time on St. Marks Place is when the lights glow and
the people come out
on a mild September morning, an elderly man on a black
bicycle meanders along the paths of Tompkins Square Park,
in New York’s East Village. A cassette tape player
balanced on the bicycle’s crossbar plays tinny Asian
music that grows louder as he approaches and then fainter
as he pedals away. The only other sound is birdsong.
stop to sniff some drooping, blowsy roses. I crouch to
read the inscriptions on the cobblestones: "Blake
Schaefer — One helluva guy." "Steven Vincent
— He loved this park." "In loving memory of
Demko (the dog)."
watch a group of women doing tai chi on the grass, the
early sun lighting their faces, making them glow.
the park fence, on the sidewalk, folks are setting up
tables for a farmers market. I buy a guava pie and eat it
as I walk back to my hotel on St. Marks Place.
a lovely place, I think. So peaceful. So hidden. So
I do not know what I am talking about. Clearly, I do not
know a thing.
Marks Place, as it turned out, might be the most famous
street in all of New York City — outside of Broadway, I
guess, and maybe Fifth Avenue. It is very short. It starts
at Astor Place and ends three blocks later at Tompkins
Square Park. But just about everyone has lived along those
three blocks, or has loved, fought, joined a band, planned
a revolution, written a poem, danced all night, dropped
acid, eaten tacos, gotten drunk, sold something on the
sidewalk or crashed on somebody’s couch here.
want names? Emma Goldman, Andy Warhol, Charlie Parker, Al
Capone, W.H. Auden, Patti Smith, Norman Mailer, Jack
London, Leon Trotsky, Debbie Harry, James Fenimore Cooper,
Thelonious Monk, Jackie Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein, Allen
Ginsberg, the Ramones. There are more. Abbie Hoffman used
to invite the neighbors over to watch TV here.
street has been immortalized on album covers and in music,
movies, videos, TV shows, poems and novels. Lou Reed wrote
a song about it. Ada Calhoun wrote a book about it. Lena
Dunham set an entire episode of "Girls" here.
can it be that I had never heard of it?
had not been to New York in nearly 20 years when,
suddenly, work brought me there three times last year, and
three times again this year. My meetings were all in the
East Village, at New York University and the New School. I
wasn’t sure where they were, could not remember how to
use the subway, had no idea where to stay.
friend suggested an inexpensive hotel right around the
corner from NYU: St. Marks Hotel.
very basic," she warned. "No refrigerator. No
elevator. No doorman! Though the really nice person at the
desk has been there for years."
was only $110 a night — cash only.
room in St. Marks Hotel was up four steep flights and so
tiny that it held only two things: a bed, and a
straight-back chair. But the window opened onto the
exciting noise of honking cabs and shouting pedestrians,
the room was scrupulously clean, and I had free Wi-Fi.
first night there, I walked down the many stairs, out the
hotel’s front door, turned right, and, bam! I was in
IMMIGRANTS TO RADICALS
Marks Place is a typical narrow East Village street, lined
with tall brick and stone buildings, some with fire
escapes and wrought-iron railings along the front stoops.
Festive white lights are twined in branches, or strung
from doorways to trees.
street was settled in the early 1800s by immigrants —
well-to-do Germans, followed by Jews, Italians, Poles and
Ukrainians. Due in part to its proximity to NYU and Cooper
Union, St. Marks Place became a hotbed of communism, and
that counterculture vibe has continued. The street has
been home to beatniks and anarchists and hippies and drag
queens and punk rockers. Everything, it seems, happened
here first. Journalist Ada Calhoun grew up on St. Marks
Place, and as she writes in her excellent book, "St.
Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest
Street," everyone who has ever hung out there has
believed that their time on St. Marks was the hippest. She
quotes writer Malcolm Cowley: "Bohemia is always
as I walked along the street, it still looked pretty
Bohemian to me.
were storefronts at ground level, apartments above, leafy
trees along the sidewalks, people everywhere day and night
(but mostly night) selling things, arguing, laughing,
plotting their tattoos ("They’re only $13," I
heard one girl say), walking their dogs, sleeping in
stairwells or on the bench outside of the flag-festooned
St. Dymphna’s Irish bar.
of the lampposts sparkled in their own light; over the
years, more than 60 lamp poles along St. Marks and
elsewhere in the East Village have been decorated with
elaborate mosaics by Jim Powers, a white-haired veteran
who came back from Vietnam with PTSD and found making
public art out of tiny bits of glass, ceramic, mirrors and
coins to be therapeutic.
first night I walked through a cloud of pot smoke, past
some immigrants who were selling hats and sunglasses on
the sidewalk, past a tattoo parlor; a comic book store; a
barbershop; two or three small theaters; a used bookstore
with a tin ceiling; a Mexican taqueria; a noisy Irish bar;
another noisy Irish bar; a couple of bakeries; a workout
place; Gem Spa, the venerable newsstand that invented the
egg cream; and Crif Dogs, a hot dog joint with an
impressive giant hot dog jutting out above the door,
"eat me" written on it in mustard-colored paint.
young woman smoking a cigarette on a stoop watched me take
a photo. "That will be good picture," she said
in a Russian accent, and I could not tell if she was being
sardonic. "A hot dog."
walked up and down those three blocks, up and down, up and
down. A parade of people silently glided past wearing
antlers and white-faced masks. I wanted to follow them,
but they looked so magical and mysterious I just stood and
watched them go.
A SECRET AT ALL
my first stay on St. Marks Place, I told my family and
friends about my find.
all knew about it already.
brother used to hang out on St. Marks Place when he lived
in New York in the 1970s; he felt it had been cleaned up
enough in recent years to bring his daughters there two
friend told me that he used to go to Wigstock, the huge
end-of-summer drag festival held in Tompkins Square Park
in the 1980s. Another friend wrote, "I was at St.
Marks back in the ’80s — they used to sell yard-sale
type stuff on carpets." ("Still do!" I
MYSTERIOUS PHONE BOOTH
are more than 60 places to eat along St. Marks Place —
yuppie places with craft beer and complicated cocktails,
as well as inexpensive ethnic restaurants with sushi, lamb
burgers, tortillas, falafel, Chinese dumplings, potato
pancakes, ice cream.
King — its name lit up in cheerful neon — was right
across the street from my hotel, a colorful beacon that
told me I was almost home. It sells the best hot dogs in
New York — so says Julia Child, her words on the front
window, also in neon. But it was my plan to visit Crif
Dogs — the place with the "eat me" wiener —
because Crif Dogs has a secret.
a classic hot dog joint, down five steps from street
level, with a wooden floor, a low ceiling, orange-red
vinyl chairs, an old retro phone booth. A New York friend
clued me in on the secret: On the other side of the wall
is an old speakeasy. To get in you must enter the phone
booth, lift the receiver, press a button. The wall of the
phone booth will open.
sounded cooler than anything, and so on St. Patrick’s
Day, chased out of St. Dymphna’s bar by the over-loud
thumping of the Pogues, I dragged some friends across the
street to Crif Dogs. But we were stymied. Two people had
parked their orange-red vinyl chairs squarely in front of
the phone booth, and they were not about to budge.
"Do you have a reservation?" one of them
did not. It had not occurred to me that we would need a
reservation for a secret bar inside of a phone booth.
TO THE PARK
serene Tompkins Square Park that I strolled through on
that September morning might be sedate these days, but
that has not always been true. For decades, the park was
the political heart of the Village, home to protests,
homeless camps, riots and demonstrations. In 1874 more
than 7,000 people filled the park, protesting
unemployment, and they were routed by 1,600 policemen
riding horseback and swinging billy clubs.
1966, followers of Hare Krishna gathered under a spreading
elm tree in the park and held the first outdoor chanting
session outside of India, dancing and shaking their
tambourines. That moment marked the birth of the Hare
Krishna religion in the United States; the elm tree is
forever known as the Krishna Tree.
the 1980s, the park was overrun with tent cities and
homeless people for years until August 1988, when the
police moved in, again with billy clubs. The ensuing riot
lasted until dawn and saw hundreds of people injured, the
tent city trampled to dirt.
are tamer now. The park is the site of an annual Halloween
costume parade for dogs. How times change! Bohemia was
I know any of this on that first morning? No. I was
smelling the roses, eating a guava pie and watching a man
with a radio cycle past me in loopy, wavering circles. I
was thinking that I had happened upon the most peaceful
spot in all of New York City.