Of all the streets I’ve lived on in my life (are there ten? twelve?) St. Mark’s Place is the most colorful.
This is a street with a popular history. I’m sure 29th and 112th Street have their lore, and we all know about Broadway and Madison Ave., the hogs! But St. Mark’s hauls itself into the better-known of New York streets because of the now-famous punk scene that flourished here in the 70s. The American punk, an eye-catching animal, continues to slink around the neighborhood, reminding you of the history of the place. There has not been a real punk “scene” here for decades and decades, but some young punks (from Oregon, or Iowa, or maybe just Far Rockaway) come here just the same, still.
St. Mark’s Place is three blocks long. That’s it. The street starts (or ends, depending on which direction you’re walking) at 3rd Ave. and dead-ends at Thompkins Square Park, there at Avenue A. Manhattan streets are numbered going up after Houston St. in Lower Manhattan. If you’re walking north on, say, 3rd Ave., you cross Houston and hit 1st St., then 2nd St., and so on. If St. Mark’s were a number, it would be 8th St., followed by 9th, etc.
The street is named for nearby St. Mark’s Church In-The-Bowery (which makes me think of Stratford-Upon-Avon but is very far away from that place.) St. Mark’s Church is very old. The first incarnation of the church was a chapel built in 1660 by early New York City player Peter Stuyvesant and he is buried there, but we’re not here to talk about him. We’re here to talk about why there are so many kids with safety pins through their lips on my block. They would ask why I’m on their block, and I can appreciate that.
In 1967, Abbie Hoffman started the Youth International Party (they called themselves “yippies”) at a club on St. Mark’s and counterculture settled in (it has a tendency to do that quickly, much to the chagrin of all the counterculturists standing around.) The yippies and the hippies and their ilk needed places to hang out and party, so clubs like Electric Circus opened where Andy Warhol and Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground all made art and did heroic amounts of drugs. But what to wear? A pair of shops called Trash & Vaudeville opened in the early 70s right in the middle of St. Mark’s. Debbie Harry shopped there and The Ramones, too, and the punk rock scene was really taking off because of bands like The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and Damned In London, who were all singing and screaming and making music which, at the time, was a person had to admit was really fresh and amazing and different, even if you hated it. Which most people did.
For true punk people, the music was only legit from like, 1976 to 1979. This is what I’ve learned in researching St. Mark’s. But boy, did it have an effect. The look of the musicians was hard, all spikes and leather and neon mohawks and pierced everything. It was a look that said, “Back off” and “I am pretty sure I don’t like you already.” Mean? Scary? Revolting? Maybe a little of all that, but a) they achieved what they wanted, perception-wise, so you gotta give the kids credit and b) I’m sure many of the punks (then and now) are roly-poly little bunny-shaped sweethearts when you get to know them. Isn’t that how it works?
There are so many punks hanging out on the street this summer. Several people have told me there are more than usual. Maybe because the weather hasn’t been too bad. Maybe because there are good punk bands playing here in NYC this summer and they’ve all made the pilgrimage. Many of them are painful to look at, with sores and things. I wonder if they do have a place to go and choose not to go there or if they are as homeless as their signs say. I could ask, but I’m not sure that would be appropriate. Sometimes I put change in the cups.
Perhaps I could tell them I went as a “punk rocker” like five times for Halloween when I was a kid. That could be a good conversation starter. Or not.