I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published March 18th 2010
Long before the East Village was punk in the 1970s and famous for CBGB, the Mudd Club, and riots in Tompkins Square Park, many Beat-poet writers, chiefly Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, called the neighborhood home. They drank at its bars, gave readings at its churches, and lived among its tenements.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the East Village (known only as the Lower East Side at that time) was abuzz with energy and vitality. New York was not only the center of the country's emerging counter-culture scene, but it also soon became America's visual arts mecca. Together the mixing and melding of those two scenes created an unprecedented level of talent that still echoes downtown. And while the West Village has no fewer literary sites of note, the places mentioned here are all located on the east side of Manhattan from Union Square to East Houston Street.
Back when the Beats were alive, Fourth Avenue from Union Square to Ninth Street was known as Bookseller's Row. Some two-dozen bookstores along the stretch sold endless stacks of used books, usually cheap. Years later, many new and used bookstores remain close by, such as the Strand, the Alabaster Bookshop, and St. Mark's Books. Another nearby shop for gently read items is East Village Books. (Check out the back of the shop that opens into an ad-hoc garden).
Once you have your chosen tomes, make you way to St. Mark's Church in the Bowery at Second Avenue and East Tenth Street. Sit in its courtyard and commune on New York's oldest religious site. The church was built on the farmland of Peter Stuyvesant, former governor general of New Amsterdam. It's also the home of St. Mark's Poetry Project, founded in 1966. Poet Kahlil Gibran was among the first members of the St. Mark's Arts Committee, and writers as diverse as Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Carl Sandburg have all given readings there. Martha Graham has danced there and the church also hosted Sam Shepard's first plays.
A short walk in any direction will bring you closer to the former homes of some literary fireballs. From 1958 to 1961 poet Allen Ginsburg lived at 170 East Second Street (pictured, between Avenues A and B) where he reportedly wrote his famous poem "Kaddish". Writer W.H. Auden called 77 St. Mark's Place home from 1953 to 1972 where he wrote "City Without Walls" and "Epistle For Young Lovers." And William S. Burroughs, the Beat writer who turned America upside down after publishing Naked Lunch, lived in the former YMCA building at 222 Bowery from 1974 to 1997.
Next, have some libations where Jack Kerouac and poet e.e. cummings were regulars at McSorley's ("We were here before you were born") Old Ale House. If readings with up-and-coming writers are more your thing, check out the goings on at KGB Bar where Soviet nostalgia meets an ongoing down and dirty literary salon. The poetry slam is in full bloom at the neighborhood's Bowery Poetry Club as well as at the Nuyorican Poets Café, so pick up that notebook, open that page, and wax poetic about New York as if your life depended on it; you may just channel one of the Beats.