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American Lives

New York City: East Village (NY)

by Laurie Stevens & Peter Kessler, 23 October 2021


East Village, Third Ave between 12th and 13th streets, New York City
Photo © Laurie Stevens

East Village since the 1960s has been New York City's home of choice for Beats, hippies, and no-wave bands, Allen Ginsberg, W H Auden, Abbie Hoffman, Fillmore East, and the Poetry Project, graffiti artists and, in more recent years, to droves of New York University students. It has also witnessed the edgy punk drag of the Pyramid Club, from which sprang the Wigstock Festival.

Before that and the informal establishment of the East Village name, it was the north-east quadrant of Manhattan's Lower East Side. The village encompasses an approximate territory which is bordered by Third Ave (shown here, between 12th Street and 13th Street), the Bowery to its west, 14th Street to the north, and Houston Street to its south.

William Gottlieb, a realtor in the Greenwich Village area for more than thirty years, recalled the neighborhood first being called the East Village in his business 'in the early 1960s, when Timothy Leary was prevalent'.

Russo's, East 11th St, between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave, New York City
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Russo's, East 11th St, between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.

As a longtime hub for counterculture, the East Village still carries that alternative vibe. The neighborhood boasts a high concentration of community gardens, street art, second-hand stores, and natural food stores.

Two of its defining cultural institutions are the Bowery Poetry Club and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, both of which host poetry slams and similar events; another is Lucky Cheng's, a restaurant which features drag shows.

From gritty to trendy, historic to brand new, the neighborhood has it all, but has managed to retain a pretty indie atmosphere. It's culturally diverse, too, with a significant Puerto Rican population (as evidenced by street signs and murals throughout the area), and a surviving pocket of Ukrainians (near the Ukrainian Museum) from the pre-war wave of immigration.

Russo's, East 11th St, between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave, New York City
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The East Village has something which many New York City neighborhoods do not: a very distinctive personality. With slightly rough edges and some of the city's finest bars and restaurants, the East Village may not be quite as polished as its West Village and Greenwich Village neighbors, but it has just as much charm. And just as much history.

During the seventeenth century Lenape settlements gave way to Dutch plantations (not necessarily through choice). By the 1830s, the Georgian-style St Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, which took on a Greek Revival spire and cast-iron portico, had become a familiar landmark on a piece of the first governor's former estate.

New York society moved into Federal rowhouses along streets such as St Mark's Place. James Fenimore Cooper, author of Last of the Mohicans, lived in the one which used to be No 6.

Then tenements joined mansions as waves of German, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish immigrants arrived, followed, after the Second World War, by artists, drifters, and dreamers.

Veniero, East 11th St, between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave, New York City
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Veniero's Paticceria, 342 East 11th St, between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.

On 23 September 1894, one of the East Village's longest-running businesses, Veniero's Pasticceria, opened its doors.

This venerable local institution has been serving confections, cakes, and pastries to New Yorkers and visitors ever since then, in the heart of what was once the East Village's own Little Italy (not to be confused with the still-extant Little Italy to the south of Houston St).

It remains one of the few surviving businesses from that once-thriving community. Its current co-owner in 2021, Robert Zerilli, is the grand-nephew of Veniero's original founder. It is not just a great East Village and small business story, but also a wonderful immigrant story. In fact, in 1994, to mark its hundredth anniversary, New York State's Governor Mario made an official declaration about it, stating that it was 'a true New York immigrant success story'.

St Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, New York City
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Around the back of St Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery - Manhattan's second oldest church.

It stands on ground which used to belong in part to Peter Suyvesant, New York's first governor in its early days as a Dutch colony by the name of New Netherland. Suyvesant is actually buried here too, although the family chapel of 1660 stood here at the time. The Bowery was the road to his farm.

In the early 1800s, just after St Mark's had been built (1795-1799), a wealthy German immigrant by the name of John Jacob Astor began buying and selling real estate here. Astor and many other wealthy families (including the Vanderbilts) built their mansions and transformed the neighborhood into one of the most fashionable areas of Manhattan.

East Village, Third Ave between 12th and 13th streets, New York City
Photo © Laurie Stevens

After waves of immigrants began arriving, the wealthy residents sold their properties to tenement developers and moved to other parts of the city. Arrivals here would have included refugees from across Europe, including 'The Pale' of Poland, just like Tevye and his family in the musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

Post-war, the 1960s influx of Bohemians reworked the village into its present-day guise, albeit with a few ups and downs along the way, notably in the seventies and eighties. Today preservation work is ongoing to try and retain as much as possible of its feel and appearance.

Main Sources

Turf Savvy: East Village Neighborhood Guide

FYI: East Village History - New York Times, Jan 1, 1995

Critic's Notebook: The East Village, Home of Punks and Poets, New York Times

Off the Grid - Village Preservation Blog


Images and text copyright © Laurie Stevens & P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files: American Lives.