Meet 1st Street
I sidled up to 1st Street where my cross-town journey logically began. Emerging from the corner of Houston Street at Avenue A, and ending rather abruptly at The Bowery, 1st Street seems to be void of definition. What it lacks in geographical distinction and length, it more than makes up for in character. Take the addresses of 1st Street: they are inverted, the numbers on the north side are even and odd on the south. On the rest of Manhattan’s side streets, except 2nd Street, Bond Street, and Great Jones Street, it is the opposite. Experience 1st Street on a bright Saturday afternoon when all the shops are open and the friendly denizens are out and about, willing to share their stories.
1st Street has a little bit of everything. Fashion makes a statement with some elegant boutiques. I found Abetta Boiler and Welding Service whose shop has been repairing boilers for over sixty years. And in addition to the revered Prune, which boasts a cozy atmosphere and “real home cooking,” the Bromberg brothers Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken has joined the fray as has Bowery Meat Company. Sante, a place that opened in May of 2015, embodies this diversity by bridging together fashion, beauty and food in a single venue to create, as one of the owners stated, “a sanctuary of health.” At this point, I have dined in every restaurant on 1st Street, having delectable meals and fascinating conversations with several owners.
Back when I first began my journey of walking the side streets of Manhattan, in 2011, I met Mr. Hank Penza, who owned the eclectic neighborhood cornerstone Mars Bar. At the time he said, “I can’t give this corner up.” So it was bittersweet when I spent one of Mars Bar’s last moments with him one summer afternoon. A local bar referred to as “a living record of a community’s history” and sporting twenty-seven years of “wall art,” it was torn down shortly after to create more of the new, large apartment complexes creeping down 1st Street. It was quite an experience to be in front of the old, beat-up building with its expressive mural, watching a drug-related street fight, while simultaneously standing in the shadows of the luxury apartment buildings, and knowing that yet another one would soon replace Mars Bar. As one local put it, “You never know what to expect on 1st Street, because it changes block to block…from eww to aww.”
What stands out the most for to me on 1st Street is the interplay of the old and the new. There are self-proclaimed stars of the raw food industry and old-time landlords ready to explain how life on 1st Street is changing for the better. Artie Agin, a “landlord of the neighborhood,” who has lived here since 1962, was happy to buyout “the druggies and slums.” In his words, “The neighborhood is improving at the sacrifice of culture.” Just down the block, a local tenant feels that new residents move in and out so quickly because they cannot afford the rent, creating a situation where their street is now “lacking a commitment to community.” Damien Panitz from Sounds Right Sound, a music studio that has since relocated to Brooklyn, feels that artists on 1st Street are a “dying breed,” and expressed regret at the “disenchanting energy of this town.” He concluded by lamenting, “Moving the artists out is a sad state of affairs.”
On one of my many side trips to 1st Street, I met a family moving their twenty-something-year-old daughter into an old tenement building that had been gutted and remade into a modern space. Juxtaposed with No. 47, the former tenement housing next-door is seemingly unchanged from its original condition. The word on the block is that this building will be next to get a makeover. There are no apparent preservation ordinances on 1st Street and one by one the buildings are coming down or being remodeled with little regard for their historic integrity. Sure enough, at the end of May 2012, I bumped into Raken Zielinski, Julius Klein and their moving truck. After spending thirty years on 1st Street, both as artists in their studios and as full-time residents, they were moving out. According to Raken, their building has been purchased, and the new owners intend to raise the rent several times over.
During a visit on a cloudless afternoon, I found the gate open to First Street Garden and met a gentleman tending to the flowers. He proudly told me about “urban homesteading,” and explained how he, and others, were able to take over a vacant, run-down building next-door to the garden several decades ago. By gathering others together, he had convinced the city to allow them to gut and renovate the space before it was transformed into apartments. Many of the original homeowners have remained all these years, raising their children in the East Village and staying true to the community.
Another interesting moment to observe on 1st Street is the thriving battle of the juices. Juicy Lucy has been a small shack on the front of a building selling smoothies for almost twenty years. Juice Press, which opened its first storefront on 1st in 2011, has been expanding at a rapid pace throughout the city offering raw foods, smoothies and cold-pressed juices.
Can a side street have its own side street? Absolutely. This is exactly what I found when I explored Extra Place, jutting north off of 1st Street near The Bowery. A leftover parcel from the creation of the Manhattan grid, this appendage was a 1920s location for a speakeasy, and later a litter strewn alley. Today, bolstered by the development of a brand new apartment complex, Extra Place has become home to a revolving door of shops and restaurants, as each is struggling to make it. David Chang’s Ko, has recently set up home in the middle of this block of storefronts, and is determined to remain.
Whether one loves this short street for what it used to be or what it is quickly becoming, it seems that there is always something worth talking about on 1st Street. I have walked it dozens of times, and it never seems to disappoint.
Side Note: Though it only made its home on 1st Street from August 3rd to October 16th, 2011, the BMW Guggenheim Lab is just one of those cool concepts that native city-dwellers and visitors alike love about New York – think pop-up store, minus the cupcakes. As their website says, the BMW Guggenheim Lab is really “a mixture between an urban think tank, a community center, and a gathering space.” It is a temporary traveling structure that will visit nine international cities over the next six years and focus on exploring “new ideas, experimentation, and ultimately the creation of forward-thinking solutions for city life.”
When the lab cleared out in October, instead of leaving behind an empty lot, it transformed the “formerly unusable city site into an accessible public park space.” Even without ever visiting the Lab, it is still worth telling friends around the world about – and to think, it all started on 1st Street.