Has Ada Calhoun Just Become the Most Important New Voice on Old New York?
by Jay Ruttenberg
St. Marks Place announces itself, at its westernmost stretch, with a veritable block-long bazaar specializing in items that nobody who has celebrated a fifteenth birthday will ever crave. No matter what time of day or era of gentrification, somebody on the block is always screaming, and possibly spitting. "Isn't that man on television?" you ask a friend while traversing the street. "Nah," she responds, "he just looks like Otto the Bus Driver." St. Marks, like its brethren streets around the world, seems a place from which various countercultures of yesteryear have packed up and fled, leaving behind their detritus: profane novelty shirts, bong salesmen, the badly tattooed, roving packs of college freshmen, falafel. When walking around the East Village, it is a fun street to avoid.
Yet as a rule, to shun St. Marks Place is to land on the wrong side of history. Such is the lesson of Ada Calhoun's St. Marks Is Dead, a clear-eyed new book that surveys the street from its time as a Lenape tribe campsite — shockingly, pre–Sock Man — through the present day. In the years between, St. Marks played host to virtually every conceivable wave of bohemian chic. Many of Calhoun's characters are expected guests: Andy Warhol, Bill Graham, Keith Haring, Kim's Video. Still more St. Marks alumni come as a surprise. Leon Trotsky briefly edited a newspaper on the street, in 1917, just before returning home for revolution. A few years earlier, anarchist heavy Emma Goldman opened the Modern School there, instructing students (including a young Man Ray) to prepare for a world without law. The book disinters charismatic skateboarders and radical rectors, W.H. Auden and GG Allin, punks and crusties, Yippies and Motherfuckers.