Book Review: “St. Mark’s is Dead” by Ada Calhoun

I’ll tell anyone who will listen about the pentagram Barney on St Mark’s Place. Growing up my dad would take me out for my birthday. This always included an extra little gift. The gift of my choice for years was a small carved animal from a now-closed store in 9 St Mark’s, called Into the Woods, which specialized in carved furniture and house wares. No matter what, every time I visited St Mark’s as a kid, there was a giant, bleached stuffed Barney in front of one of the shops on the north side of the street. He had a pentagram drawn with marker onto his belly, and represented for me all the other weird stuff that could seen on that street in the early 90s. When I was a little older and went into the city myself, he was still there. For about ten years that Barney was always out on the sidewalk. Until one day he wasn’t. In the East Village (and NYC as a whole) something considered an institution can just disappear overnight.

barney.jpgI took St Mark’s is Dead (2015) by Ada Calhoun out from the library on the heels of a book about the history of the Irish-Italian community in New York, which focused heavily on Five Points. The Village was special to me growing up because it’s where I felt closest the New York of my parents’ childhoods. My mom had hung out in vintage stores like Love Saves the Day (also now closed) and restaurants like Veselka (surviving) as a young adult, and seeing the remains of the gritty 80s in Tompkins Square Park and its surroundings made me feel closer to that family history. Before “hipsters” were a thing, my parents would comment on how “yuppie” New York was becoming. I grew up during New York’s upswing, and though I am grateful for the Giuliani- and Bloomberg-era city, like anyone who has lived here through their childhoods, sometimes it is difficult to accept that the change we see around us is just part of the natural growth of this city. It’s a cycle which has been going on since the Dutch settlers and not some newfangled thing.

Ada Calhoun grew up on St Mark’s during the 80s and 90s. Despite this St Mark’s is Dead is a far cry from preservationist, never criticizing change, only commenting on it. Calhoun structures her book around the idea that each generation to call St Mark’s their own has been convinced that their heyday was they street’s prime, and now St Mark’s is dead. Devoid of culture. Of creativity. She opens her history of the street and surrounding neighborhood by talking a bit about the history of New York, and how different this city’s development has been from others. Manhattan has suffered so many Great Fires (1776, 1835, 1845) that the city has come to thrive on drastic change. To level and start over has become the norm. I decided to read this book because I was interested in the St Mark’s of the 80s, the one that was “dying” during my childhood. In the end what I found most fascinating was the history the Village during the Dutch settlement through the 19th century. This history was new to me, and it answered a lot of questions I had had about the area’s complexity. In Calhoun’s first three chapters she covers the history of St Mark’s Place up to 1904. This story was woven around what was going on at St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, built in 1660 as Peter Stuyvesant’s private family chapel. This church, which is still operational today, was the backbone of St Mark’s for two hundred years

Though I knew a bit about Stuyvesant’s history in the area, evident by the park and apartment complex named after him, the vivid stories of the fruit orchards and estate that covered current-day Astor Place and Tompkins Square was new to me. Calhoun is an essayist and a storyteller – her historical account is never dry or confusing. She jumps around a bit in the timeline to build a narrative that is fun and easy to follow. Calhoun answers questions I didn’t know I had about the neighborhood. Why does Cooper Union face south? What was originally in Colonnade Row? I didn’t know that Eliza Schuyler Hamilton lived in the building that up until six months ago held the clothing store Trash and Vaudeville. I didn’t know that the PS General Slocum tragedy originated in the East Village, obliterating the community’s diminishing German population.

For someone already familiar with the street, Calhoun’s book is a treasure trove of stories, but for someone who’s never experienced it, St Mark’s is Dead would probably fall flat. Her own familiarity with the street sometimes works against her, as she draws connections between the then-and-now of different specific street addresses without giving her reader a context refresher. And though the point of her work is to stress that change is natural to St Mark’s, her own history with the area does color parts of the book. I noticed a strong stylistic difference between the way she told the “old” history and they way she told the story of the St Mark’s of her childhood. As her story edged towards the 1970’s, she moved toward telling personal stories. The first-person accounts of the 1970s and 80s gave the latter half of the book a more episodic and biographical feel, while the first half read as careful research. The second half of the book did not feel as bipartisan, but more like a cobbling of her favorite stories and moments.

St Mark’s is Dead is full of different flavors as Calhoun chooses to tell different types of stories very differently. I wonder if the book began as a series of essays before it turned into its current form. It’s a personal piece despite her attempt at impartiality, and she clearly wrote it from a place of love and care. It’s the love that made St Mark’s is Dead such a joy for me to read, but that love is also her blind spot. The narrative of St Mark’s Place is so myopic that the surrounding  history feels splintered. Calhoun doesn’t give enough context to what is going on in the rest of America or the world. This is most damaging in her account of how the AIDS crisis affected the Village. She needed to show the big-picture in the background to enrich her points. I think St Mark’s is Dead probably loses a lot of its warmth if the reader hasn’t spent a lot of time in New York.

They say “write what you know,” but that can lead to tunnel vision, and it can be really hard to tell if your story is suffering from tunnel vision. Even my Barney story is probably not as interesting to you as it is to me. St Mark’s is Dead tells a niche story and it’s written to niche audience. If Calhoun wanted to appeal to a broader audience, to share the complex history of the street that raised her to those unfamiliar with the Village, then she missed the mark. But I think Calhoun was writing to New Yorkers who grumble when their favorite shops close and cry, “there goes the neighborhood.” I think through this book she is asking those people (me included) to look at New York with some perspective – through not a broader lens, but a deeper one. And in that sense St Mark’s is Dead was a success.

Sarah V Diehl


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