Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hookers & The Sahara

A comment on this post reminded me of the prostitutes that used to roam the upper, western edge of the East Village. There's a reason Taxi Driver's whorehouse SRO is on 13th and 3rd--but the stroll didn't stop after the 1970s. Prostitutes continued to walk these blocks as late as the mid-1990s. I did a little digging and found a relevant entry from my journals.

Journal excerpt from May 1996:

I walked up Second Avenue and turned onto 11th Street. Under the gingko trees, dark-green in the night, a woman came up to me.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, coming very close. I could smell the perfume on her skin. Her blouse was open, her chest dusted with some kind of glitter. I stopped. “Do you have a match?”

I fished in my jacket pockets and pulled out a half-used book of matches. The woman put a cigarette between her lips and I struck the match, cupped it in my hands, and held it out to her. She moved into it, all the while looking into my eyes. In the flickering light, I could see she was younger than I’d first thought. A teenager. Maybe 20. She had a tired, ravaged look, dark shadows on her pale skin. She thanked me and I stepped back, about to walk away, when she reached out and touched my sleeve.

“Would you like a date?” she asked.

It took me a few seconds to realize what she was asking me. “A date? Oh, no. No, thank you,” I said, flattered to be propositioned, even by a prostitute, and I wanted to be polite.

“We’ll have a nice time,” she said as I walked away.

I wandered up to Third Avenue where another woman approached me.

“Psst! Psst!” she hissed. “Hey, pretty boy!” Then she hissed again. I turned around. She was tall, with large breasts and a tremendous ass that made her wobble on her platform heels. She smiled at me, missing a few teeth.

“How about a date tonight? You’re looking lonely.”

“No, thank you,” I said, hurrying along. I didn't want her to hiss at me again.

“Don’t be scared,” she shouted. “You don’t know what you’re missing!”

I kept walking, hearing her footsteps behind me, until I got to 14th Street. On the corner, under a dilapidated scaffolding, glowed the neon lights of “VIDEO PEEPS, XXX, 25-CENTS.” Before going inside, I looked behind me and the tall prostitute was standing there, leaning on the scaffold, smirking like she could see right through me.

a rare photo--New York Magazine, 1990

That peep joint on the northeast corner of 14th and 3rd was located in what was then the Sahara Hotel. The Sahara was like a slice of Times Square's grittiest, an SRO known for danger and shady dealings.

NYU & Duane Reade, today

In August 1973, the Times reported: "police charged the manager of the Sahara Hotel, at 201 East 14th Street, with homicide after finding his wife's body on the roof. They said Umberto Rivera, 34, the manager, said he shot Pedra, his wife, in their apartment Friday night when she threatened him with a knife. A hotel night clerk, Alfredo Medina, 32, was accused of aiding in the homicide by helping carry the body to the roof."

Sahara (left), 1972, nycsubway

Not much changed over the years. A 1990 New York article cites suspicious fires, professional thugs driving out tenants, and crack dealers climbing through the windows where prostitutes did their business. The Sahara soon emptied of its occupants and stayed empty.

In 1996, when I ran in there, the tide was turning. Three businessmen involved in the Sahara's demise expressed their opinions to the Times: "The Sahara has been nothing but misery for this community" and "We're all praying that the Sahara will be sold so we can turn the page on an ugly chapter" and "this is the domino that could turn around what has been a laggard section of 14th Street."

201 E. 14th in 1936, NYPL

That last prediction turned out to be correct. After The Sahara was sold in 1999, the prostitutes seemed to vanish from the East Village, as if the abandoned old hotel had been their energy source.

The porno shop shuttered in July of that year--wrote the Times, "The last remnant of 14th Street's seedy past, an adult video store near Third Avenue, closed last week." The owners were given $100,000 to get out. Neighbors were hopeful that the closure would mean "the neighborhood will finally become what we would like it to become.''

