St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street
by Ada Calhoun
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Though I’m a Southerner through and through, I have to admit that New York City, and certain parts in particular, is like the Promised Land for anyone with counterculture leanings. That’s what drew me to reading Ada Calhoun’s St. Marks is Dead. Having grown up listening to music made by both hippies and punks, then reading the Beats as a college student, then becoming aware of places like McSorley’s through the writing of Joe Mitchell, this area of New York City – the Bowery, home of CBGB and Tompkins Square Park – holds a fabled status among widely scattered outsiders like me. Certainly this place doesn’t actually exist . . .
But Calhoun’s book brings it down to Earth. Starting with the Dutch farming family that owned the land in the 1600s – the word bouwerie means ‘small farm’ – and moving though transformative periods of growth, waves of immigrants, and on into wild and seedy times, St. Marks is Dead carries the reader along blocks and into addresses, some of which have junkies and bums sleeping the doorways. Here, we meet unknowns like Mr. Zero and well-knowns like WH Auden. Weirdos and dropouts mingle with working-class immigrant Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans. Shops and bars come and go as the trends do.
What is impressive about the book is its ability to string together disparate characters from disparate time periods. What is difficult about the book is the episodic nature of the narrative, which is made necessary by the story. Ada Calhoun does a good job of showing us the many incarnations of this infamous street, but her subject matter requires that we only meet characters briefly before they fade away again. But maybe that’s the point, that we see St. Marks die and be reborn over and over.