Last night was the last night of Max Fish on the Lower East Side--and it was packed.
We've been hearing of this closure for a few years now. Due to a large rent hike, Max Fish is moving to Brooklyn. As the Lo-Down reported, "When Max Fish first opened, Rimkus was paying scarcely more than $2,000 month. Arwen Properties, her landlord, is reportedly seeking $20,000/month for the space next door."
You could argue that Max Fish is being gobbled up by the monster it helped create. There may be some truth to that, but Ludlow Street had attracted artists and hipsters way before Max Fish arrived.
In the 1960s and 70s, members of the Velvet Underground lived and recorded music there. John Cale recalled, "In the fifth-floor apartment in '65, Lou, Sterling, and I combined the music of Erik Satie, John Cage, Phil Spector, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. The result was a new form of rock—more about art than commerce." Warhol superstars also found a home on Ludlow. Taylor Mead lived there--until his recent eviction and death.
photo: Efrain Gonzalez
In the 1980s, more artists, writers, and performers found their way to Ludlow. Theater Club Funambules, later NADA, opened in 1988 (and was evicted in 2000), along with other venues like it. Ludlow was viewed as an untamed alternative to the East Village.
In an eye-opening piece for the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" in February 1988, a young married woman described her move to the derelict street:
"No one we know would think of living here. No one we know has ever heard of Ludlow Street. Maybe someday this neighborhood will be the way the Village was before we knew anything about New York, the way the upper West Side was eight years ago, the way the East Village is now."
She continues, "We explain that moving down here is a kind of urban pioneering" and "liken our crossing Houston Street to pioneers' crossing the Rockies... So we discover the ungentrified life," a world of no supermarkets, on a street that "becomes more chic by the day. East Villagers stomp down here in those British postmen's shoes they wear, and frequent our cheap Mexican restaurant, El Sombrero. They only wish the East Village were still so authentic, so raw, so unhip it's hip."
The pioneers had landed.
1988: Michael Horsley, flickr
It was into this world that Max Fish was brought by artists in 1989, planted between Joseph Yavarkovsky's paper supply (in business since 1898) and a blanket salesman known as the "pillow man." Fish took over an empty storefront where the original Max Fisch (with a "C") sold Judaica for, according to the handpainted sign still on the door, over 30 years.
Yavarkovsky and the pillow man didn't last. In the 1990s, artists and burgeoning hipsters, pushed out by high rents in the East Village, flooded Ludlow. Older Jewish and Hispanic businesses and residents began to vanish. Landlords plotted to murder their tenants to bring in higher rents.
Collective: Unconscious Theater opened, along with Surf Reality nearby. Music clubs opened on or close to the street, including Mercury Lounge, Luna Lounge, and Arlene's Grocery, whose owner told the Times in 1997, "I liked this neighborhood because there was such a diversity of people, and the likes of Starbucks hadn't moved in... One thing that may help preserve the Lower East Side is that it's a little less accessible... I guess it'll be about five years before the Gap shows up.''
By the late 1990s, Ludlow had been dubbed "Downtown's Disneyland" by New York magazine, and "The New Bohemia" by the Times, which credited the NYPD's mid-1990s crackdown on drug sales for kicking the street into "high gear." (Including a major bust of the Almesticas with helicopters hovering above.) Still, Ludlow was "percolating but not overrun with supermodels."
That all changed in the 2000s--the tipping point for much of the city. Ludlow and the area around it catapulted into supermodel central with a major luxury building boom. Hotel and condo towers ripped into the air. The chain stores came. The frat bars. The noise. The evictions and demolitions. The rents went through the roof.
Thirty to forty years of gentrification, from the 1960s to the 1990s, were left in the dust by a tsunami of hypergentrification.
Like the Bowery, Bleecker, the Meatpacking District, everything along the High Line, and many other areas, Ludlow Street is being decimated by an unstoppable force, massive and moving at warp speed, created not by struggling artists, but by politicians and developers.
Once again, I think of these words from Neil Smith: "gentrification has changed tremendously since the ’70s and ’80s. It’s really a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods...it’s about creating entire environments.”
In 2009, Julian Casablancas, front man for The Strokes, released a solo song about gentrification on Ludlow Street:
Faces are changing on Ludlow St.
Yuppies invading on Ludlow St.
Night life is raging on Ludlow St.
And it's hard to just move along.
The song was featured in an episode of Gossip Girl.