Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wu Tang at 7 1/2

There's no buzzer. You get in old-school style. A key is dropped from a window, strapped to a Nerf football. Inside the door, a sign warns: "Unauthorized visitors will be beaten to a bloody pulp!!!" Welcome to 7 1/2 Second Avenue, also known as 9 Second Avenue, also known as the other half of Germania Flats, one of the 19th-century buildings that will come down alongside Mars Bar this summer.

I have come here to visit with Frank Allen and Tina Zhang, residents of 7 1/2 and instructors at the Wu Tang Physical Culture Association, a martial arts studio on the third floor for the past 32 years. Their studio is a museum filled with artifacts, the school's books and videos, the walls covered with fight photos, statues, medals won in competition.

History breathes here. In the window sill are carvings made by long-gone Bowery boys of the old Germania days. "Rosen" and the "Houston Street Gang."

But, as Frank says to me, "Nobody cares about history anymore. They just tear it all down and put up a glass box."

Frank recalls when he first arrived here in the 1970s. After the Church of All Nations moved out, the city rushed in to smash and brick up the windows of #9, calling it "abandoned." But it wasn't abandoned. CUANDO was here. Frank and his friends went in and removed the cinder blocks from the windows. He got a sublease from CUANDO and opened Wu Tang.

"We made up the address 7 1/2 to distinguish ourselves from CUANDO at #9," Frank explains. "We were underground in those days. We'd advertise in a local tattoo society magazine and never give our address." To find Wu Tang, you had to know someone who knew someone.

Without romanticizing the past, Frank recalls a rougher East Village, a place where people electrified their security gates by zip-cording them to wall sockets and covered their window sills with broken glass and glue. A place where people had street smarts, unlike today. "No one has street smarts anymore. I'd like to write a story about a geriatric mugger squad that takes advantage of all these young kids."

They have no attention span, either, he explains, thanks to advertising and "the instant gratification society." With a lower attention span comes "the byproduct of no one having a long-range plan for cities. What helps to reprogram that thinking is to study something you can't learn quickly. Internal martial arts does that."

But the skills learned at Wu Tang cannot stop the rapid change to come.

"This is my home," says Frank. "I've spent half my life here. I'm going to miss this place terribly. It's been the most important place in my life, but the city changes. It really hit me in the face--I've been teaching about change for 30 years. Now I've got to live it."

In two years, after the new building goes up, Frank and Tina will be able to buy an apartment here--Frank says the developer has been "a decent guy" about it all--but they don't know if the maintenance will be affordable, and they will lose their school. It's moving to 217 Centre Street at a much higher rent. And it won't be the quite same. For one, Frank won't be able to paper the new bathroom with a wild collage of ancient news clippings, photos, and jokes.

bathroom wall

But it's the spirit of this place they will really miss. Says Tina, "This place is the heart" of their enterprise, a global school with thousands of students around the world. The students, she says, "Feel like they've lost their home, too."

It's a home filled with powerful energy. Says Tina, "The energy here has been built up positively from 32 years of Chinese martial arts. I wish when the building is gone, the energy goes down into the earth, so it's still here when we move back in."

As I leave Frank and Tina, and head back down the rickety staircase, past apartment doors with "Sheriff's Legal Possession" notices taped on them, I ask myself the question I always ask in these situations: How can this keep happening to the city? How can every shred of originality be wiped away? And I recall, amid the photos and posters on the walls of Wu Tang, a quote from Gertrude Stein:

"There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."

Also read:
9 Second Avenue
The Loss of Mars
Before Mars Bar


maximum bob said...


Bowery Boogie said...

Great work, J. The whole ordeal here is so damn maddening.

EV Grieve said...


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

This is the end of the Lower East Side. You had a very good run. R.I.P.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

You hit on something here that has been bothering me for quite a while: homes are being destroyed to build houses. They're not the same thing. A home has a history, soul, heart and personality. A house has none of those things although it can be nurtured into being a home...eventually. I've been wondering about these tenants and how they feel about moving back in - would they even want to? I do like the idea of the present energy being reborn into the new space and I hope that holds true.

Good post.

chris flash said...

Why is politically-connected real estate developer Donald Capoccia getting away with being GIVEN these parcels by the City to replace affordable low-income housing with tax-payer-subsidized LUXURY housing????

