A vibrant narrative history of three hallowed Manhattan blocks—the epicenter of American cool.
St. Marks Place in New York City has spawned countless artistic and political movements. Here Frank O’Hara caroused, Emma Goldman plotted, and the Velvet Underground wailed. But every generation of miscreant denizens believes that their era, and no other, marked the street’s apex. This idiosyncratic work of reportage tells the many layered history of the street—from its beginnings as Colonial Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s pear orchard to today’s hipster playground—organized around those pivotal moments when critics declared “St. Marks is dead.”
In a narrative enriched by hundreds of interviews and dozens of rare images, St. Marks native Ada Calhoun profiles iconic characters from W. H. Auden to Abbie Hoffman, from Keith Haring to the Beastie Boys, among many others. She argues that St. Marks has variously been an elite address, an immigrants’ haven, a mafia warzone, a hippie paradise, and a backdrop to the film Kids—but it has always been a place that outsiders call home. This idiosyncratic work offers a bold new perspective on gentrification, urban nostalgia, and the evolution of a community.
Calhoun, a journalist who grew up on New York City's St. Marks Place, delivers a captivating, multidimensional history of her native stomping ground, long a magnet for the counterculture. In a vivid and fluid narrative that draws on interviews with over 200 current and former residents, Calhoun highlights pivotal aspects of St. Marks's 400-year history: the 19th- and 20th-century social reformers who founded schools and services for the indigent, Emma Goldman and her plot to assassinate Henry Frick, the successive waves of immigration and resultant ethnic tensions, a thriving music scene that's included both Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the Beastie Boys, the AIDS crisis, the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot, the skater scene of the 1990s, and much more. She also brings many famous and infamous residents to life, including mobster Benny "Dopey" Fein, W.H. Auden, Amiri Baraka (when he was known as LeRoi Jones), and Father Michael Allen, the "hippie" priest of St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, who saw the future of religion in jazz and poetry. As Calhoun traces the neighborhood's evolution from wealthy and respectable to gritty and poverty-stricken and back again, she shows how one street can become a microcosm of America's political and cultural history.