It’s hard to believe that abandoned buildings and dirty streets could be so conducive to art. But in the ’80s, the East Village was falling apart on the outside while internally fostering one of the greatest art movements in New York City’s history.
Art is fundamental to the East Village. In the ’60s, the thriving art and music scenes developing in the streets north of Houston and east of Broadway caused it to develop a separate identity from that of the Lower East Side. Since then, the neighborhood has been home to artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jeff Koons.
With such a rich past, one might expect to find the place bursting at its borders with contemporary culture. Yet art seems to be the one thing missing on the streets of Alphabet City and the Bowery today. There are plenty of restaurants and thrift stores, but artists and galleries are few. What happened?
According to the E.V. Grieve, a blog devoted to the neighborhood, it’s all connected to something Columbia students can relate to—housing. The success of the art scene led to a renewal of interest in the area, which ultimately increased rents and drove artists out.
Today, NYU controls the real estate while its students influence the business market. “The increasingly sanitized East Village of this era may sadly be remembered for its readily available chain drug stores, frozen yogurt, and high-end hair salons,” said the blogger.
There is a plus side to this trend, however. Several of the bars that have sprung up in the area to cater to students use their extra wall space for art. The most generous in size, and the cleanest, is Tom & Jerry’s 288 Bar (288 Elizabeth St. at Houston Street). While the art on display may not come from the area (the current artist, Jess Thorsen, is from Seattle), the bar tries to promote “real art for real people,” said Ika Sobczak-Conover, an employee at the bar.
This same philosophy can be found in the few galleries present. PS122 Gallery (150 First Ave., between Ninth and 10th streets), located in the former school building of the same name, exhibits juried shows of emerging New York artists.
“PS122 Gallery offers something very special to emerging artists in New York,” said PS122’s director. “To learn from doing, to be seen and hopefully appreciated.” There is currently a dual show of the photographs of Meryl Meisler and Julie A. McConnell, as well as a quirky installation by Joyce Yamada and Joanne Ungar.
Another East Village find is the newly opened Zürcher Studio (33 Bleecker St. at Lafayette Street), which exhibits mostly European artists. The studio’s inaugural show, Dan Hays’s Failing Light, presents paintings inspired by digital photos of Colorado taken by an American Dan Hays, who the London artist met online.
Despite the efforts of the galleries that remain, the art scene that once flourished above Houston seems to have moved below, back to the Lower East Side, where rents are lower. It’s disappointing, but perhaps something good will come of the recession and artists will be able to return. Until then, other neighborhoods will have to do.