Saturday, June 16, 2007

The East Village and Alphabet City - Turning Japanese

So in honor of this blog's new name, I thought I'd spend a post giving you a little tour of the East Village and Alphabet City, and telling you what they're all about and how they've changed over the years. No doubt a lot of you kids out there have heard all about these neighborhoods and just how hip and cool they're supposed to be.

I lived in the East Village in the early 90's, when I was in college and before it got stupidly expensive. The neighborhood was a real dump back then, and Alphabet City was worse. It was really dangerous too. There were 24 murders in the East Village my first year there, and I saw the aftermath of a couple of them. I personally lived directly above a 60 year old female drug dealer who liked to sunbathe in the nude on the roof below my window while she blasted her music at full volume until 5 o'clock in the morning every night. My building was directly across the street from the Hell's Angels New York headquarters. Hey, they kept our block safe - nobody was gonna mess with them. I paid $594 per month for my roach-infested studio apartment.

I lived on 1st Avenue and 3rd St, the southeastern end of the East Village and one block over from Avenue A, the original namesake of this here blog and the frontier of Alphabet City. I worked for a while on St. Mark's place, traditional home of punkz & skinz and other counterculture types. It's the equivalent of Harajuku's Takeshita Street, for anyone who read my Japan trip report. My former place of employment still exists:

Yeah, kinda nerdy, but not as much as you might think. Comic book shops in the East Village aren't like comic book shops in Peoria, Illinois. Sure, there's a big Superman sign there in the window, but there's also a large "adult" section in the back. And a big indie section too. The comics I used to read? Stuff like HATE on the one hand and The Sandman on the other. My co-workers at this comic shop included a go-go dancer/heroin addict and a dominatrix.

But this is one of the only stores left from when I used to live in the area. The whole street has gone Japanese! Every other storefront now is a Japanese restaurant or convenience store. Some are older than others, but it's clear that this area is now a mecca for New York City's large Japanese population:

I have to admit, it's still kind of funny (though honestly understandable) seeing American tourists walk in to Italian Tomato expecting it to be an Italian restaurant and then being confronted by a bunch of curry dishes and sushi.

These two places below were among the first in the area, and probably helped attract a lot of the Japanese population:

That's Sunrise Mart and Village Yokocho, one of my favorite places since when I first met my wife. Village Yokocho is basically a bar, serving Japanese bar food... sort of tapas-like, things that go well with beer and are meant to be shared. It's a social place, and fun - but don't go there expecting quiet. It is very cheap, though, and attracts a young crowd as a result.

I love Village Yokocho, and I love Japan, but honestly, I don't know how I feel about this outright takeover of a street that holds such a history for me. I am honestly not really in favor of globalization. I believe in cultural uniqueness and distinctiveness; I believe it's important to preserve that, especially as it's so quickly being lost around the world as time marches on. And just as I am a little put off by the rampant Americanization of Japan (and frankly many other countries), I am also a little put off by the Japanification of the East Village. It's not that I don't think there should be any options for Japanese ex-pats living in the US, but there comes a point when it's just enough already. The long-time residents of this area must be feeling a bit like outsiders in their own neighborhood right now. I know I feel like an outsider when I visit there now, and it's not because I've changed - it's because the neighborhood has.

(Oddly enough, I feel more comfortable in Japan itself.)

If you're curious, the biggest concentration of Japanese stores and restaurants is outlined here:

More changes to the neighborhood... when I lived there, this was a parking lot:

I haven't decided yet whether or not this is an improvement.

Here's an entire block of historic low-rise housing that's been torn down to make way for high-rise condos:

That's definitely not an improvement.

So, probably the question some of you googling the East Village came here for is whether or not there's still some good night life and cool people around. The answer is yes and no. There are still a lot of bars, including most of the ones that existed when I lived there. There are not a lot of clubs left - not that there ever were a lot in the East Village (it's a bar area, not a club area). Most importantly, CBGB's is gone - which was the heart and soul of that whole neighborhood. Even mayor Bloomberg recognized that, and unlike Giuliani before him (who tried to kill all the nightclubs), Bloomberg tried to save CBGB's. But he couldn't. Damn shame.

As for people, the punks are not what they used to be - they're way more Green Day than Ramones or even Black Flag these days, and there aren't as many of them around. A lot of the people in the area are Japanese, as you might imagine, though a particular kind of Japanese, so you may get the wrong idea if you visit. They're people who have come here to try to get away from Japan. Really the same reason a lot of people used to come to the East Village - they're trying to reinvent themselves, to get out of whatever rut they were stuck in back home. So they look different and they act different from most of the people I've met in Japan. They're not strictly counter-culture, though - you won't see many Japanese punks. They're just people looking for a new start.

