Meet Me in the City: Jeffrey Lewis’ Lower East Side
The anti-folk hero takes us on a tour of the New York neighborhood where he was born and raised.
It used to be that New York’s Lower East Side stretched west from the East River to Broadway and all the way north to 14th Street. But little by little, it got chopped up into smaller areas that were then rebranded by realtors: The East Village, Chinatown, Alphabet City, Bowery, Little Italy, and the ever-sickening NoLIta (an estate agent contraction that stands for North of Little Italy). Though that all started happening long before Jeffrey Lewis entered the world on November 20, 1975, the acclaimed singer-songwriter and comic-book artist still considers the Lower East Side in terms of its original boundaries.
“We just called it the Lower East Side,” he says as he drags a huge suitcase full of packages—mainly of his new record, Manhattan—to the post office. “That’s what my parents called it, that’s what everyone called it. I guess it sounds more attractive to market it as the East Village, because the Village—and this is going back to the ’50s and ’60s—is the desirable place and the Lower East Side is more poverty-stricken and just where you would end up if you couldn’t afford to be in the Village.”
Born and raised on the LES, Lewis cut his teeth in the anti-folk scene that was centered around Avenue A’s Sidewalk Cafe and has recently returned to live in the neighborhood after an eight-year stint in South Williamsburg. The area has obviously changed dramatically in the last eight years—let alone the past four decades—and much of its former artistic, bohemian vibes and rebellious spirit have been decimated by the self-eating monster that is New York’s ever-expanding mouth of gentrification.
In fact, it’s almost easier to define the Lower East Side by what’s not there than by what still is, which is something Lewis does to great effect on Manhattan. That’s particularly true of final track “The Pigeon,” which subtly—but powerfully—addresses the erosion of Jewish culture that was such a large part of the area for so long. Still, not all is lost, and as he lugs his packages around the neighborhood, Lewis gives us a tour of the LES landmarks that are still standing and tells us how the neighborhood has changed.
SIDEWALK CAFE – 94 AVENUE A
I’ve been doing all these secret shows there this week, because I had to find a drummer for this tour. So we’ve been rehearsing there to make sure he knows all these new songs, just to give him some stage time before we go. But it’s amazing that it’s still there.
Does it still have the same kind of cachet that it had when you and The Moldy Peaches were coming up?
Well, one thing about it is that it’s never, ever been even remotely cool. It’s just an open mic, so any weirdo can come in off the street and play there. It’s completely unhip, and it’s sort of always been that way, but that makes it interesting because you have this wide swamp of performers—old people, young people. It has a far more diverse clientele and performers than any other place that you can think of in the city, and any time any journalists would go in there to check it out—because, you know, The Moldy Peaches were there or something—they would see other stuff that was just so not sexy and young and hip that it never could turn into a buzz place.
Do you think, in that case, that the whole anti-folk thing was entirely accidental and wasn’t an intentional scene?
It is an intentional scene but it’s not like any sexy youth movement or anything. It’s just an open mic that has this community where everybody there kind of hangs out and knows each other and hopefully supports each other and continues to do cool stuff.
IGGY’S – 173 1ST AVENUE
This place has been here forever. It was Five Roses Pizza for a while and it was Rosemary’s when I was a kid, so it’s been here my entire life. It was always my childhood pizza place, and even though it’s gone through a few name changes it’s still there and it’s definitely—I would say it’s maybe the best pizza place. They used to have arcade games in there, which was exciting as a kid, but that was a long time ago.
So just how much has this area changed? You were born here, you grew up here, and you’re back here now, so it must have gone through so many changes.
Yeah, but I don’t imagine it’s that different from anywhere else over the course of thirty-nine years.
But this was a very creative and bohemian area, and now…
Right, and now it’s not. But look at the West Village. In the ’60s or the ’50s, if you were a young singer or painter or poet moving to New York, or a jazz musician or anything, you wanted to be around Macdougal Street or Bleecker Street or Cornelia Street—all these places on the West Side that now nobody would think about for two seconds. It’s completely out of the question. It’s totally square, totally unhip, totally uninteresting, totally expensive. Nobody would mistake that for a vibrant culture. And if that can happen there, then here it is here.
But New York is meant to be this creative hub where anyone can come and follow their dreams. As a creative person, as an artist who’s been doing this for a long time, do you see how much harder it is now to be a musician in New York and survive off your art, as opposed to back in the ’70s and ’80s, when cars were burning in the street and things were still cheap? Whereas now, it’s not cheap to live on the Lower East Side anymore.
Right. Well, there’s places in the world where cars are burning in the streets, and people could live there! I mean, I’ve heard people are moving to Mexico City, and rent is probably cheap in Baghdad or something. It just depends on what you’re really willing to put up with when it comes to it. Detroit is dirt cheap.
But New York has always had the allure of being the center of everything.
