The Sixties on the Lower East Side by Steve Cannnon How do I start? I arrived on the Lower East Side in 1962, directly from London. First, I lived on East 10th street for a minute, then 100th street and Broadway for two minutes, then on Clinton and East Houston for about ten minutes before we got evicted
It was on Clinton street that we had the first downtown art party of any notoriety on the Lower East Side, with more than 200 outpatients from Bellevue Clinic’s Mental Hospital in attendance. Everyone was crazy and paranoid all at the same time and kept seeing things that weren’t there and talking about things that didn’t exist; flying saucers, and shit. Word has it that Mort Sahl put in an appearance.
As previously mentioned, we got evicted and I moved to the streets and Washington Square. It was there I met Bruce Brown and my first wife who had just gotten out of a New Orleans jail. It was August and she had a full scholarship to Cornell University, so we hitchhiked up to Ithaca. She got thrown out of Cornell when they found out she’d been in Jail in New Orleans, so we hitchhiked to Boston by way of North Adams. But we got busted in North Adams for vagrancy and hitchhiking, in other words, for being broke. I didn’t know there was a law against being broke in America. My being black and her being white didn’t help, either. Everyone seemed to think that I was her pimp. They gave her ten days in jail, and I got fifteen. They were trying to separate us.
We reunited in Cambridge Massachusetts near Kendall Square and got a small apartment. I got a job working for a shoe distributor and she worked for a temp agency doing secretarial work. The landlady found out we were a mixed race married couple because of other tenants complaining, so she kicked us out. She insisted she didn’t want to do it, but the other tenants couldn’t handle it. Yeah, yeah. Lucky for us we found another apartment on Symphony Road, behind Symphony Hall, in the heart of Boston Bohemia. There, we found people of our own ilk; painters, writers, musicians, etc. who loved nothing more than sleeping around and talking about politics and art.
I spent most of my time working for the shoe distributor and writing at night and catching up with my reading. I was big on Kafka at that time. It was there I first heard Timothy Leary on the radio talking about LSD, and notions of “tune in, turn on, drop out.” A year later he was a big name all over the country. At that time both Carl Yung and Sigmund Freud were names to know, aside from Karl Marx of course, especially in the Lower East Side. In Boston, my wife, Kathy, continued with the secretarial work at the temp agency. We spent the rest of our time reading, discussing philosophy and events or spending quality time at the local bars where oodles of artists hung out. After a year of that mess, and deciding Boston was too uptight everywhere except our neighborhood, we moved back to New York City.
Since we were homeless, we moved in with Bruce Brown on Waverly place. We shared a one bedroom apartment with him and five other guys, sleeping, for the most part in his bed, while the others, who were living off of gobs of hallucinogenic mushrooms, slept on the floor. We finally found our own place in the Lower East side. It was then and there that shit started happening.
People were smoking reefer and dropping acid as if it was legal. Everyone stayed up all night listening to loud jazz and folk music, arguing about the crisis with JFK at the helm, and after his assassination, arguing about LBJ and the war in Vietnam. As the saying went, “LBJ, how many Gooks did you kill today?” Those were our marching tunes. As the civil rights movement crept north, the debate became over who was baddest; Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.
All throughout the Sixties there seemed to be riots, rallies and ongoing heavy political debates everywhere you went, but especially on the downtown scene. Most of the folks were definitely on the left, save for the Ukranians, Puerto Ricans, and blacks who were more indigenous to the neighborhood. The artists were all leftists, and the anarchists hadn’t moved in yet. But most all the artists were died-in- the-wool Marxists when I got down here. As Pedro Pietrie would say, “Free grass for the working class.”
We were poor, but didn’t know it. That’s because the rent was so low, you could get an entire apartment for $40 a month. We thought anything over $85 was super expensive. People only worked about three days a week and after in addition to rent and utilities, we still had enough left over to go out eating and hang out in bars and create whatever we wanted. In those days, in this neighborhood, everything was cheap; movies, bars, food, coffee, etc.
The beautiful thing about the downtown scene is no one cared who was sleeping with whom, what your sexual preference was, what you ethnicity was… it really didn’t matter. We thought of ourselves as one big family of more than five-hundred people; artists, painters, dancers musicians, we were all together, along with the political types. But then again, we are all political types. Every artist was as political as most who called themselves activists, and we all knew each other.
For the most part, in the early Sixties, everyone hung out at Stanley’s on Avenue B. and 12th Street. If you stayed there long enough on any given day or night, you would run into everyone you knew. On weekends, you couldn’t get into the place, it would be so crowded. After Kennedy was assassinated, I moved to 10th and B. LBJ became president. Another bar opened up known as the Annex, which was an extension of the Ninth Circle on the West Side. It was there that most of the college types hung out, along with recent graduates and a few old timers. It was on East 3rd Street between B. and C. where we would go to dance at The Old Reliable. Across the street was Slugs, where we could hear all the Jazz there was to hear; local musicians as well as big names. For poetry there was La Dome Go, or ‘Two Cigarette Butts,’ a name they took from a café in Paris which was named by Baudelaire. The New York version was located on the south side of East 7th Street between A. and B. The other spot was La Metro, on 2nd Avenue between 9th and 10th on the west side. It was later, around ’65 or ’66 that they started having readings at Saint Mark’s Church, in the community room in the back.
For art, there were only a handful of galleries in the area; three or four at the most. The movie house on Avenue B. between 9th and 10th would show art in their lobby on the second floor, as well
That was the whole scene and those are the places we would frequent. Aside from that, we were always running in and out of each other’s apartments, sleeping with each other, eating together, and so on.
Every now and then, people’s apartments would be broken into. But all they would take would be the stereo set or the T.V. and whatever chump change they would happen to find. Every now and then you would hear about someone being mugged on the street, but that didn’t happen often.
Keep in mind, this was a low-income, low-rent neighborhood, like Brownsville and East New York are today, with lots of folks who had nothing, crawling around the neighborhood, along with us artists who had less than nothing. In spite of our fistfights and arguments, we went along to get along. But now all the gentrifyers are here and no one talks to each other. And now that cell phones and smart phones and the internet are here, that profound sense of community seems to be slowly disappearing, ever so gradually. Pinchon called the yuppies “Yups” in his new novel. For the most part, the young folk’s scene is moving to Bushwick and elsewhere in Brooklyn. But that’s in trouble too, and god knows how long that’s going to last. Like the galleries moving from Soho to Chelsea, we don’t know how long that’s going last, either. When we were here, we had more than enough time and leisure to give minimum time to doing grunt work, and maximum time to creativity and politics. That is what made New York City the spot and even what made it the destination it is now. The yuppies moving in today don’t seem to care about anything like that, and they are pushing out the young artists who would rather “Tune in, turn on, and drop out,” because today it seems like everyone in New York City is supposed to buy in. But as an artists who was here at the beginning and who knows what has made this city great, I’m not buying it. I would love to see how the new generation of yuppie youth would fair at that original party full of artists and outpatients from Bellevue Mental Health Clinic that we threw in ’62. Maybe that would make them drop their cell phones and start talking to one another. Or maybe they would just take a video and post it to Facebook for the NSA to file away. Who knows?
-Steve Cannon October 2013
Edited by Chavisa Woods