If what they wanted was a bunch of NYU dorms, condo towers, and chain stores, then they got their wish.

today: looks like Houston, Texas

The dominos kept falling. After the hookers and the Sahara vanished, we lost much more from this part of town: Around the same time, the Palladium came down for an NYU dorm and Trader Joe's, St. Ann's Church was decapitated for another NYU dorm, the "should have been landmarked" Variety Photoplays fell for a beastly Toll Brothers glass tower (with bank branch), the Grace & Hope Mission shut down, several businesses on the southeast corner of 14th and 3rd were demolished for another condo tower (with bank branch), IHOP moved in, and yet another massive condo is going up at 3rd and 12th.

And now we hear chatter that the long-empty Mystery Lot of 13th St. will be developed by Hollywood hotelier Andre Balasz, who we guess will be bringing big, loud Meatpacking District glitz and glamor to Easy Iris' old block.

background: Mystery Lot before it was a lot, via SNY

See Also:
14th and 3rd
Little Jam
Movie Star News
Before IHOP


Karen said...

Great article Jeremiah. Every time I find myself turning onto 11th St. off 2nd Ave. I remember seeing probably the most ravaged street walker I've ever seen. She wore the scars of years on heroin with not a tooth in her head. I couldn't believe it when a delivery truck that had stopped at the light saw her and had her get in his truck for "a date". The only thing that comes close is the time I was walking down Chrystie St. and a badly decaying junkie street walker was approaching cars and I heard her offering 50 cent bj's. Memories.....

Melanie said...

Another great post Jeremiah. I vaguely remember a seedier E. 14th Street.It was there-I ignored it and walked by/around it..NY style.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

My book '100 Whores' is about the girls of the area, available at the St Marks Bookshop but after all this time who really cares


BrooksNYC said...

Gritty blocks, those were. Just around the corner, on Third Avenue between 12th & 13th, was a personal favorite of mine: the once-hopping Jewel/Bijou Theater. (An old, old building....not sure if still exists.)

Anonymous said...

"If what they wanted was a bunch of NYU dorms, condo towers, and chain stores, then they got their wish."

Not an ideal outcome, perhaps, but surely better than a dilapidated structure that was nothing more than a hive of rampant whoreage and homicides? A contaminant within that community, is all it ever was. You're not seriously going to make that pitch, are you? Sometimes you stretch this theme of yours absurdly out of proportion and it makes you seem foolish. Fwiw, the Palladium was a decent venue, but honestly, its absence rarely crosses my mind. We're not exactly starved for venues here. It had its time, and now those other places are having theirs. Why live constantly gazing into a rear view mirror? Save your empathy for things which deserve it.

Carol Gardens said...

I can get behind ya on Variety Photoplay. That was one cool building.

Media glut said...

Right BrooksNYC, and there was the Variety and the Metro (?) porn theater in the middle of the block on 14th. I suppose those places helped feed the scene,

Marco said...

"Low life is better than no life at at all." Was it Mayor Koch who said that ;)?

Caleo said...

I remember that block very well, as well as Photoplay and the mission.
The only remaining piece of that neighborhood, which can be seen in Taxi Driver and still stands to this day, is Gothic Cabinet, across the street from the block that Photoplay was on.

Ed said...

I remember that area actually being pretty cool between 1999 and around 2003, after the sleaze and violence was cleaned out but before the glass towers moved in.

That seems to be what what our choices are these days, either prostitutes and murder or glass towers. If you want safety, you have to take the corporatism and control as well.

bowery boy said...

Not only do I miss the Variety theater, but also the Disco Donut. What character. What a bummer!

kateoverseas said...

Except that if you tilted the camera downward, there'd be people walking places, on sidewalks. Not in Houston!

Also, points out the boyfriend, the balconies on the ugly condos are a big giveaway, because the great outdoors is not something you want to be able to spend time with in humid-ass southeast Texas.

Miserable sight, though, either way.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

New York was better with the sleaze (that xxx video store was a lot of fun). What is it now? A vertical suburb? Here's a quote from fashion historian/writer Colin McDowell:
"Those (the late 70's) were incredibly heady days in New York, the brief period when it was the hippest, coolest and most outrageously exciting place in the world, a magnet that pulled in everybody looking for life at the extreme edge, dangerous, drug-soaked and gay as the proverbial gadfly. Its energy was almost palpable. How, I don't know, because no one ever seemed to sleep and appeared to live for days on nothing other than cocaine.

