Ada Calhoun’s “St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street” is the lively history of a three-block area in lower Manhattan where celebrities, public figures and social movements have converged. Calhoun appears Friday, Dec. 11, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Ada Calhoun successfully challenges the criticism often aimed at the teaching of history: that it’s a boring list of names, dates and places.
In “St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street” (W.W. Norton, 414 pp., $27.95), Calhoun ducks this rap for several reasons. First of all, there’s only one place in this history: three blocks on New York City’s Lower East Side, a half-mile stretch with 400 years of recorded history.
Calhoun focuses on the decades in the 19th and 20th centuries when St. Marks Place served as the backdrop for a parade of people who left their mark not only on New York City but on the nation and the world.
The author of “St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt gave speeches there. Leon Trotsky worked there. Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, the Velvet Underground and the Ramones made music there. W.H. Auden and Abbie Hoffman lived there. Andy Warhol made art, partied and was shot there.
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People came to be educated at Cooper Union, founded in 1859. Revelers came to dance at the Electric Circus and hear the bands at the Fillmore East.
What was once a hunting ground for the Lenape people and then part of Peter Stuyvesant’s 17th-century farm eventually became the place for anarchists, Beatniks, Yippies, hippies, drag queens, drug dealers and users, punks and poets.
Calhoun makes this chronology enjoyable reading with her uncomplicated prose, her many interviews with St. Marks inhabitants and her research in newspaper libraries and other public records and publications.
She has an eye for intriguing — often titillating and little known — tidbits about St. Marks characters. Before he came to St. Marks, Horatio Alger was run out of another town for “unnatural crimes” with boys. Alexander Hamilton’s son handled the divorce of Eliza Jumel from Aaron Burr, the man who had killed his father in a duel.
Calhoun doesn’t go so far as to impose a narrative on this history to make it interesting, but she does have a recurring theme — each group’s rising utopia smothers the previous one and leaves the stragglers lamenting “you should have been here when.”
Calhoun’s personal history intersects with the general history of the street when her parents “looked at the apocalyptic 1970 East Village and thought ‘what a great place to raise a kid.’ ” She grew up on St. Marks Place and now lives “a subway stop away,” not because St. Marks is dead, the book jacket notes, but because Brooklyn is cheaper.
Gentrification has brought high rents to St. Marks and chased away many of the people and institutions that made the street hip. But Calhoun, who writes for several New York publications, pokes around and finds evidence of the immigrant communities that have always been there, of holdouts from the hippie and punk days (including her parents) and merchants housed in buildings dating to the 1800s.
Other streets in America may make a claim to being the country’s “hippest,” but Calhoun lays out a solid case for St. Marks Place.
And the evidence, history and all, is never boring.