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coverpic flag US - New York - Full Moon 238 - 01/24/16

Ada Calhoun
St. Marks Is Dead [book]
W.W. Norton & Co.

'St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street' by Ada Calhoun
W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2016

If you have visited New York City at any time since the start of 2015 and have made the pilgrimage to the World Trade Centre Memorial and whilst there ascended to the viewing platform of the newly-opened One World Observatory you would have, no doubt, had the breathtaking experience of the rapid elevator journey to the 102nd floor. The elevator journey is akin to a rocket ride which, thanks to the wonder of the immersive floor to ceiling LED screens inside each cab, allows each passenger to see the city grow from, as F. Scott Fitzgerald described it, 'the old island - that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - [the] fresh, green breast of the new world', and turn into the sprawling megalopolis it is today. It is as if a camera has managed to record a 360-degree time-lapse film of the last 500 years.

From the viewing platform you can look to the north-west side of the Manhattan island and see the Lower East Side and the rest of the East Village, where so much of New York's rich cultural history has taken place in the half a millennium that has passed since those Dutch sailors first arrived. This area and, most specifically, its epicenter - St. Mark's Place - is the focus of a remarkable new book written by New Yorker, Ada Calhoun, titled 'St. Marks Is Dead'. It is an expansive account of the tumultuous history of this remarkable and fascinating locale. Whereas the Skypod Elevator ride in the One World Observatory whisks you through history at a pace where you could easily miss half a century of change in one momentary blink, Calhoun takes us on a similar time-travelling journey through New York's physical, cultural and emotional evolution but at a slightly less frantic pace. History comes alive through the focused lens of her precise prose and through the words of the dozens of local personalities she has spoken to in compiling this chronicle of the life of this hub of New York 'cool'.

All of us at some time would have lived on streets that have their trove of local stories and characters littered throughout their histories, but it would be hard to find a street anywhere in the world where such a prominent range of culturally significant people have strutted and prowled and where such diverse and impactful events have occurred so regularly and consistently. Even though the silent film that hurries through to its sky-high conclusion in the elevator cab is undoubtedly impressive, after finishing Calhoun's book you can't help but feel you have just been immersed in a more fulfilling experience of the changing face of New York, it is like viewing the most elaborately plotted mixed genre blockbuster you have ever seen.

Starting with the cultural conflict between local Indian tribes and the European invaders, Calhoun's 'film' takes us through the colonial struggles for survival and the pursuit of the American Dream, confronts us with tragic scenes of maritime disasters, the myriad rags-to-riches successes and subsequent falls from grace of characters drawn here from all over the globe, we are made privy to mob killings, violent street riots and sinister murders. We learn how St. Marks was a hotbed for political revolutionaries and religious visionaries, we go on forays into the world of drug culture, relive the the genesis of punk rock, and witness its 'big bang' impact rippling out across the world. Stories of the Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, G.G. Allin, Klaus Nomi, The Dictators, Blondie all contain their St. Marks moments. If this is not enough to over-stimulate our senses we are touched by the sadness of the AIDS epidemic, have our spirits lifted by the flamboyance of the local drag queens, and marvel at the recurring cycles of artistic innovation brought about by a constant turnover of painters, poets, authors and multimedia pioneers who all spent time in the fertile St Marks Place environment. Calhoun grew up in an apartment right in the middle of this vibrant, chaotic neighbourhood and writes with an impressive balance between her unbridled affection for her childhood haunts and the people who inhabited her world, with the clear, impartial observational skill of the gifted historian and social commentator.

For me, reading this book in the relative quiet of a conservative middle-class suburb, it made me nostalgic for my own youth when despite the world around me being full its own exciting possibilities, was a time when I always seemed to be seeking out the music of New York's Lower East Side and anything to do with the world of Andy Warhol and his acolytes, or the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the literature of Burroughs, or any snippets of media reportage that tantalized my friends and I as it fed our romanticized ideal of how we wanted to live our own lives - free to explore boundaries and express ourselves without restriction. It took me half a lifetime, but I finally managed to make my first pilgrimage to the U.S., and to New York in August this year, but only spent a few excessively hot summer days walking and re-walking the streets of the Lower East Side. And, whilst it was not the St. Marks Place of those myths and legends that I had marvelled at in my youth, many of which are detailed vividly in this book, the sense of place and of history still affected me emotionally. Being there had a physical impact upon me too - I found, on a number of occasions, that I literally had to stop and force myself to breathe simply at the sight of a street sign, or at the people from the Bowery Mission handing out food in Tompkins Square Park, or at Kitty Carlisle's handprint outside the St. Marks Cinema, such was the power of the street's place in my own cultural DNA.

And whilst the streets were obviously not those that I had convinced myself that I knew so well, I still found my soul singing all the same. Reading Ada Calhoun's 'memoir of place' brought every soul that ever touched St. Marks Place with its presence to join me in that song. If you read it, its music will touch you too.

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