This was before Mayor Giuliani decided to clean up the city and banish sin in order to make Saturday nights in Manhattan safe for Lutheran families in town from Arkansas, and the Village non-threatening for groups of Boy Scouts from Boisie. Sadly he succeeded in closing down the topless clubs, banished bottomless waiters, banned sleezy strip joints, shuttered the hustler bars – and destroyed New York as a leader in anything, a sorry state it is still in today.

Because, of course, beneath the sin and silliness, the city was bursting with a creativity more vibrant than anything else on earth and, as everyone knows, great cities that lead the world always need sin – and sexual sin at that. Think of Paris in the Belle Epoch or Berlin in the twenties…. "

Crazy Eddie said...

“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
What we need is a Travis for these times. I may just be that man. But instead of a 44 magnum, I’ll carry a slingshot with eggs. I know, how sad and pathetic.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Looking back on my life I feel at times like an old useless washed up whore with my memories that still sustain me. That's why I feel so close to the whores I wrote about, their memories still nurture me. "100 Whores" are real to me as I once was real to them. Even though I now live elsewhere every night I still wander down 12th Street and every girl passing me by says, "Goin' out, honey?" I smile and say, "Yes I am! Yes I am!" And sleep peacefully, Zzzzzz....

Liza said...

Thanks for the great article, Jeremiah! What a walk down memory lane!

I grew up in the 60s thru the 80s on 14th/B (and have been back since 2002), and I remember passing thru the old Wild West of the East Village on the way home from shopping expeditions up 14th to Kleins & Mays. (6-yr.old me: Mommy - why is that man hitting that lady? Mommy - why is she dressed like that - her top is as low as her skirt is high? Doesn't she know she has runs in her tights? Mommy - why is that man dressed like that?). I also remember - probably about 1970 or so? - when the store under the Sahara was an old school drugstore or coffee shop or something (it was all darkish inside, like something out of an old 1930s movie), and running in once with my mom to use one of their old sit down pay phones, and another time to buy tobacco for my dad for his pipe. I also remember as a teen I knew not to walk down 14th/2nd-3rd on the N. side of the street, because if you did, it was like any guy was authorized to grab you anywhere and cop a feel. (Now I buy Subway sandwiches on that block!) And who can ever forget the White Castle on the corner of 2nd/14th???!!! (Eye glass store now.) That was quite an experience! I know we'd stop there for a coke after shopping sometimes, but there was like this unwritten rule about the 3 counters - the front most one was for "normal" people, and we'd sit there. The back one was like something out of the play 'Balm n' Gilead' - hookers, pimps, junkies falling asleep in their bowl of soup. The middle counter was the questionable area, open for the taking, based on overflow needs from the front and back counters. That meant a couple of times we got stuck sitting there, sitting next to the hookers. They always sort of fascinated me and scared me. I think we'd usually avoid it if the front counter was full, but sometimes if it was "just" hookers at the middle counter, we'd go in anyway, but not if there were pimps or junkies at that counter. (Interesting division of "safety" I learned growing up in the East Village, lol!)

Jeremiah Moss said...

Liza, love the details in your story.

thanks, Anon, for the McDowell quote. how true about creativity--it does not flourish in the secure and sanitary city.

and the thing is, that neighborhood was safer for the sex workers than wherever they all got pushed to. what about them?

Little Earthquake said...

Those of you yearning for New York circa 1977 can still move to Detroit. The "crime = artistry and soul" line is one of the most baseless canards in use these days. Rose-tinted glasses affect us all. Luc Sante's intro to Low Life explained this better than I ever could.

Ken Mac said...

I remember those "ladies" well..

Brendan said...

Wow, the post-1990 building on that corner, while ugly, is a LOT less ugly than the crap they put up now. I didn't realize the advent of the full-on ugliness was so recent.

