Downtown Ghosts: The Lower East Side’s Day/Night Conflict

Posted on: October 14th, 2014 at 9:29 am by

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Photo: East Village Corner

Richard Ocejo, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, just released a new book about the economic impact of bar proliferation on the Lower East Side. It’s called Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City. Ocejo will be part of a panel discussion on the book tomorrow night at the University Settlement. He penned the following piece.

This piece is a paper I presented at a sociology conference earlier this year, and it contains several rewritten excerpts from my new book, Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City (Princeton University Press). The information in this piece comes from events I observed in 2007. I have kept the present tense, which is common in ethnographic research. Bob Arihood, the central character and an important figure in my book, died suddenly in October 2011. I wanted to engage with this idea of “ghosts of place,” especially since Bob used the word “ghosts” to describe the situation confronting longtime residents and public characters in the gentrifying East Village.

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Bob Arihood has lived in the East Village since 1972. Stocky and bearded with a small ponytail for his curly, frizzy, and thinning hair, he stands near the corner of East 7th Street and Avenue A, up the street from his apartment, every weekend night and most weeknights, like clockwork, until the early hours of the morning. He holds court in front of Ray’s Candy Store—a relic of a fast food joint that opened around when Bob first moved to the neighborhood. A polymath and critic on subjects of politics, architecture, literature, film, and history, Bob spends his nights on the corner engrossed in two activities. The first is his bull sessions with friends and acquaintances. These longtime residents often stop by for varying amounts of time to chat, and sometimes to share “war stories” about their experiences in the neighborhood. But the most common participants in Bob’s corner world are people who would have at one point exclusively populated these streets, day and night: homeless, artists, drug addicts, veterans, squatters, and radicals. This gritty cast of characters always changes, as some of them sometimes find themselves in jail, in a hospital, or somewhere else in the neighborhood or around the city on a drug binge. Since everyone knows he will be there, Bob rarely stands alone at night. With most people he listens more than he speaks, and he enjoys the random, free-flowing conversations with his fellow downtown stalwarts and its remaining characters. His second activity almost seems to contradict the first. Bob stands on this corner because it is one of the most lively and well-trafficked in the neighborhood, especially for young nightlife revelers.

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The eastern side of downtown Manhattan, which today comprises the Lower East Side and East Village neighborhoods and the Bowery area, has historically been New York City’s gateway for European immigration and its prime location for working-class culture. Deindustrialization, depopulation, and disinvestment turned these white ethnic neighborhoods into slums and skid rows. In the 1970s cheap rents brought in waves of newcomers (mainly Chinese immigrants and Puerto Rican migrants); a vast array of marginalized groups and self-described social misfits; and artists, musicians, and college graduates, like Bob. After three decades of reinvestment and development, today the Lower East Side, the East Village, and the Bowery are examples of neighborhoods that are experiencing an advanced stage of gentrification, with new elements that exemplify an upscale lifestyle of “downtown luxury.” Expensive housing; boutique hotels; chic retail shops; and high-end art galleries operate side-by-side with bodegas and utilitarian businesses, while new wealthy residents coexist with working-class, low-income, and immigrant groups, as well as earlier generations of gentrifiers. Most illustratively, downtown Manhattan’s new bars and nightspots, which cater to well-heeled residents and visiting revelers, have emerged as a point of serious contention between the neighborhood’s disparate groups, and a symbol for understanding the social dynamics occurring in these and other neighborhoods experiencing advanced levels of gentrification.

Bob has long had an interest in photography. Today he photographs and writes a blog about the East Village (“Neither More Nor Less”), which he began in 2006 as a chronicle of Jim Power’s housing ordeal. Known around the neighborhood as the “Mosaic Man,” Jim Power is a Vietnam War veteran and local artist who made his name by making mosaics on civic hardware such as lampposts and abandoned buildings in the 1980s, some of which remain today. He squatted in a property nicknamed “the Cave” on St. Mark’s Place with other artists until a developer kicked them out (along with his dog and art materials). Bob, who had been photographing downtown neighborhoods for decades and knew Jim from around the East Village, decided to document his struggles in blog form. He soon after expanded it into a larger project on how the neighborhood had changed and was still changing, and of what had been left behind or continued hiding in plain sight. Like Weegee, the mysterious and eccentric photojournalist on the Lower East Side from the 1930s and 1940s, Bob embeds himself among his subjects and aims for realistic portrayals. He spends much of the night taking still and action pictures of the people he sees and knows—the gritty characters, and the young revelers—all of whom he encounters while standing on the corner. While the old and new occasionally interact, they usually ignore each other. Bob understands the interaction to be far more one-sided. He says that the neighborhood has changed so much that the street’s characters, who once gave the East Village a distinct image as a place for alternative cultures and spaces, are now like “ghosts who people pass but don’t see.”

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Photo Credit: Lori Greenberg

Sociologist Michael Mayerfeld Bell has described “ghosts of place” as “the sense of the presence of those who are not physically there,” and argued they are a “ubiquitous aspect of the phenomenology of place.” Who among us has not felt the spirited animation of the spaces we inhabit, and the objects we see, sometimes independent of our own memories or feelings of nostalgia? Based on his longstanding public socializing and photography, Bob, and other longtime downtown residents, identify the transformation of the neighborhood’s characters, marginal groups, and social misfits into collective ghosts, through the social transformation of the “place” of the neighborhood, and in spite of their continuous physical presence. Even an advanced level of gentrification does not lead to immediate wholesale displacement of existing groups and cultures. Co-presence and co-existence among diverse groups signify the everyday lived experience for people in gentrified areas. The sense of community they possess is in part composed of the mundaneness of everyday life in a neighborhood: the people and places people see and their daily and nightly rounds. But some groups are at greater risk than others of losing a physical, social, and cultural stake in a gentrifying neighborhood. Under conditions of rapid change and threats to their way of life, people work to preserve a sense of community, and in effect fight for their stake in place, in a multitude of ways.

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