Eight Abandoned East Village Buildings’ Second Acts As Beacons of Culture
In the second half of the twentieth century, particularly during the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the East Village experienced high rates of crime and drug use, and a number of its buildings were abandoned by private property owners and the city government. During this period, cultural and arts organizations began to repopulate these otherwise vacant spaces. The artists, dancers, performers, and activists of the East Village filled the buildings with new life, and the buildings, in turn, gave these new coalitions and organizations a place to grow and evolve. It was here the Off-Off-Broadway Theater movement emerged, performance art took on new meanings, and long-lasting networks and programs developed, especially for the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican and Latinx community.
These eight institutions that now define the artistic and cultural heart of the East Village were not planned by the City as some next step in the neighborhood’s evolution, but were envisioned and organized by local artists and activists themselves. Filling structures that had diverse and varied histories, each building and institution serves as a model of adaptive reuse and community-based arts and cultural development. One building was erected as a magistrate court, one housed a retail market, another was originally a clubhouse for the German immigrant community, and a few more were constructed as schools. Still another evolved from a nineteenth-century home to a synagogue and then a community center. Many of the current occupants of these buildings take the historical legacy of their buildings seriously, becoming stewards not only of the neighborhood’s artistic and cultural life, but of its history and built environment.
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, 74 East 4th Street
The East Fourth Street Cultural District, the city’s only official naturally occurring cultural district, is located along East 4th Street between Bowery and Second Avenue. The buildings along this corridor, housing light manufacturing and small businesses in the 1950s, were slated for demolition by City Planning, largely controlled by Robert Moses at that time. The Cooper Square Committee formed in resistance to the plan, successfully thwarting its implementation.
The La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, moved into 74 East 4th Street in the 1960s. The building was developed in 1873 as a musicians’ clubhouse for the Aschenbroedel Vereinin, a central organization in what was then the German immigrant neighborhood of Kleindeutschland. La MaMa was followed to East 4th Street by many other small arts organizations, and together over the course of the next several decades they launched the Off-Off-Broadway movement. When the Giuliani administration decided the City would sell the properties, the groups organized with the support of the Cooper Square Committee, founding the Fourth Arts Block (FAB) in 2001. By 2005, the City agreed to sell the properties to each group for $1 each, to be used in perpetuity for non-profit and cultural purposes. La MaMa, now home to eighteen repertory companies, became a Village Preservation Village Awardee in 2014, and FAB continues its mission to fight displacement and foster equity and community resilience today.
Anthology Film Archives, 32-34 Second Avenue
32-34 Second Avenue was constructed in 1917-1919 as a magistrate court, becoming Lower Manhattan Magistrate’s Courthouse by 1948. By the 1960s the building was abandoned by the City and no longer used as a courthouse. From about 1966 until 1968, the Film Project resided at this location before moving to its longtime home at 66 East 4th Street. After another period of neglect, Anthology Film Archives, founded by Jonas Mekas, P. Adams Sitney, Jerome Hill, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka in 1969, purchased the building in 1979.
Anthology Film Archives, the leading organization of its kind, has not only worked to preserve the building, but also to exhibit and preserve over 20,000 films, 5,000 videos, 2,000 audiotapes, and a library of books, periodicals, photographs, posters, and other ephemera. A crucial part of the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, which was landmarked in 2012, the Anthology Film Archies became a Village Preservation Village awardee in 2018. In 2017 a rooftop and side addition were approved at this location by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
The building at 155 First Avenue was erected in 1938 by the City as the First Avenue Retail Market. This was one of the first and largest of dozens of marketplaces developed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to provide safe, sanitary, and organized indoor spaces for the city’s peddlers and carts previously spread across New York’s overcrowded streets. At the core of what was then the East Village’s Italian-American corridor along First Avenue, the market held cheese, meat, olives, and Italian delicacy vendors, among many others. However, by 1965, these markets faced overwhelming competition from supermarkets. The First Avenue Retail Market was forced to close, and the Department of Sanitation took over the building.
Over two decades later, in 1986 Theater for the New City, founded by Crystal Field, George Bartenieff, Theo Barnes, and Lawrence Kornfeld at Westbeth in 1970, moved here and gave the building a new purpose at last. This organization transformed the space into a venue showcasing avant-garde artists, writers, and performers. In addition to providing exhibition space, Theater for the New City premieres more than thirty full-length dramas, comedies, and musicals each year. The organization was a Village Preservation Village Awardee in 2018.
