knew?)

In funkier times, Anya Phillips and Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys in front of Manic Panic, at 33 St. Mark’s Place, in 1977. Photo by Roberta Bayley

She worked the door at CBGB and knew everyone in the Downtown music and art world. What changes has she seen?

“When I first came, there were almost no places, just CBGB, Max’s [Kansas City],” she said. “St. Mark’s was a very quiet block. Little by little, places started opening: Club 57, Café Orlin. What I liked about the ’70s music scene was the casualness of it all. The ‘stars’ of the scene, even the New York Dolls, who were the most famous New York band back then, would just be walking down the street like anyone else, and you could just say hello. Nobody acted like stars. It was like San Francisco in the ’60s when you’d see Janis Joplin taking the Muni bus on Haight St. Then at night, two or three good bands would be playing, and you might have to go back and forth between CB’s and Max’s to catch both sets.”

“Then maybe they’d get a spot at a bigger venue like The Bottom Line or as opening act at the Palladium, and you’d go see them there, and all your friends would be there, too,” she recalled. “Nobody was making much money, so it didn’t make sense to have more than a friendly rivalry with another band. Even the groupies were friends! We were all in it together.”

Bayley feels that today’s St. Mark’s is still lively (and much better than during the druggie days of the ’80s), even if a swath of empty storefronts around the corner from the (soon-to-be-closed) infamous dive bar the Continental probably portends another glass tower. The closing of record and book shops saddens her as do the empty retail spaces. While she misses old favorites like Café Orlin, she enjoys the fun new Asian restaurants and karaoke bars that have popped up on the street.

The Daniel LeRoy House at 20 St. Mark’s Place was built in 1832 in the Greek Revival style. A New York City landmark, it’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s the former home of the Grassroots Tavern and Sounds, the last record store on St. Mark’s. It’s now been empty for more than two years. Photo by Martha Wilkie

Bayley is optimistic that new efforts by the city to incentivize landlords to fill empty storefronts with small businesses might help. Even the John Varvatos shop in the old CBGB space doesn’t get too harsh a condemnation. Of Varvatos’s juxtaposition of expensive clothes with remnants of 1970s grime, she said, “A $4,000 jacket is a little incongruous! At least it’s better than another bank.”

Author Ada Calhoun, who grew up on St. Mark’s, beautifully outlines the street’s vivid history in her 2015 book “St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street.” The title alludes to generation after generation claiming that their own particular “back in the day” was the street’s peak.

“I’m dismayed by all the empty storefronts, and by Sounds closing a couple years back,” Calhoun said. “I’m glad East Village Books is hanging on, and Gem Spa and B&H. And it seems to me that the street’s primary identity as a place for young people to meet up and hang out has not changed, in spite of the new developments. Rent is sky-high, but the sidewalks are still free.”

To purchase prints of Bayley’s photography, visit rockpaperphoto.com or RobertaBayley.com.

If you enjoy the St. Mark’s spirit, here are four places nearby to rent or buy.

Only one place for sale is actually on St. Mark’s: No. 51, a sleek modern one-bedroom for $820,000 in a 1920s building. The renovation makes the most of a long and skinny floor plan.

At 64 E. Seventh St., for a mere $18 million, is a grand and idiosyncratic five-bedroom, five-bath house with a backyard garden, roof deck (complete with pizza oven), and five fireplaces. Built in 1899, it looks like the lair of a very rich, mad scientist.

For rentals, at 10 St. Mark’s Place is a sweet one-bedroom with an original (nonworking) fireplace and an attractive black-and-white kitchen, for $2,475 a month.

And, finally, there’s a newly renovated duplex at 103 St. Mark’s Place in a 1920s house for $2,500 a month. It’s the former home of wildly eccentric ’80s performer Klaus Nomi. If strangers leave yellow roses outside Emma Lazarus’s former house, what do Nomi fans leave?

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