Monday, June 13, 2011

9 Second Ave.

Thanks to Karen for calling our attention to the documentary "The Tao of 9 Second Avenue" by Michael I. Schiller. It starts with an image of Mars Bar before it was Mars Bar, but the film is really about the eviction and demolition of the buildings all around it--the rubble that Mars Bar will join later this summer.

In the coming demolition, 9 Second Avenue will also fall--it is the last piece of what was, for over a century, a thriving cultural center of the Lower East Side.

Mars Bar as a coffee, tea, & spices shop

The film tells the story of 7-9 Second Avenue, which was the other side of 291-293 Bowery, and included a chapel on E. 1st St.

Built on the site of Gotham Gardens--according to King's, "one of the most popular amusement resorts in the city in the '50s" (that's the 1850s)--the multi-building complex here began as Steuben House (some sources say its name was Volksgarten), later called the Germania Assembly Rooms. In the late 1800s, they housed saloons, bowling alleys, ballrooms, and places to having meetings and conventions (the Horse Shoers' and Cigarmakers' unions met here).

photo: rollingrck's flickr, 2003

It was a home to the German Anarchist movement in New York City and also served as a community center for the people of the Lower East Side. There was a thriving Italian theater here in the 1880s. But it was all soon "given over to vaudeville, dances, and used as an evil resort"--McGurk's Suicide Hall was part of the complex--and thus got religion.

In 1904 it became the Hadley Rescue Hall and the East Side Parish Church of All Nations moved in, thus reclaiming the buildings "from the service of evil," according to the Minutes of the New York East Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church:

click to read

And so it remained as a community center, chapel, and mission for many years.

Wrote the Times, "The complex was a splendid place, with a gym, an assembly hall, classrooms, dorms, a swimming pool and a rooftop playing field... On boiling summer days, boys played baseball on the roof, and neighbors climbed to the tops of their tenements to watch them. Once, a man became so excited by a game, he toppled over into the street."

from the film

In Schiller's film, we meet some of the women who played here as children, swimming in the pool and jitterbugging at the dances. Said one, "Every race, color, and religion came through these doors and bettered their lives--in all ways."

from the film

In 1974, the Green Guerrillas rescued the empty lot next door, full of dead bodies, garbage, and hypodermic needles, and turned it into what became the lush Liz Christy Garden. Vines and flowers from the garden grew up along the brick wall of the community buildings and countless birds nested there.

from the film: Liz Christy Garden is born

By 1975, the church moved out and a new community group (a "gang" to some) called CUANDO moved in. CUANDO stood for "Cultural Understanding And Neighborhood Development Organization." In 1979 they erected a solar wall above the garden to cope with heating issues, and their innovation was written up in Popular Science magazine.

Popular Science, 1979

One of the groups that CUANDO housed over the years was Plexus International. In 1985, Plexus staged a three-hour "cultural art adventure, billed as The Artificial Time of the Purgatorio Show ‘85 New York."

The show ran from the roof of CUANDO down to the swimming pool, long empty since its years of giving lessons to local children.

Plexus' Purgatorio

The Purgatorio show was a response to gentrification and its main thrust was the belief "that the current East Village art explosion had to be enjoyed not only by the wealthy uptown patrons, but also by the local community and by the artists of the Lower East Side." This (misdated?) French video shows it as a wild, cacophanous acid trip featuring girls in their bras and lots of papier mache. (Also check out their Art Slaves show.)

CUANDO was evicted (some say they abandoned ship) in about 1989.

Plexus' Purgatorio

In 1986, Kung Fu master and Taoist priest Sifu Jai (part Chinese, part black, part Jewish) moved in to the fourth-floor gym and opened a Taoist temple, the Temple of the Ancestral Mother. Kung Fu practice and Taoist rituals, burnt offerings to the hungry ghosts that wandered the Lower East Side, happened on the caged roof where boys once played baseball on hot summer nights. (See more inside the temple and the building in this video.)

After all the other tenants departed from the buildings, Sifu Jai remained inside the crumbling walls, now neglected by its new owners as they awaited demolition. Said one of Sifu Jai's students in the documentary, "While it may look like a big, old abandoned building that no one cares about, people in this neighborhood know how important it is."

image from the documentary, Kung Fu on the roof

The film tells the story of Sifu Jai's eviction in 2002. He sits on the sidewalk in front of 9 Second Ave., his belongings piled behind him, and explains, "I was laying in bed and they used a battering ram to smash through the door, my bedroom door, and threw me out on the street. Literally."

He talks about the new development that will come, how the neighborhood will soon be nothing but glass buildings. "New is better? No, I don't friggin' think so."

film still, Sifu Jai

In the end, the buildings are demolished. You know what came next, the massive glass box of a building, the Bowery Wine Bar, Daniel Boulud's DBGB, the Hamptons boutique Blue & Cream, and all the zombies that flocked to them, despite the Die Yuppie Scum protests.