Performance Space 122, 150 First Avenue
What is now Performance Space 122 at 150 First Avenue was originally built as Public School 122 in 1885 by the prolific architect and superintendent Charles B.J. Snyder. The school was abandoned in 1976, at which point community activists including Katharine Wolpe established the 122 Community Center, which still operates in the building. Around the same time, a group of painters, including Keith Haring, and a group of dancers, including Charlie Moulton, Peter Rose, Charles Dennis, and Tim Miller began to share the space. The future of the building as an artistic destination was solidified in 1979, when director Alan Parker used it to film Fame. The production paid for the completion of a dance floor and provided PS122 with enough money to undertake the next stages of the building’s renovations. PS122 went on to largely define “performance art” in the early 1980s, and led early artistic work exploring and representing the experience of people living with HIV and AIDS.
When the building closed for repairs in 2011, PS122 took great lengths to work with Snyder’s original plan for the building. Several of its performances have deeply engaged with the history of the building, the groups that have shaped it, and the East Village at large.
CHARAS, 350 East 10th Street
350 East 10th Street was also built as a public school by Charles B.J. Snyder, twenty years later than P.S. 122, between 1904 to 1905. Like PS122, by the 1970s Public School 64 had been abandoned, and in 1977, a coalition of community groups founded the CHARAS-El Bohio Community Center at this location. CHARAS, named for the organization’s founders – Chino, Humberto, Angelo, Roy, Anthony, and Sal – used the building for classes, meeting rooms, performance and rehearsal space, art studios, and galleries. It became a critical gathering and organizing space for the Puerto Rican and Latinx artists and activists in the neighborhood, launching the careers of John Leguizamo, John Sayles, Luis Guzman, Todd Haynes, and Spike Lee.
The city sold the building to a private developer at auction in 1998, and CHARAS was evicted three years later after a lengthy legal battle. Although the building earned individual landmark status on June 20th, 2006, protecting it from the developer’s plan to demolish the building, the building has been vacant since CHARAS left. Village Preservation has joined the fight to have the building returned to the community. You can learn more about the building and the movements to preserve it on our website and on our East Village Building Blocks site.
Loisaida Center, 710 East 9th Street
The Loisaida Center was formally incorporated in 1978 at 710 East 9th Street, designed in 1876 by D.I. Stagg as Grammar School 36, and later Public School 36. Over its long history, the organization has worked to confront the economic and social disenfranchisement of the poor and low-income Latinx residents of the East Village and has provided education and employment training, youth development, and neighborhood revitalization initiatives for the community. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, the Center also hosts the annual Loisaida Festival, the largest Latinx celebration in Lower Manhattan since 1987.
In 2008, the City threatened to sell the building to a developer and evict the Loisaida Center. The community rallied around the organization in resistance, and it was decided, fortunately, that the organization could stay.
Nuyorican Poets Café
236 East 3rd Street was built as a five-story Old Law tenement in 1877. Abandoned and empty, by 1981, it had been acquired by the City, at which point it was purchased by the rapidly-growing Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which has historically featured and supported Latinx and LGBTQ artists, began in 1973 as a series of informal readings at Miguel Algarín’s apartment, after which it moved to 505 East 6th Street at what was formerly an Irish bar called the Sunshine Cafe, and then 236 East 3rd Street. A home of poetry, music, theater, visual arts, and education, the Cafe believes in using poetry, music, theater, and dance as a means of social activism and empowerment.
Sixth Street Community Center, 638 East 6th Street
The colorful building at 638 East 6th Street was erected as a brick dwelling in 1846. By 1870, it had been converted into a synagogue for the Congregation Ahawath Yeshurun Shara Torah, which it served through 1970s. At that time, however, the building was abandoned until a group of single mothers living on East 6th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C formed the 6th Street Block Association and began working at this location. There are records of Maria Cruz, a member who also worked with the Children’s Aid Society, purchasing the building in her name on July 10th, 1980. Cruz envisioned that the site would serve as a youth center for the local Latinx families.
Today, the Sixth Street Community Center provides the neighborhood with free arts, writing, and gardening programs for local youth, as well as affordable workshops, workout classes and dance classes for adults. It also has a CSA, and regular poetry and open mic events.
This phenomenal collection of organizations, which empowered the artistic and cultural life of the East Village at a pivotal time in the city’s history, are critical to the well-being of our neighborhood. But still, the status of many East Village buildings remains insecure, and the neighborhood is notably under-landmarked. Click here to learn more about our advocacy efforts in the East Village and here to explore more of the dynamic history of the East Village, documented lot by lot across the neighborhood.