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| A Unique Street
Recently Ellen Stewart died at 91. She was the brilliantly instinctive, risk-taking, and indefatigable founder and artistic director of La MaMa Experimental Theater Club, cornerstone of Off-Off Broadway Theater for almost half a century. Her theater, La MaMa, was founded on a shoestring, and was dedicated to multicultural and avant-garde drama and performance art. In its first two decades actors, like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Olympia Dukakis performed, and playwrights like Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Lanford Wilson had their early plays produced there. In the sixties, La MaMa formed troupes that traveled the world presenting plays, and over the years it brought many foreign companies and notable theater artists to New York, like the British Peter Brook and Polish directors Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor.
La MaMa, whose productions I have only irregularly attended, is located on East Fourth Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue in the East Village, and was the linchpin on what was to become one of the city's most fascinating streets. (La MaMa now boasts two buildings on East Fourth Street - Stewart resided in an apartment in one of them.) The street may be just a block long, but today it encompasses 12 theaters (attracting 200,000 patrons a year), 8 dance/rehearsal studios, 3 film-editing suites, and a large screening room. In the next two years, an estimated 40,000 sq. feet (3,716 m2) of newly vacant space will be transformed into active cultural use. And in 2006 the City sold eight properties to the block's art groups for $8, and named East Fourth Street the first official Cultural District in Manhattan. In addition, the deal stated that nonprofit cultural groups must always own the buildings - a majestic act by the City.
I often walk along the street, because I meet friends for drinks early evenings at Phebe's bar - exposed-brick, large, pleasant (it has many tables next to a row of windows looking out on the street), and quiet. Of course, Phebe's serenity only survives until its nightly post-collegiate crowd arrives, and begins to root deafeningly for their favorite teams playing on the bar's countless TVs - making conversation impossible. And then there is the 4th Street Food Co-op (lower Manhattan's only food co-op) - a small, member-owned and operated store that offers locally grown, organic, and ethically produced products. What I like about this unprofessionally, sometimes sloppily run store is that its style is totally non-corporate and brings back memories of what was best about the counter culture - its spontaneity and feeling of authenticity.
The street contains a potpourri of other out of the ordinary small businesses including a shop that specializes in maps and prints, the Photo Gallery that runs rotating exhibits, a store selling and repairing Indian instruments, another that sells guitars, and still another selling handmade jewelry. Besides La MaMa, there are other cultural institutions and venues like Rod Rogers Dance Company - housed in a building with a bizarre, frontal, cylindrical metal fire escape, enclosed by a tubular metal grill; Downtown Art - a youth theater company, the New York Theater Workshop with its formally and intellectually adventurous, but often uneven and unrealized productions; the Millennium Film Workshop - a renowned media art center dedicated to the study, exhibition, and practice of experimental film and video; and the Eastville Comedy Club.
4th street today hums with activity and variety. But it wasn't always that way. I had coffee with a long time resident - a poet and political activist, who is also a teacher, translator, carpenter, furniture designer, and theatre worker. A man who wears many hats, he first moved to the street in 1978, at which time he found it run down and dirty, but alluringly very cheap. The city owned most of the tenements on the street, and was losing money on them. Consequently, the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) intended to sell the buildings to developers, who planned to transform the social class and ethnic character of a neighborhood, then consisting of a mix of Hispanics, white ethnics, Afro-Americans, and East Village bohemians.
With the help of a community organization, the Cooper Square Committee, founded in 1959 to combat one of Robert Moses's more odious urban renewal plans (which would have razed most of the existing housing in the area), the street's residents organized to maintain their buildings. Led by three politically skilled and powerful female activists (Frances Goldin, Esther Rand, and Thelma Burdick) the struggle went on for years, without the street ever succumbing to developers or any of the tenants being forcibly relocated.
In 1990, the Cooper Square Committee and the Dinkins Administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which paved the way for the gut rehabilitation and preservation of over 300 low-income housing units in 22 buildings on 4th St. The ethnic mix of people who live in the buildings remains the same as before, and there is an income requirement in place for those who own shares in the co-op apartments. They also can't sell them on the market for a profit, but must sell them back to the co-op when they leave. There is one egregious intrusion on the street's sense of equity - a 15-floor setback luxury condo with floor to ceiling glass windows, where prices range from $700,000 to $3,200,000 for its 14 apartments.
The poet/activist I spoke to sees the street “as a village” or community where he knows many people, and is able to casually stop on the street and gossip with them. I see it also as something unique - a rarity - a street that exists in accord with the slogan used in a 1912 textile strike - “Bread and Roses.” East 4th may not have the charm or beauty of a West Village street, but it offers decent living conditions and a sense of dignity to its tenants, and throws in a hive of bold artistic activity. It's something that clearly should be emulated, but given that the real estate interests control city housing policy, probably never will.