Capoccia is the same guy who destroyed community gardens on the Lower East Side to build his crappy three story brick-faced condos. Those lots were also handed over to him and he was given city and state money to build.

Something really STINKS here and NO ONE is organizing or trying to stop him. It's sickening to read your post on how residents of #9 are just accepting this....

Caleo said...

All you can do is shake your head and sadly realize that a way of life, a way of seeing and interacting with the world around us, is dying...or slowly being strangled.
One thing is for certain. NONE of the residents of any of the new glass towers that have been built in this city will ever do what these people have done.
Even if the glass towers are still here a hundred years from now, I don't believe you can build up the type of living history that the old wood and masonry tenements can hold.
R.I.P. indeed !!!

Anonymous said...

I've said this before: IT'S OVER and has been for some years now. Again, I just can't believe after decades and decades and decades of the 'real' NYC, it's ending now. The directions that things are going in just say: "fuck you, fuck your lifestyle and aesthetics. We're here now. Tough-Shit!" In the late 80s you never would've thought it would change much. But as you said 'there ain't no answer, there ain't gonna be no answer. That's the answer."

And that my friends is FUCKED-UP.

Meanwhile, I gotta get the hell outta here. It ain't worth it anymore. I can't stand living around a bunch of walking Facebook profiles.

Marty Wombacher said...

What I moved here for is disappearing. I don't want to move away, but it's sure sad to see what's happening. Things are happening so fast and I dread what this city will be in a few more years. Great post.

Jeremiah Moss said...

if it were me, i think the worst part of living in the new place might be the new neighbors. going from a small building where everyone's on a similar level socioeconomically, to being the "poor kid" in a multi-unit luxury building with people who live such different lifestyles. that would be challenging. can you imagine being in the elevator with them, all on their iPhones, spaced out?

i would not mind, however, having plumbing that works and ceilings that don't leak and windows that keep out noise, and all of that.

anyway--yeah, this stuff is heartbreaking and feels disempowering.

Clap for Bacon said...

Excellent post. So Damn Sad.

Anthony Guilbert said...

That is the WAY of things isn't? Buildings, people, things decay and are replaced.

But the rest posting here are absolutely correct, its not simply a building that is being replaced, its a culture.

And what is it being replaced with: Mediocrity • Banality • IKEA-inspired life. Everything organic is being replaced with comfort controlled conformity for the rich!

Soon, there will be nothing but the memory or diversity!

I interviewed Frank Allen twice last year; his Wu Tang center was a piece of martial arts history, like "Wonderland" for the warrior-set!

I am deeply saddened to think it will have to be made a-new somewhere else. Frank & Tina's teaching will still carry the same quality, but there will be just a hint of magic missing! The ineffable presence of all those fighters, the taint of true history will be missing!

lrs said...

response to anthony gilbuit: #1 not all "rich" people want to live in ugly glass towers. duh. #2 educate yourself: ikea is not for the rich its quite cheap. furniture for a dorm. #3 lower middle/middle class decor can be quite plastic ugly & cheesy: castro convertible anyone? plastic slip covers? shag carpeting? in the bathroom too? carpeted toilet seat? #4 your distinctions & discriptions are way off.

Michael said...

I was moved by this sad but heart-warming story. I lived in 9 (7 1/2) Second Avenue with my friend Peggy until 1975, before most of the creative people moved in (although there were some theatre people from Ellen Stewart already living there). We lived on the next-to-the-top floor at the back and paid about $60 rent for a 6-room flat with the bathtub in the living room. Before that we had both lived and worked in the settlement house (Church of All Nations), so the neighborhood means a lot to us. As I remember, we received a small moving compensation from the City, because the building was to be torn down that year. I moved to Amsterdam, and have lived there and in Berlin ever since. I can tell you, Berlin is similar to New York in many ways and Germania Flats would fit in here perfectly!

I’d like to thank whoever researched and published this history. It makes the building mean so much more to me. We joked about it being called Germania Flats, because I was majoring in German at the time, but I don’t think we really knew where the name came from. But I especially appreciate all the people that made the building into a real legend after our departure!


Jeremiah Moss said...

Michael, thanks for writing in about your experience. the history comes together best that way.

Stone and Bone Trading Company said...

Thanks for a great piece, and for taking the photos I didn't.