Caleo said...

Little Earthquake- crime DOES NOT equal creativity and artistry, and no one here is saying that.
But, the crime and decay kept suburbia OUT.
And NYC in the 70's to early 90's was the origin of arguably the greatest explosion of artistic and creative energy ever seen.
The menace and decay left the city wide open for misfits and creative minds of every conceivable description, and for anyone who was here, the energy was definitely palpable.
If you can't admit that something has been amputated in NYC, then you're the one wearing rose colored glasses.

Anonymous said...

Great story, J. And a lot of good comments, too.

Ed said...

The thing is, it was easy enough to avoid blocks like the ones around the Sahara by just not going there. It wasn't like the entire city was like that. When that place was operating, I don't think I ever went to that section of East 14th Street. And currently I never go to that part of East 14th Street, the closest I come is to shop at the nearby Trader Joe's, because there is nothing interesting in that area for me to want to go there.

Incidentally, New York has been through this before, though arguably not at the same scale. Midtown and much of the Upper East Side east of the Third Avenue El used to be a dangerous slum (PJ Clarke's, now essentially a white collar after-work bar, is a relic of that era). The area was torn down and fixed up, and now Third Avenue has the reputation of being the most boring avenue in the city. But the city gets more in property taxes from that area and fewer public safety headaches. But if you repeat this citywide, you lose any reason for people to want to come here.

Casey said...

I think it's easy to be caught up in the idea of glamorizing the dangerous aspects of NYC in the past. But the most important thing I take away from this post is that in the city's attempt to clean up the sleazy areas, it also removed long-time neighborhood businesses and replaced them with chain stores, etc. The bottom line is that an effort to clean up crime and danger is all well and good, but it needn't be replaced by corporate America with no identity. If all you have is a blemish, you don't get facial reconstruction.

DonMTL said...

Low life is only low if you are looking down.
Manhattan seems so sanitized to me now. I miss the vitality, danger, spontaneity and creativity of NYC in the late 70's. My then boyfriend lived in a third floor walk-up, bathtub in the kitchen, on 14th Street East between 1st and A. I remember helping him fix up that place, picking up "safety" grates to install on the windows etc. I was always fascinated by that street and looked forward to every visit. There is now a Macdonalds on the ground floor of that building.

Sean said...

In William Burrough's first book, "Junky" written in 1953 under the nom de plume of "Bill Lee", Burroughs noted that when he first came to a new city, he knew immediately where to score heroin: go to a street which delineates a poor neighborhood (LES) from a rich neighborhood (Gramercy). In NYC, the street was 14th.
So the sleaze was not a 70s or even a 60s innovation.

In 1969, I lived next to the building on 13th Street (2nd and 3rd Avenues) in which the murder scene in Taxi Driver was filmed, although the girls did most of the cruising on Third Avenue.
The girls would arrive fresh and pretty, but within a few months got really haggard. The block was full of Puerto Ricans, and, when I walk there now, I wonder how they all became dispossessed, since they were rent-stabilized protected.

The scene where Travis takes Jodi to eat was in a pizzeria, now gone, on the southwest corner of E.14th and Third, kitty-corner from the Sahara Hotel.

I still prefer that scene to the NYU nonsense and the B&T and Yunnie crowd that infest the area now.

Starzstylista said...

Liza - those were great memories.

Does anyone remember Carmelita's Reception House diagonally across from the Sahara? By the time I got there in the 80s, it was a punk rock party room. What was it's original purpose?

Also, re: EV hooker - it's important to remember how desolated SMP to 14 3rd Ave was. Half of the east side of the streets were parking lots (no buildings) and the west were dilapidated shops and bars. I miss the old pawn shops so. The windows were filled with guns and diamond rings.

Jeremiah Moss said...

hey Starzstylista, there's some info and a link about Carmelita's here:


says it was a lesbian bar.

Jeremiah Moss said...

@Casey, well said.

@Sean, i think the dispossession has to do with buildings being sold and demolished. at least in part.

Rustin H. Wright said...

