The East Village:
A Look at the Culture of an East River Neighborhood

By Alexandria Prochnow

          During the early twentieth century, the neighborhood known today as the East Village was once an area filled with tenements and buildings in disrepair. In the 1930s, public housing was built, bringing residents to this newly developed area. In 1939, when the East River Park was constructed, the neighborhood first began to draw in a new type of resident – the kind that saw the appeal of nature and of the attractive landscape of the East River waterfront.1 It was not until the 1960s though that the physical and social structure of the neighborhood changed and the Village was transformed into the youth-filled center of the New York counterculture. The counterculture scene has begun to decline, but the name “East Village” still conjures up an image of punk music, adolescence, and groups of people that, in any other area, would be made pariahs. The ground-breaking nature of the culture in this waterfront neighborhood on Manhattan’s lower east side can be assessed through studying the riots in Tompkins Square Park, the beginnings of the 1960s punk music movement, the decay of the art scene, and the movement towards gentrification.

The People of Tompkins Square

          In the present day, the boundaries of the East Village stretch from the Bowery and Third Avenue to the west, Avenue D across FDR Drive and the East River Park to the River on the east, north to East 14th Street and south to E. Houston Street.



Photo taken from http://mappery.com/East-Village-walking-tour-map

          Pre-1800s Manhattan, though, had its East River shoreline at Avenue C. It was not until later that landfill was used to extend the island outward into the river.2 At the time Tompkins Square was developed, in 1834, Manhattan land still stopped at Avenue C; Tompkins Square Park extends north to East 10th Street, south to East 7th Street, west to Avenue A, and Avenue B, making it only one block away from the river at the time.



Photo of aerial view of Tompkins Square taken from http://pdr.autono.net/tsp.html

          The Park itself did not open until 1850, but even when it was just Tompkins Square, it still attracted the “poor immigrant families” of its neighborhood because of the interaction with nature and “fresh air” from the River that it provided, although it was a run-down area filled with “dilapidated shanties” and later crowded tenements.3



Photo taken by Jessie Tarbox Beals of an Italian family living in a tenement

          The population of the East Village came from all over; it provided homes for “Irish, German, Jewish, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican” and other ethnic groups, as well as became a “magnet for artists, bohemians, radicals and reformers.” 4 These types of people would continue to reside in the Village well into the twentieth century.

Tompkins Square Park Riots

          During the second half of the twentieth century Tompkins Square Park became famous for the countless riots that took place there over several decades. In the later decades of the 1900s, the “rock musicians, poets, hippies, and political activists” that inhabited the Village made it “a center for counter-cultural activities and political protest,” which included the Tompkins Square Park riots.5 The park provided a central, public location near the River for the radicals to voice their opinions in what they thought was a place that allowed freedom of speech and expression. However, public officials were not pleased with the “‘hippies’ and Vietnam war protestors” that chose to frequent the park during the 1960s and 1970s, and, thus, riots began to occur. They continued into the 1980s when the city government tried clean up the city and to remove the people they saw as degenerates and delinquents from the open space of Tompkins Square.6 The park was meant to serve as a public space for the community to convene, so it would seem that the Village residents who spent time in the park would have been allowed to use the space in whichever ways they saw fit, but that was not the case. In August 1988, the issue of a park curfew arose, which police wanted to instate because they believed people were staying at the park too late into the night.



Photo of protestors on August 7, 1988
taken from http://www.nycgoovparks.org

          New York citizens fought back though, and the curfew was never put into place. This, however, caused more problems in Tompkins Square Park. Between 1987 and 1991, a large amount of homeless people, mainly men, began to reside in the park itself. The issue of people living in the park led to even more conflict between the people of the East Village and city officials. Since there was no curfew, it was technically not illegal for the homeless to set up camp there, but they were impeding park access from other visitors. In late 1989, the Park Department attempted to remove the homeless people from the park, but to no avail. In June 1991, the police brutally “evicted the homeless from their camp, destroyed their shelters, and proceeded to close off the park for more than a year.”7 This, along with previous police interference, angered the liberal East Village residents; they loved the Tompkins Square Park and the open, natural space it provided, thus it is no surprise that riots ensued whenever restrictions were placed upon their use of the park.

