In the wake of my recent post about my reactions to the Empire State shootings of late last week, a reader who calls himself "a concerned citizen" took me to task for "creepily whitewash[ing]" certain elements of New York City's past for my own sense of "identity and entertainment." To be fair, he did lump me in with my “brethren,” by which I believe he means like-minded blogs like Vanishing New York and EV Grieve and a few others. I countered by saying that I’ve never, to my knowledge, celebrated or tried to downplay the awfulness of the criminal aspects of that era, but rather I've lamented the gradual demise of the open, culturally vibrant environment that those elements (and the city’s economic state at the time) unintentionally afforded starving artists, musicians and the like. You can read it all and join the debate/argument in the comments section of that post.
In any case, I thought I’d put up the above photograph, even though (or perhaps because) it plays into the very accusation the concerned citizen was voicing. I first stumbled upon this photograph -- taken by one Judy Sitz -- courtesy of Marc Master’s book from 2007 on No Wave called … er … “No Wave.” It’s a shot of the subway entrance on Broadway just west of Astor Place, between East 8th Street and Waverly Place.
I was drawn to the photograph for a number of reasons, the most notable being for the X Benefit flyer, advertising a gig by James Chance’s Contortions, Arto Lindsay’s DNA, Glenn Branca’s Theoretical Girls and a couple of other outfits (at the risk of belaboring the obvious, I have very strong doubts that the “Police Band” listed second on the bill is the same ensemble that gave the world “Roxanne” et al.) Though the show in question didn’t feature Mars or any of Lydia Lunch’s bands, the event seems like practically the Woodstock of No Wave. What a skronkily attitudinal evening it must have been.
I’m also compelled by the photograph, meanwhile, in that is captures the grubby, gritty and – yes, wait for it -- menacing vibe of the downtown Manhattan of 1978. I’m projecting of course (in 1978, I was eleven years old, living about eighty-seven blocks to the north and didn’t spend a lot of time on this particular strip), but this photo exudes the aura of frontier cool that allowed bands like DNA and the Theoretical Girls to thrive.
I had this picture taped over my desk for a while, and my 6-year-old son Oliver also became enamored of it because it showcased two old subway lines that no longer exist (Oliver is a budding trainspotter … and by that I mean the literal definition and not the slang for junkie, lest any concerned citizens get further concerned).
Thirty-four years later, that same spot still sits in the center of a very traveled byway. Much like the rest of downtown – nay, Manhattan overall – it’s only thinly recognizable to its former self. You’ll still see the odd band flyer pasted up around the area, but the roiling wellspring of activity, innovation and expression that this and the surrounding neighborhoods used to feed seems long, long vanished.
In 2012, the building that once housed The Terminal – 66 East 4th street – is still there, and officially part of the East 4th Street Cultural District, but noisy art bands don’t play there anymore. James Chance and Glenn Branca can still be occasionally spotted around the streets of New York. I have no idea if Arto Lindsay lives here anymore.