Speaking as a member of the Stuyvesant class of '84 whose stepfather subbed there, I was coming and going right around there starting at the age of 12 and oh, yeah, it was grimy and maddening and utterly fucking amazing. We didn't even know that normal neighborhoods didn't get Keith Haring drawings all the time or any of the rest.
Yeah, the Sahara was a shithole. But losing that whole stretch impoverishes not only the city but the population of the entire planet that counts on those of us who make our way through there to build their books and films and games and create and populate their dreams.
Yeah, it's dangerous and rough. So is climbing K2. What's your point?

everettsville said...

A little off-topic, but this reminds me of a similar nighttime cigarette-lighting encounter about 10 years ago when I was on my way to CBs 313 Gallery to catch some live music. The differences are a) she wasn't a hooker, and b) I got a kiss on the cheek as a 'thank you' before she walked away with her friend.

One of the reasons it's so memorable is because it happened on the NE corner of Bowery & 1st when that corner (as well as the SE corner) was an empty lot. The desolation & darkness added some poetry, maybe even a little romance (in my mind anyway) to the moment.

Now it's a Chase with condos (?) on top and there's no live music, just expensive rock-themed stuff. Wouldn't have worked as well in that environment.

everettsville said...

Rustin, I love your comment, especially the last lines about "losing that whole stretch impoverishes not only the city but the population of the entire planet that counts on those of us who make our way through there to build their books and films and games and create and populate their dreams."

esquared™ said...

“New York City in the ‘70’s truly was a dirty town. It was a dirty town in a dirty time. And at the same time, I did love it, as much as I recoiled from the lot of it, there was true excitement in the air. It was great time for dance and movies, and I now think that a certain type of grime and grit is what you need for the friction to have make other things happen.”

~ James Wolcott

GA said...

Mark Jacobson wrote a story in the Village Voice in 1977 called Sleaze out on e 14th St. It's included in his American Gangster anthology. Look for it, It will take you back.

GA said...

Check out Mark Jacobson's column from the 11/14/1977 Village Voice... Sleazeout on e. 14th st... It's included in his American Gangster anthology.

starzstylista said...

I was 19 when I moved to the EV in 1977 (before that I lived in Brooklyn). The 70s were totally fun and Wolcott's right - dirty. The only way I think you one could have really loved NYC then, as I did, was if you were young. A certain amount of stupidity was required to traipse around Ave A at 3:00 in the morning looking for a new after hours spot. Mostly people felt like Ron Liebman in Where's Poppa?

Whoever brought up The Nursery. Ha. I had forgotten all about that place (and I worked there). What a pit (and a hooker pitstop).

Melanie said...

I believe Carmelita's was always a space for parties altho--the pink and red curtains/decor made it look like something more risque.

michel said...

1965 living at 121 st. mark's on the fifth floor in a four bedroom apt with a huge bathroom and living room.
we ripped out most of the interior walls and played loud music all night every night for the princely sum of $130.
a month. Brownie's was our hang out and there was
plenty of every kind of mental stimulation available.
the business women knew where to score so they provided a special service beyond sex...

Anonymous said...

The tide turned when they built Zeckendorf Towers in 1988 on Park Avenue South & 14th Street.

Anonymous said...

I remember 23st in LIC at the foot of the 59th Street bridge in the 1990's. By 10:00pm, most summer nights traffic was at a stand still. There were mostly black chicks but plenty of Latinas and sometimes white girls - many who were quite hot. Of course, there was the walking wounded but I encountered many beautiful ladies in their 20's and 30's. I eventually , after a few drinks, picked up a hot, black chick about 25-30. I was in my early 20's. We pulled in an alley and she gave me a BJ while I felt her sexy ass. 20$. She deep throated with a condom and it felt amazing. I made a habit of this over the course of 10mos or so. Many of the chicks had really good attitude's and remember another gorgeous 20something newbie whose tits were firm and large - lightskin black girl. A brunette white chick and a hot Puerto Rican. The girls walked in groups. Tranny worked alone and were there but a 6" black man in a wig was pretty easy to identify .