Now, a lot of you from outside New York are probably basically familiar with the Village but you may not really know much about Alphabet City. First, let me say that they are not the same - there's been a movement among realtors and marketers of various products to use the term "East Village" to also blanket Alphabet City, but they are wholly separate neighborhoods. (My guess is "East Village" has some cachet now, whereas Alphabet City doesn't yet.) Here's an outline of its rough borders, and some people may draw them a little differently, but the important part is that it includes Avenues A-D, the only lettered avenues in Manhattan:

You can see how it's directly to the east of the East Village. Alphabet City used to be even grittier than its neighbor to the west. The pecking order went from west to east; from Greenwich Village, with its rich, established artistes and Wall Street yuppies, to the more Bohemian but poor and anarchic college town of the East Village, to the ghetto of Alphabet City. In those days, there were actual junkyards in the neighborhood, right there in the middle of Manhattan. Squatters had taken over the many abandoned buildings in the area, even though they lacked heat, electricity or running water. A friend of mine who lived on Avenue D, over by the projects, said he used to get chased home by would-be robbers at least three nights a week. Two of my friends living between Avenues A and B were burglarized during a crime spree that forced the police to plaster the neighborhood with giant NYPD shields that were supposed to tell burglars that the building was under surveillance.

If you want to see what this neighborhood was like back then, rent or buy the DVD of the film RENT - it says it's set in the East Village, but as I mentioned above, that's wrong; it's set on Avenue A and 11th St. It's uncanny how right the film gets the atmosphere, even though the actual street layout is completely different.

In fact, one of the themes of RENT is the gentrification that had started in the early 90's (the film's time period is also wrong; the play is set in the early 90's), and the resistance many of the area's residents put up against it. Look at this shot of picturesque and peaceful Tompkins Square Park, for example:

A guy sits on the grass playing acoustic guitar, others lay around relaxing... you don't see it, but in the background, kids were playing in the playground. It's like a Rockwell painting. But in 1988, this was the scene of violent riots between residents, homeless and police - all caught on video tape. It became known as the "Battle of Tompkins Square Park", as the police sought to enforce a curfew that in effect barred the homeless from sleeping in the park. This was the atmosphere that gripped the neighborhood in the late 80's and early 90's.

The gentrification was an unstoppable force, though, and it's now almost complete, in both Alphabet City and the East Village. Both of these neighborhoods are now safe, much more upscale than they used to be, and lacking almost all of the character they used to have. There are positives and negatives to gentrification, but overall I consider it a net negative for the sole reason that New York City doesn't need another Greenwich Village. What it does need is to preserve the uniqueness of all of its neighborhoods. It's why people come here, after all.

Here's an example:

This is a new building going up on 7th St. You can see it doesn't match the surrounding buildings at all. This is the sign on the scaffolding:

Alphabet City never had "condominiums" when I lived there. It had tenements and housing projects. You know, housing for poor people. Like it or not, the city has poor people, and they need to live somewhere. One of the evils of gentrification is that it just forces the poor people into neighboring communities, often even poorer for the move - it doesn't really solve anything.

The Japan binge has also extended into Alphabet City now:

Though it's not at the level seen around St. Mark's Place at this point - more like the East Village was 10-15 years ago.

With all the "regular" people who have moved in, there are still some signs here and there of the creativity and vibrance that used to define these neighborhoods, even above the squalor. This fence caught my eye - not because it looked difficult or even especially inventive, but because somebody actually looked at this fence and thought, "black should not be the color of this fence. This fence should be cheerful and fun and even if it costs a little more and takes a little longer, we're going to make it happen."

That's a spirit that needs to be preserved.


  1. Hi jeff.
    I was just looking for GTAIV imformations and found some game sites quoting this blog's entry "Life During Wartime - Working at Rockstar Games". So I visited this blog. I've read that entry and looked at another entry then I've found entries about Japan (and Puffy too). soon I felt kind of closeness with you, becouse I'm Japanese, even a western who I don't know well. and I want to leave a message so I'm writing this now. I want to go to NY and if I go there, yes, I will visit Village Yokocho. maybe I'd miss Japanese food after several days stay in US.
    maybe there are realry weird expression. I think. English is hard for me. So thx for reading.
    Take care of youself.

