Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Max Fish & Ludlow


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.
History's fading.
And it's hard to just move along.

The song was featured in an episode of Gossip Girl.


Mikey said...

Max Fish is being gobbled up by the monster it helped create.

I agree and great writing Jeremiah.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this nice overview. It calls to mind an experience I had in about 2005 or 2006, returning to the neighborhood to see a band at Piano's, overwhelmed by the throngs of stiletto shrieks and popped-collared grunts, no choice but to hurry, hustle, scurry to the Essex/Delancey stop, vowing it would be my last Saturday night on the Ludlow that I no longer recognized.

almerindo said...

Good times last night. Nothing lasts.

Anonymous said...

wow! I lived on Ludlow Street in the early 80's when there was nothing, except a few bodegas and a laundry mat. Squatters lived in the abandoned building across the street, people sold drugs out of the restaurant next door, the heat often did not work, and one morning our ceiling collapsed. At least the rent was dirt cheap! I have some of the fondest memories of living there.

Elizabeth H. said...

There's a great song by Julian Casablancas called Ludlow Street, that talks about the gentrification of the street. It's somewhat ironic though, because he's one of the hip people who made it "cool" and ushered in the new Ludlow street, albeit unknowingly.

esquared™ said...

The present in New York is so powerful that the past is lost. ~ by that Chapman dude

Anonymous said...

What I don't get is that 20-25 years ago young people still wanted to be part of a creative culture, 'bohemian' I guess, that had been going on for decades at least since the 50s. Even back then those values were considered old and from another generation, but Beats, Hippies, and Punks shared the same notions of living outside the system and young people in the 80s and 90s wanted to live with and carry on those values. What the fuck is it with young people now where they're more interested in material status and generally a shallow approach to life? Isn't being young about living outside the mainstream?

And please don't use Williamsburg as a current example...it ain't!

Marty Wombacher said...

Great post today, Jeremiah. Sad to see Max Fish close, I used to hang out there a lot in the mid-90's. Another one down.

Little Earthquake said...

"Urban pioneers"! If there's one lasting legacy of the Baby Boomers, it's that the history of anything always seems to start around 1966. I wonder if the immigrants that lived in those tenements cared how hip or unhip they were.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks Elizabeth for that note. i'll add the info to the piece.

Anonymous said...

I find these artists who consider themselves "pioneers" to be pretentious and almost as bad as the second wave of gentrification. There were people living there before them who lived a truly authentic experience because they weren't trying to fashion a pseudo-bohemia from a neighborhood considered ripe for change because GASP there's no supermarket.

Gojira said...

Oh, the irony of Gossip Girls, of all excrescences, using that Casablancas song, since the characters portrayed are precisely the kind of shallow stoozes he is talking about as having brought ultimate ruin to the neighborhood.

James said...

Is there some reason we need to see a picture of Max Fish's toilet? This is the same idiocy that caused the Met to recreate CBGB's toilet. As if a shitter is the best we can aspire to. Please. Ulli's gathering place deserves better.

Grand St. said...

Having grown up down there, I'm with Anon 2:52. It was a densely populated neighborhood where people lived and worked, not some strange, desolate Martian outpost. I have to laugh at the thought of people ‘crossing south’ over Houston as if it were an accomplishment. (There were supermarkets, btw - maybe even a ‘Pioneer’ (!)).

I remember getting hip to gentrification with the Tompkins Sq. riots and locals throwing rocks through the windows of Red Square before it opened to renters, but I also remember - being in my early 20s - thinking it was cool when Fish, Ludlow St. Cafe and Mercury opened. I guess some of us were temped by not having to go NORTH of Houston to get a beer, thus becoming part of the problem. Never thought I’d see the day, however naively, when condos and hotels would proliferate the way they have. Still stunned by this when I visit the old nabe. The biggest shift will come when SPURA is finally ‘developed.’

Nancy A. Collins said...

I remember standing outside Max Fish some time in Spring of '93, talking to Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch, when this car comes cruising down Ludlow. The guy behind the wheel looked like some skeezy B&T who had made a wrong turn while trying to score drugs or a crack-whore. Turns out it serial killer Joel Rifkin. It doesn't get more Max Fish than that.

Nancy A. Collins said...

I remember standing outside Max Fish some time in Spring of '93, talking to Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch, when this car comes cruising down Ludlow. The guy behind the wheel looked like some skeezy B&T who had made a wrong turn while trying to score drugs or a crack-whore. Turns out it serial killer Joel Rifkin. It doesn't get more Max Fish than that.

sinestra said...

Jeremiah, your riffs are so good. Please get back on the Grumbler where you really get into depth on all the urban phenomena we all rant about but can't quite put into words the way you do.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks Sinestra. it's true, i have been neglecting the Grumbler.

Mary said...

Also Julian Casbalancas is the son of John Casablancas, of the modeling agency, and the whole band was full the sons of the wealthy elite.

Whatever to me The Strokes are the soundtrack to the early 2000s, when gentrification really started accelerating - providing a bland reworking of that rock n roll image of Lower Manhattan (not to say that is the only/most important part of lost NYC.)

Also, white people who refer to themselves as "pioneers" for moving into non-white neighborhoods= not cool.