East Village Music Scene

          The East Village and Tompkins Square Park were not just the locations of riots; the Park was also one of the first places that embraced the East Village music culture. In 1966, a bandshell was created in the Park.8



Photo of the Grateful Dead playing in the Tompkins Square Park Bandshell in 1967
Taken from http://evgrieve.com

          Here, demonstrations “against American involvement in Vietnam and in favor of women’s and third world liberation” took place, as did many concerts by punk bands, kicking off a new musical genre.9 Music was a way for the frustrated and progressive East Village residents to express their views and their emotions toward mid-twentieth century society. Even before the implantation of the bandshell in Tompkins Square Park, starting in the 1950s, the Village “was home to Beats, then hippies, punk and post-punks” through the 1980s; “performance spaces and music clubs boomed on every street.”10 Artists have always been attracted to water, an element associated with freedom and progression; it makes sense, then, that the East Village, as a waterfront neighborhood, would be the ideal location for so many musicians during a time of political unrest in the United States. The people of the East Village wanted changes and a new society; the East village was even named so to set it apart from and disassociate itself with the “older Greenwich, or West, Village.”11 In March 1974, the most influential and remembered East Village club opened; it was called CBGB & OMFUG, but would be referred to simply as CBGB.12 Located on 315 Bowery between 1st and 2nd Ave, it was the “birthplace of punk rock in the ‘70s” and continued to be a large part of the New York City music scene until it closed down October 2006.13



Photo taken from http://www.newyorkology.com/archives/2006/10/inside_cbgb_dur.php

          The opening and the success of CBGB led to an expansion of musical culture in the East Village. During the 1980s, “new clubs opened and closed with alarming regularity,” but started to lose their popularity during the 1990s.14

          The East Village experienced a wide range of cultural changes across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Around the mid-1800s, the Village was home to “ethnic immigrant and working class groups,” but progressed into an area with “a more diversified and vibrant popular culture” in the mid-1900s.15 It transformed from a poor, tenement neighborhood into a New York City hotspot for radicals and musicians. There were people from all walks of life that lived in the Village, in terms of social, ethnic, and political associations; “in the East Village, to be different [was] to fit right in.”16 It was not until the music scene started to decline in the 1990s that gentrification started to occur; the young, liberal culture that once found its place on the Manhattan side of the East River began to shift to new neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Williamsburg, located also on the River, demonstrating the appeal of the water to people who ground their beliefs in freedom and emotional expression.

Bibliography

Abu-Lughod, Janet L. From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York's Lower East Side. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994.

Ballon, Hilary, and Kenneth T. Jackson. Robert Moses and the Modern City: the Transformation of New York. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Henry, Tricia. Break All Rules!: Punk Rock and the Making of a Style. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1989.

Schoemer, Karen. "In Rocking East Village, The Beat Never Stops." The New York Times 8 June 1990. The New York Times. Web. 23 Oct. 2011. .

Strausbaugh, John. "Paths of Resistance in the East Village." The New York Times 14 Sept. 2007. The New York Times. Web. 23 Oct. 2011. .


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See our essay on Lower East Side Tenements for more info.

See our essay on East River Parks for more info.

1Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 188.

See our essay on Manmade Changes for more info.

2John Strausbaugh, “Paths of Resistance in the East Village,” The New York Times, September 14, 2007, 1.

3John Strausbaugh, “Paths of Resistance in the East Village,” The New York Times, September 14, 2007, 1.

4John Strausbaugh, “Paths of Resistance in the East Village,” The New York Times, September 14, 2007, 1.

5Janet L. Abu-Lughod, From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for the Lower East Side (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 93.

6Janet L. Abu-Lughod, From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for the Lower East Side (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 7.

7Janet L. Abu-Lughod, From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for the Lower East Side (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 5.

8Janet L. Abu-Lughod, From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for the Lower East Side (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 93.

9Janet L. Abu-Lughod, From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for the Lower East Side (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 94.

10John Strausbaugh, “Paths of Resistance in the East Village,” The New York Times, September 14, 2007, 2.

11John Strausbaugh, “Paths of Resistance in the East Village,” The New York Times, September 14, 2007, 2.

12Tricia Henry, Break All Rules!: Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1989), 8.

13John Strausbaugh, “Paths of Resistance in the East Village,” The New York Times, September 14, 2007, 2.

14Karen Schoemer, “In Rocking East Village, The Beast Never Stops,” The New York Times, June 8, 1990, 1.

15John Strausbaugh, “Paths of Resistance in the East Village,” The New York Times, September 14, 2007, 87.

16Karen Schoemer, “In Rocking East Village, The Beat Never Stops,” The New York Times, June 8, 1990, 1.