  2. Hi Suzuhara,

    Your English seems very good! There wasn't anything weird in your comment. Anyway, it's surprising to me that someone from Japan would come here looking for information on GTAIV - I know the games are sold there but I didn't think they were very popular. Well, I'm glad you liked reading my other blog posts too; over the past few days, most people are only reading the post about Rockstar.

    I'm sure if you go to Village Yokocho when you visit here, you will feel right at home - it really is like being in Japan. That place and Sakagura are my two favorite Japanese restaurants in NYC. (Sakagura is more trendy and high class; I might write another blog post about it someday.)

  3. Thanks for replying:)

    GTA is not popular in Japan than in US and its sales in Japan are not enough to Rockstar's expectation, maybe I think.
    But many GTA fans here buy USver GTA at import game shop in AKIBAHARA or directly get one through the internet frome US retailers instead of JPver. Because the release in Japan is one year or so late behind US and its translation work is not good. I think the sales of these types are not included in Japanese sales. But Manhunt, it's disgusting to me too. It took few hours before I quit to playing. Anyway Rihgt now in Japan, casual games like in Wii or DS are popular but complex types of games like in Xbox360 or PS3 are not popular anymore. so so-called gamers here get US/UK import games is not unusual. Maybe this kind of stories are not intersted in present you...

    The company I'm working for is located in Shinagawa, not SONY(its HQ is in Shinagawa anyway), perhaps or not I saw you around Shinagawa station when you stayed in Princ hotel, I mean I live in tokyo right now and I was born in Kyoto. you konow, I'm familiar with both cities. So your Japan trip articles are very interesting.
    It's a little bit funny you, American or not Japanese, are talking about Japanese food like gyu-don yoshino-ya instead of Japanese food which is famous for foreigners like sushi or tempura. And MOS burgers picture thing made me blast, it is so if said, I didn't care about that before. yeah, even its plain burger in real is thicker, or taller, than Big Mac in Picture.

    I'm looking forward further articles.

  4. Yes, you may have seen me around Shinagawa! Although you'd probably remember it, because I'm 6'4" tall - I stand out in a crowd in Japan. Though I guess there are a lot of westerners in Shinagawa with all the hotels there. I've actually stayed there a few times now, in both the Prince and other hotels. There's not much there for tourists but I like it because the trains go everywhere from there.

    I'll be going back in September, but we'll be staying in Akasaka this time. Just wanted to try something new.

    It's a little bit funny you, American or not Japanese, are talking about Japanese food like gyu-don yoshino-ya instead of Japanese food which is famous for foreigners like sushi or tempura.

    Well it helps that my wife is Japanese. But the first two times I went there, I went alone and I think that forced me to really see the culture as it is instead of staying in my own little world. A lot of westerners, when they go to Japan with other westerners, they just talk to each other and it keeps them at a distance from the culture. I saw it a lot in Kyoto, these big western groups walking around and only interacting with each other and basically ignoring everything else. Then when they go out to eat, they only want to eat the things that are famous with their friends. But I don't really care about that. I want to see real life wherever I go.

    Well, I hope you will keep checking my blog every once in a while. I have a blog feed if you want automatic updates too. I'll be writing a lot more from Japan in September when I go there too.

  5. >Well, I hope you will keep checking my blog every once in a while

    Im slow reader.haha
    feed is convrnient but to check the favorite sites is fun thing too so no need to feed.

    come back ?
    Im really looking for next trip article and NYC stuff too.

    Last, 吉野家はサラリーマンの強い味方、"はやい、うまい、やすい"

  6. Suzuhara:

    Sorry I have not updated much recently... but yes, later this month I will have more to say about Japan! I actually started a new blog that's just for my Puffy posts (there's a link in the sidebar if you care about them) and I've been spending my free time writing there lately. But I will get back to writing more general stuff soon, and I will definitely have another full trip report by the end of the month... although we're only going for a week this time, so it will be a bit shorter.

    I auto-translated the last thing you wrote (I can only read kana!) - you go to Yoshinoya for breakfast??

  7. >you go to Yoshinoya for breakfast??

    haha. No, it's Yoshinoya's catch phrase.
    I have a poor vocabularies in English so it's hard to translate but trying,,,,,,
    like this
    Yoshinoya is a good buddy for The businessmen who are too busy to even take a meal. "serving quickly, low cost and yummy!!"


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP