Has One of NYC's Grittier Areas Grown Up or Lost Its Edge?
Photography by chuckyeager
It was after midnight when I arrived in NYC for the first time. I’d flown in from Europe, and was jet-lagged and, frankly, a bit disoriented. The scale of everything was different. Even in the suburbs things were bigger than I was used to.
I’d been traveling for hours, and was relieved to see my friend waiting for me at the airport. But rather than taking a cab, as I had expected, we traveled from JFK to the other side of Brooklyn on the subway, with the lights periodically going out and the train speeding underground in total darkness.
It was then that I recalled all of the violent New York cop shows that I had watched, and wished that I hadn’t. Later, as we walked through an empty, modern, concrete Brooklyn square, my friend told how she had almost been held up at gunpoint in a local bodega. I thought to myself, I’m not going to last five minutes in this city. Twenty years later, I’m still here. And, I’ll confess, I pine just a little for the NYC of that time. Why?
I got talking to a stranger in a bar a few days after I arrived. Nondescript in her style, she was the kind of middle-aged woman you’d struggle to remember. But she said something so perplexing to me at the time that I couldn’t forget it. The city mayor -- Rudy Giuliani -- had made New York City safe -- “a bit too safe,” she said, not smiling. I didn’t know what she was talking about. How could a city be too safe? Did I want to get mugged? No.
But then again, no one moves to NYC for the safety. Whether it’s for a career or to go out nightclubbing until you drop, ultimately, everyone comes here to feel a little more alive. And that might mean living a little bit closer to the edge.
It turns out that the woman in the bar wasn’t really a social commentator. She was more of a prophet. There were still plenty of dangerous areas if you liked that sort of thing (and of course I did).
And every area in NYC was still distinctly different.
The East Village? Punk. I’m talking kids will spikey, multicolored hair. Ripped jeans, ripped tights, ripped everything. Emblems of British punk bands painted on the remains of their leather jackets. Spikey, leather wristbands. The whole shebang.
So good they named it thrice, the West Village, Greenwich Village, or simply “the Village,” if you’re in the know, was the gay hotspot (and still is, kinda). It was there, on June 28, 1969, that the Stonewall Riots had broken out.
A reminder of its once predominantly German past, the upper East Side still had a few restaurants that would sell you steins of beer and plates of bratwurst. And, though no one fashionable left Manhattan or Brooklyn, Astoria in Queens was more or less exclusively Italian and Greek. (It’s now a wild cosmopolitan-Hipster mix, but the area still has a few of its original Greek and Italian shops, bakeries, and restaurants, you’ll be relieved to hear)
But, slowly over those two decades, all of NYC’s different areas blended together as distinctive sites and familiar hangouts began to disappear.
In early 2016, the punk and rock clothing shop Trash and Vaudeville moved out of St. Mark’s Place, once the epicenter of the East Village and of an alternative NYC. The first shop in the USA to ever sell Dr. Martens boots, and a place that kept the flame of punk and alternative rock alive, Trash and Vaudeville had been in the same location for over four decades, outliving the legendary club CBGB.
CBGG, was founded in 1973 on the Bowery, not far from St. Mark’s Place. The name refers to Country, Bluegrass, and Blues music, but it quickly took an unexpected turn, becoming the home of emerging punk bands the Ramones, Blondie, the Patti Smith Group and Talking Heads. CBGB closed in 2006, amidst a few protests.
Sure, the iconic Trash and Vaudeville didn’t suffer the same fate. It only moved a couple of blocks away, but because everything is really concentrated in a few blocks running east-west, in the East Village, it’s easy to get overlooked if you’re even a block in the wrong direction.
But these weren’t the first changes to take place in lower Manhattan. That underground bar somewhere between Little Italy and Chinatown that proudly announced its history as a former brothel? Gone. Little Italy and Chinatown? Just a little more touristy. And East Village landmarks Stingy Lulu’s and Yaffa Cafe? Well…
Owned by Karacona Cinar, Stingy Lulu’s was a 1950’s style diner with one big difference. Like much of the clientele, the waitresses were all drag queens. And after it opened in 1992, it was always crowded -- a little too crowded, really. Despite getting press in the New York Times, it closed a few years later.
I don’t want you to think I stay up all night every night, but like my arrival in NYC, I was introduced to Yaffa Cafe in the early hours of the morning. An artist friend of mine suggested the place.
Salvador Dali once remarked, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” Easily the most psychedelic-looking place in the whole of NYC, Yaffa Cafe could have made a similar boast. Outside, a giant, black and white mural of a woman in a peak cap greeted us. (There was something subtly fetish about the cap. I wanted one.) The woman’s mouth was open, roaring as if to frighten away anyone ordinary. We went in.
Inside, my eyes were opened to another world. Intentionally gaudy decor consumed every inch of the place: Formica tables with leopard skin print tops. Framed prints of Spanish dancers and Elvis. Walls draped with garlands of plastic flowers. Fuschia tube lights winding around water pipes. Giant floral and black and white damask wallpaper. Every table with its own lamp -- with jeweled fringe dangling from the shade -- and free Yaffa condoms at the front. It was exactly how I’d always imagined my apartment would be.
Yet, here I was, down and out in New York City. And, usually, the weirdest guy in the room, here -- squished into a corner by a group of drag queens who had just ended their shift somewhere -- I was ashamedly ordinary. And drowned out by the noise of people loudly talking and the clinking of glasses and cutlery, not even my European accent could help me claw back my innate sense of specialness.
Yaffa was busy when most other places had closed. (And bear in mind that New York is called “the city that never sleeps.”) It was weirdly quiet at breakfast time, and maybe lunchtimes too. But, open 24 hours a day, it catered to the weird and the wonderful, after all, and to those who were awake when everyone else was asleep. Yet, in 2014, Yaffa Cafe closed for good. Allegedly, the backyard wasn’t up to fire regulations and the cafe was in violation of Department of Health regulations. Yes, regulations. The words of that woman I had met all those years ago flooded back to me. New York, it seemed, had become just a little too safe.
Of course, we all still love New York City. It’s always changing, and there’s always something new to discover. Alphabet City, in lower Manhattan, has gone from uninteresting and crime-ridden to a place of cool bars. And, in Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Bushwick have become destinations for the artsy and the Hipsterish. But, weirdly, the safer NYC becomes, the more difficult it is to find somewhere where you really feel part of a weird and wonderful family -- rejected by the world, sure, but acting a little more boldly and dressing just a little more outrageously in defiance of it.