What's coming next is the demolition of 9 Second Avenue, along with Mars Bars' building. The last piece of this long, colorful history is about to fall. What will take their place is another dead tower.

What kind of city will we have if we keep exchanging buildings, neighborhoods, and people filled with meaning for these hollow boxes?

from the film, demolition

See Also:
The Loss of Mars
Before Mars Bar
Bowery Tsunami


Anonymous said...

I keep thinking of that movie, L.A. Story, were Steve Martin proclaims to his new girlfriend as he takes her for a tour of Los Angeles, "some of the these buildings are twenty years old".

jw said...

this is amazing, thanks for all the history? also I'm curious, where did you find all those films?

EV Grieve said...

Perhaps, some day, we, too, will be able to reclaim the new buildings "from the service of evil."

Anonymous said...

Let's face it, New York City as we knew it IS OVER. The only reason I stay here is because after 25 years, I really don't know where to go. I can tell you though that I'm tired of being pissed off about things like this. I don't have the energy to keep getting in a rage when I see another building or business replaced by some monument to entitlement and arrogance, which is really what these new buildings (and people) are all about. I would love to leave this town. The changes that have been happening here over the last decade have been noting more than huge betrayal. The good times were good, but that's OVER now. It's time to MOVE ON.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Wow, thank you for sharing this!

Jeremiah Moss said...

sad thing about those glass buildings, can they ever be reclaimed? this is what's so awful about the changes to the city lately--they are (or seem to be) irrevocable. so much is wiped out, along with possibility.

is it over? can it ever come back?

JM said...

I don't know, Jeremiah. It seems pretty irrevocable. The only thing that comes to mind is a really tough economic time, where maybe some of these new glass boxes end up more or less abandoned, turn into squatter quarters, or get demolished because of rats and other health hazards.

What's gone is gone, sadly. What's here may not last anywhere near as long as what it replaced. For one thing, it's simply not built as well, and for another, it's built for a time when people wanted to see and be seen...all the time, either through their glass walls or Facebook or Twitter or whatever.

That will all seem as quaint and strange as the Summer of Love does 45 years later. Given the acceleration of cycles, that continues to increase, it won't take 45 years for the mood of society to become much more introverted, suspicious and insular. Everything us survivors of a previous era see as ridiculous in the current one will seem even more ridiculous--and even to the very people who accept it as 'normality' today.

Caleo said...

Another outstanding excavation by Mr. Moss.
Yes, the city we all knew and loved is truly gone.
Unfortunately, unless you love rural life, there is nowhere else to go. This is happening on some level in most of the larger cities across the country.
A burned out ruin of a city like Detroit will never be reclaimed in the way NYC was in the 70's and 80's because not enough creative capital exists there as a foundation. As " bad " as NYC got in the 70's, people still wanted to come here from all over the planet.
NYC has been a crossroads of humanity since it was New Amsterdam.
As far as reclaiming glass towers, if and when that day comes, it can be done. Or, after a general economic collapse, they will stand as mute witnesses to the worst excesses of our dying civilization.

Marty Wombacher said...

Great writing and photos, a fantastic and sad post today.

Jeremiah Moss said...

what will it look like after that economic collapse, when the glass condo towers are reclaimed by artists, punks, squatters, Taoist priests, and Kung Fu fighters?

and what will they use for window treatments?

Ed said...

Actually I'm optimistic, since due mainly to the landmarks law, given the temper of the times the amount of vandalism to old buildings has been relatively minimal, certainly compared to other areas. The problem has really been the awful people who have moved here in the past fifteen or so years, and even this has recurred repeatedly in the city's history. They will eventually mellow or be replaced by new waves of people moving here, who will be awful in different waves.

However, its true that alot of the changes decried here are global. There are other places to go, but, but it just means what you don't like here will happen there in another ten years.

Anonymous said...

The same thing is happening here in Berlin. When I first moved here it was so great, full of old buildings and squatting ops and stray dogs and vavoom. Now there are lots of rich people wearing ridiculous clothes prancing around everywhere, poodles in handbags and acting like "this is MY coffee shop! go get your own!" and i just want to say "i don't care about your bloody coffee shop! and anyway, i used to do drugs on your toilet!"
maybe we should all just move to detroit?

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Here is a photo of the corner of 1st St @ 2nd Ave from 1930:

Look how wide the street is...everything in that photo will be gone in two months.

Jeremiah Moss said...

nice one. perfectly lined up before and after. and then after that?

j ciolino said...

The building featured in this story was NOT built in 1904 as the article suggests. It was built in 1922-3.


Anonymous said...

j ciolino, parts of that building WERE built in 1904 and some of it was actually earlier remains of germania hall. the roof caved in in the 1920's which led to extensive new construction but there were many layers in that place.

luidgi said...

I lived on the top floor in 1986-87 while a member of The Family Repertory Company. Wow, I've got lot's of memory of this building, including a party on the roof top with Run DMC and Beastie boys. I remember the church, the people living in the basement, the dance school and the samba school.