An Old Punk’s Thoughts on Hell Square [OP-ED]

Posted on: January 16th, 2015 at 9:22 am by

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Hell Square petting zoo

When I moved to Orchard Street in 1976, our building was a mix of Bengali, Puerto Rican, Italian and Jewish families, plus a few recent NYU grads. There was really only one other residential building with tenants on the entire block — it was across the way, another tenement like ours. Besides cheap rents and proximity to CBGBs, the neighborhood’s big draws for me were expansive sky views and the quiet. Almost no one lived there.

I used to lie in bed at night and hear the footfall of a friend on her way home at night. I knew who it was because she wore high heels and her distinctive click-clack around 2AM meant she was headed for some sleep in her Stanton St. digs. I always found it comforting to hear that sound.

A lot has changed.

I was recently called out for complaining about what our neighborhood has become — Hell Square — and mocked for bitching about the noise and behavior of the visitors who flock here. Apparently, this means I have to surrender my punk credentials. Look, we could start with the notion that punk is a term that means one thing to youngsters and another thing to the OG punks of the mid-seventies, but that is an exhausting route and everyone has an opinion. But there are some basic differences between those of who settled here in the seventies and the folks who come to party in Hell Square today.

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New Year’s Eve riot against NYPD

We went out at night to hear music. There were really only a few place to go: CBs, Max’s, Hurrahs or Tier 3, even Mudd; none of these were in residential neighborhoods. They were in commercial areas or warehouse districts. There really wasn’t anyone to disturb.

We didn’t have much money. Binge drinking is expensive, and unless you were getting free drinks, you got what you could afford, which wasn’t that much. There was a lot of drinking at home or in rehearsal studios, as I recall. But designer cocktails were unheard of. As for vomiting and fistfights, let’s not confuse London with New York. Fisticuffs were not our thing, and pukers, well, they were laughed at as amateurs. There were always a few jerks, but it was not really part of the culture.

And there were not so many of us. It was always the same crowd that moved from place to place. When Haoui Montaug, the legendary doorman coined the term, “the Fabulous 500” for downtown denizens, it was in the post-Studio 54 era of the early ’80s. He deemed that our scene had reached critical mass. That took a while.

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Which brings us to the present. A weekend in Hell Square is like a binge drinker’s version of The Walking Dead. They have multiplied like zombies, staggering around, throwing up, fighting and crying ‘til 5 in the morning. It has forced me to leave my apartment on weekends, decamping to my boyfriend’s place in the West Village. I’m lucky I can go there.

I get it, times have changed, and I’m glad I’m not 20-something trying to make a life for myself here. The city’s population has grown, there are about three-quarters of a million more people than in 1975 and rents are through the roof. But on our turf especially, it also has been changed by the number of bars, the highest density of any area in the city. After 2001, Rudy Giuliani pretty much zoned the Lower East Side as a frat boy Disney World, and as liquor licenses were given out like samples at Sephora, the police drew back and the “good times” rolled. When a nasty crowd of New Year’s Eve revelers turned on the police on Ludlow Street, the cops may have been surprised but I wasn’t.

We are just looking for balance. I know the guys playing dominoes at the bodega are gone for good, but so are the muggings that were a fact of life and for that I am grateful. But the oversaturation of bars has destroyed the quality of life here. Mom-and-pop stores can’t afford the rents that a bar owner can cough up, so to the highest bidder it goes, aided and abetted in the past by the SLA and the Community boards.

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But times are changing. Residents are organizing, an unwelcoming climate for more drinking establishments is working and it might encourage some businesses to settle here that in the past might have been forced out. I would like another hardware store, another dry cleaner. The deli I frequent on Allen Street is in danger; the landlord wants a big chain to take its place and devour the other small stores on the block. If I wanted that I would have stayed in the suburbs.

So come on Hell Square partiers, get some imagination. Spend less money on cocktails and more time on a hobby, like music or art. It might even become a passion.

Your liver will thank you for it, and you can grow up to be an old punk like me.

Written by an anonymous Lower East Sider.

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