A walk in the East Village

The fabulous Public Theater on Lafayette Street
The fabulous Public Theater on Lafayette Street

I have written before about the pleasure of taking a dérive, an unplanned walk in an urban environment with the intention of encountering something new. New York City is the perfect place for such an experience, since its multitude of neighborhoods results in endless possibilities. For today’s derive, I took the 6 subway to Astor Place and began to walk.

The Astor Place subway station is one of the original 28 subway stations, and has been open since 1904. The mosaics on the wall of the subway platform feature beavers, a tribute to the beaver pelt business that built the Astor fortune (John Jacob Astor, who died in 1848, was once the wealthiest person in the United States). Emerging from the subway station, you are in Astor Place, only about two blocks long, and the site of the Astor Opera House in the 19th century. The Astor Place Riot in 1849 was theoretically a fight over the relative skill of two rival actors who were playing Macbeth in nearby theaters (!), but the underlying tension had to do with anti-British sentiment among Irish-Americans at the time of the potato famine.

Turning onto Lafayette Street and heading south, on the left is the magnificent Public Theater, housed in what once was the Astor Library (they have a wonderful place for drinks and nibbles within the Public, called The Library as an homage to the building’s history). Home to five different theaters as well as the singular Joe’s Pub, this is where “Hair” was born, and continues to surprise theatergoers today with “Here Lies Love,” a musical based on the Imelda Marcos story with music by David Byrne. The Public is truly a New York institution, presenting Shakespeare in the Park performances every summer – for free! – in the Delacorte Theater within Central Park.

Walking down Lafayette, I was struck by the different feeling you get in this part of town, where most buildings are shorter and you can see more sky as you walk down a wide street like Lafayette. The Manhattan Schist (the bedrock that allows skyscrapers to be built in midtown with a strong foundation) dips several hundred feet lower in the Greenwich Village/East Village region, so fewer tall buildings were built in this area. (As a comparison, the schist is only 12 feet below Times Square.) The shorter buildings do give the area a more open, less imposing, air. Turning east on 4th Street, you soon see the Cooper Union – a school for art, architecture, and engineering founded by Peter Cooper in 1859. Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Cooper Union Address in the Great Hall while running for President in 1860, the address that turned the tide positively for his winning his party’s nomination.

Crossing Bowery (which immediately north of 4th Street is briefly Cooper Square before becoming Third Avenue), you find yourself on a block known for the support and incubation of new work. On the south side of the block is LaMaMa, founded by Ellen Stewart in 1961 to give free space and support for artists. On the north side is New York Theatre Workshop, founded Stephen Graham in 1979 to encourage innovative new works for the theater. “Rent” was born here in 1996 before moving to Broadway, and more recently “Peter and the Starcatcher” did the same.

Crossing Second Avenue and continuing east, is a building (85 E 4th) that I particularly love. It’s home to the New York Neo-Futurists “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind” every Friday and Saturday night at 10:30. The show is never the same, and involves trying to complete 30 two-minute plays (written by the performers) before the hour-long timer goes off. I’ve seen this feat many times and never fail to laugh, be inspired, and given something to contemplate within the array of short plays performed. Most nights of the week there are literary readings above the Kraine Theater at KGB Bar, and even if there is not, it is a fun place to relax and enjoy the authentic Soviet-era décor.

Hitting First Avenue and turning north, within a few blocks you will find St. Mark’s Place, a few blocks of 8th Street with a distinct character. There are certainly other places within the city to get a tattoo or elaborate piercings, but you could do considerable comparison shopping here within a few blocks. I chose to get a quick bite to eat at Mark on St. Mark’s between Second and Third for some great sliders and a shake. Continuing along St. Mark’s Place gets you back to Astor Place and its distinctive sculpture that I always thought was called (descriptively) “The Cube” but I found out is named “Alamo.” This cube turned on a point is balanced so that one person can, with effort, spin it around, while two can do it easily. This interaction of art and playfulness, to me, sums up the appeal of this creative, stimulating neighborhood.

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