Sunday, January 17, 2016
St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America's Hippest Street
Rating: 5 Stars
Ugh. Everything about this book is so beautiful and ugly and traumatic and hopeful. I don't even know where to start. So, let's just appreciate that cover for a moment. I love it. Gorgeous. Plus, with an endorsement from King Ad-Rock (my most favorite of the Beastie Boys) on the back once the book was actually in my hands, I knew this would not miss. I was not disappointed.
There are a few things that have fueled my obsession with New York over the course of my lifetime: 1. my general love of history and the fact that NYC is one of the oldest cities in the country 2. Two of my favorite movies that take place there (The Godfather and Newsies. Yes, my tastes are eclectic.) 3. My love for the idea of hanging out in The Village, sitting on a couch in a coffee house with my Friends for hours without a care in the world. I am not sure I can truly convey the powerful hold the idea of New York City has over me. I have never visited the city and the closest I've been was a quick layover in Jersey upon my and my mom's return from Amsterdam in 2010. Somehow, it just wasn't quite the same as walking the streets of the historic neighborhoods, being immersed in the culture of the city. I often wonder if I have built it up so much in my mind that the reality could never live up to the idea I have in my head, and that is a depressing thought.
The first time I ever heard of St Marks came in season 9 of Friends when Ross mentions being at St Marks comics prior to his being mugged in his youth (by Phoebe). I was delighted then to find it is/was an actual place on St Marks, as the author offers a list of pop culture references to the street. The listings are grouped by song mentions and movie/tv mentions or as the location of filming. Incidentally, Friends is not on this list, which is kind of ironic seeing as how it was my first introduction to the famous and infamous street. The book was just published, so I can not see why it would have been overlooked. But I digress.
I guess I should talk about the book itself now; I've talked about myself long enough. The first thing I appreciate about books like this is the author herself. This was not someone who chose a topic to research on whim or because an editor thought it would be a great read. I mean, those things could ALSO be true, but the author is a child of St Marks, having grown up there and experienced living their first hand. Who better qualified to write a history of such an iconic place? Calhoun is a talented writer and it is clear she has a lot of love for the street and the city.
Calhoun begins with 400 years ago, on Peter Stuyvesant's farm and from there weaves an engaging story through time, following the path as Manhattan grew up around it. I loved not only learning about St Marks, but other tidbits along the way. I loved seeing how the names evolved over the years from Bouwerie and Breukelen then to Bowery and Brooklyn now. I also was finally able to discover where the term 'knickerbocker' came from (because I was too lazy to Google it I suppose, or did not realize how much I wanted to know where it came from until I read this). I won't spoil it, the answer is on page 6.
The book flows well and is a quick read. You will cross paths with the likes of The Beastie Boys (only about a page though, my biggest complaint!), Andy Warhol, Leon Trotsky, The Ramones, and Allen Ginsberg, just to name a few. Time and again, the theme is that the street is dead, always proclaimed by the generation that leaves and a new wave takes their place. From a Dutch colony, to the Beatniks, anarchists, punks, drag queens and so on. However, as you will find, that is not actually the case. Each new group to take over St Marks leaves a piece of itself before moving on, contributing to the legend of the legendary street.
I know even as I am writing this, the review here does not do the book justice. All I can say is to read and enjoy for yourself. Only seventeen days into the new year and I think this will be a top 5 book of 2016 for me. Highly recommended.