It’s a port city, and any port city is going to be a nexus and a crossroads for an exciting mishmash of cultures, whether that’s New Orleans, or Hamburg, or San Francisco. There’s a certain cosmopolitan element to any port city, and the current changes in technology and economics are always going to make things better for some people and worse for others. There’s no question that it’s a cultural tragedy what’s happened around here, and it’s not by accident. There are tax incentives that are given to landlords to build high-rise buildings, there are zoning laws that are ignored. There are all sorts of actual policy decisions that bend things in this direction; it’s not just an accident of free-market economics. Once there’s money to be made, no other argument can stand. If something makes more money, no amount of complaining about loss of culture or elderly neighbors holds water whatsoever.
ST. MARK’S COMICS – 11 ST. MARK’S PLACE
I haven’t actually bought comics here in a long time because they’re not so good about alternative, independent comics, but they were probably one of the first comic stores in New York City. They weren’t the first—Forbidden Planet was earlier—but St. Mark’s Comics has been there for a very, very long time in essentially the same location. On new comic day each week, my brother and I would run over there. That was just a weekly event and it was a really nice neighborhood thing, and it’s cool that they’re still here. Mitch, the guy who owns it, is still in all the time, and they’re basically exactly the same as they always were. Even though all the music stores have closed down, somehow the comic store keeps hanging in there, even though all these other print media places—magazine shops and bookstores—have not been able to hold on.
Do they stock your stuff?
No! They wouldn’t stay in business stocking stuff like that! They’re very not counter-cultural in their comic book tastes.
B&H DAIRY – 127 2ND AVENUE
After the gas explosion a couple of doors down happened, B&H was closed for months, and everybody was scared it wasn’t going to reopen—like the Stage Diner on the other side of the street, which still hasn’t reopened. They were both very old, funky little neighborhood diner spots serving up the kind of Eastern European stuff that you used to be able to find all over the place here. Now there are so many fewer restaurants where that stuff is found—especially cheap neighborhood spots. There’s really only a couple left. There’s Odessa on Avenue A, which is great and open twenty-four hours, and B&H, which, happily, has come back to life after the gas explosion. So that’s something not to be taken for granted.
And this was here when you were growing up?
Yeah. I never ate here because there were so many other places. Leshko’s, on 7th Street and Avenue A, was usually where I would go for a pierogi or a cup of soup or whatever, but that’s been gone for a long time. And then Veselka on 9th Street, they became very fancy and refurbished and essentially became the same restaurant but just much more expensive. So B&H has become more of an important neighborhood spot because it’s one of the only cheap places to eat left.
TOMPKINS SQUARE PARK – 500 EAST 10TH STREET
This is definitely a significant part of the neighborhood. As most people will tell you, the big change here was when they installed the curfew in ’88 or ’89 to remove all the people that were living in the park. And that turned into the Tompkins Square Park Riots, and that was a very big change. That was the most noticeable difference between the neighborhood being in the hands of the people that lived here versus being in the hands of power—with more money and more guns—that could determine who could be in the park at what time. The curfew and the riots around that are the biggest, most visible turning points for the neighborhood going from a real outsider area to someplace that was on target to be colonized by normal culture.
OTHER MUSIC – 15 EAST 4TH STREET
There were so many record stores and there just aren’t really record stores anymore. It’s the same as video rental places. Other Music doesn’t go back to the old days, but at least it’s a good music shop and it’s still here in the area. If I’m going to buy a new album—if there’s a new Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks album out or a new Jonathan Richman record out or something like that—that’s really the only place around here I could walk to to buy it. It’s the only place that you’d have any chance of finding one of my albums, or anything on Rough Trade. You know, they’re just sort of a hip record store, and they’ve still got a used vinyl section and a very good used CD selection. I buy a lot of used CDs there. And the name, Other Music, is because they were across the street from the giant Tower Records, and they were a very little shop that was supposed to sell other music that you wouldn’t find in the colossal, block-sized Tower. But now Tower Records has been gone for years, so it’s just ironic that the title Other Music is there and nobody even knows what it refers to. Now they could just call it Music.
Is there one place that you miss more than anywhere else that’s no longer around?
If Sidewalk closed, that would be a colossal blow to whatever remains of the music community and my own life and my own music. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. But luckily it’s still there.
De Robertis pastry shop just closed on 1st Avenue. It had been there for over a hundred years and they just closed within the last year. I didn’t think there was anything left that could still stab me in the heart in that way. You’d think that all the old places that are gone are gone, but the places that have hung on might as well…like, why close now? My family would always go there as a special treat when I was a kid up until the time when they closed. You didn’t want to do it every day, because then it wouldn’t be as special, but still, to walk in there and get a cannoli or a hazelnut cookie or a cappuccino… It was this very old Italian pastry place and just the way it smelled, the way it looked, the old tiles on the floor, the old signed photo of Sylvester Stallone or whatever they had on the wall, and the fact that it’s suddenly not there seems like a really significant part of the neighborhood to disappear. FL