The history of the East Village can be not-so-fairly summarized by the following: a large number of immigrants moved into the neighborhood; artists attracted to the village’s cheap housing moved-in; art movements were founded and countercultures reigned supreme until money-makers seeking “cool” moved-in and subsequently cause the demise of said “cool.”
Some might argue that the East Village’s gentrification makes it less desirable; however those same wannabe alternatives are most likely secretly coveting apartments in Alphabet City like the rest of us. As an unashamed wannabe, I’ve frequented the East Village to check out its restaurants and boozy brunches; however, most of my trips to the neighborhood have involved me sorely underestimating the time it will take to walk from Astor Place to Avenue B, and so, barreling down 8th street, I’ve hardly taken the time to notice my surroundings. This time, with no real agenda in mind, I noticed so much more about the East Village than the obvious, and after a bit of research, found that this trendy ’hood’s unique history is quite evident on every block. Hopefully after the below tour you’ve scoured the East Village, learned a bit about its past, and saved a few dollars to add to that “Alphabet City Apartment” fund.
One fact about the East Village that is easily overlooked is that the Ukrainian Museum isn’t located here for nothing; amidst boho coffee shops and vintage stores, Ukrainian churches, community centers, and restaurants fill the gaps. Large numbers of Ukrainian immigrants settled in the East Village in the last few decades of the 19th century, and at one time, the neighborhood was actually known at “Little Ukraine.” To celebrate this heritage, make you first stop Veselka (144 2nd Avenue corner of of 2nd and 9th street; http://www.veselka.com/), a Ukrainian “soul food” diner that’s been an establishment in the neighborhood since the 1950s. The menu boasts killer kielbasas, potato pancakes, borscht, and (my recommendation) award-winning blintzes ($8.95). They also stock Ukrainian beer if you so choose.
In its Ukrainian heyday, the East Village was not a distinctive neighborhood—instead it was thought of as an extension of the immigrant/working class vibe of the Lower East Side. However, like the post-grads that flock to the East Village for all-you-can-drink deals today, in the 1960s, artists flocked to the area and worked to create a distinction between the East Village and its neighbor to the south. Art and music movements were once as frequent as frozen yogurt in the area—in fact, the East Village is known as the birthplace of punk music. Some of the neighborhood’s notable noisemakers were: the Velvet Underground, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and the Ramones. In order to get a feel for the village’s bygone counterculture days, stroll down one of the most unique streets in NYC: St. Mark’s Place (start at 2nd avenue and 8th street, walking west). This street is a fascinating mix between tattoo parlors and shops sporting studded clothing, noodle shops and Sing Sing karaoke (evidence of a growing Japanese cultural influence), and (as any frequented street will attract) a series of shack-like stores stocked with stuff no one needs. Also noteworthy, along St. Mark’s Place, if you look hard enough, you will see the remnants of the “Mosaic Trail.” Public artist Jim Power, also known as the “Mosaic Man” decorated lampposts on St. Marks from Broadway to Avenue A, and although it’s disappointing to see that most have been stripped clean, seeing as this street birthed punk music, perhaps the vandalism simply makes sense.
Once you’ve hit 3rd street, travel north a block to St. Mark’s Bookshop. An independent bookshop since 1977, this readers’ haven’s non-corporate-feel allows for an unrushed browsing experience. The shop is known for its collection of non-commercial books—poetry, literary criticism, etc. It also hosts a reading series. (31 Third Avenue between 8th and 9th street; http://www.stmarksbookshop.com/)
From St. Mark’s Bookshop stroll down Stuyvesant Street, a short brownstone-lined lane reminiscent of the East Village’s westerly neighbor as it breaks the grid. At the end of the street you’ll find St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, a complete contrast to the graffiti and grunge that is St. Mark’s Place (131 East 10th Street; http://stmarksbowery.org/). The church, built by Petrus Stuyvesant (the Governor of New York City’s earliest manifestation: New Amsterdam) is the oldest church in New York still in use, and the second-oldest church in Manhattan. The inside of the church is not always accessible, so check the website first, but this old building is worth the brief pause to ponder the fact that the surrounding real estate was once farmland.
From St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery head back on down to St. Mark’s Place and then east to Crif Dog’s (113 St. Mark’s Place between 1st and Avenue A; http://www.crifdogs.com/). Although bacon-wrapped hot dogs are a superb recommendation for late-night, this hole-in-the-wall is equally as good in the daylight because…well…they serve bacon-wrapped hot dogs. My recommendation is the Chihuahua (a word that I have only recently realized I have been mispronouncing for the last 24 years as “Chiwowow,”a pronunciation, I feel, is much more indicative of the tastiness of this hot dog.) Crif Dogs also boasts fountain root beers (including Birch beer, which my companion told me is a “thing”). All of the hot dogs are less than $5 so it’s a cheap snack, and to make this stop even more attractive, there is a speakeasy next door only accessible through a telephone booth requiring a secret password (read: reservation.) Oh and it also has two PacMan tables. I honestly don’t know which is more enticing.
Half a block over you can walk off your Crif Dog in Tompkins Square Park—a mediocre park really only worth a walk-through (although it does host the cutest event of the year: the Halloween Dog Parade). At one time, this park’s claim to fame was that entering it came with the serious risk of poking oneself with a hypodermic needle. In the 1980s, the high degree of illicit activity resulted in a 1 AM curfew for the park, which subsequently caused a rally known as the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot on July 31st, 1988. The park is much tamer now, making this riotous history somewhat unbelievable.
Since the East Village was once known for budding music careers and anarchic attitudes, stop by Ryan Adams’ favorite haunt, Niagara, for a fantastic happy hour from 4pm-8pm with $3 beer, wine and well drinks (112 Avenue A corner of A and 7th Street.) Perhaps you will be inspired like some of the East Village’s other current and former residents: Madonna, Joey Ramone, and Lady Gaga, to name a few.
After some cheap drinks, walk over to the Uprights Citizens Brigade’s East Village location for a illogically cheap comedy show (153 East 3rd Street between Avenue A and Avenue B; http://www.ucbtheatre.com/). Started by Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh, four comedians who have dominated SNL and Comedy Central for years, UCB’s mission is to provide big names for less (tickets are usually around $5). The shows are of course funny, but not only will you get some laughs, you’ll get to witness a bit of the comedian’s creative process as writers for big shows like 30 Rock use the improv as a way to try out new jokes and get their creative juices flowing. Plus, you never know what headliner might pop in for a surprise cameo.
After seeing a show, pop next door to Two Boots (42 Avenue A on the corner of A and 3rd Street; http://www.twoboots.com/TW2008/AveA08/AveA1.html). Even though this pizza chain is not exclusive to the East Village, this location is the only (as far as I know) that rents movies. The selection runs deep and even has a section cataloged by director. Plus, the first rental is free—so head on home with a pizza and a reason to come back!