The senior housing complex on the northeast corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street hardly looks like a landmark of Beat culture. But there, at 501 East 11th Street, three buildings shared a courtyard where residents gathered to talk, eat and drink wine. Fifties-era hipsters called it Paradise Alley.
The complex first drew attention in 1958 when Jack Kerouac published The Subterraneans, inspired by his affair five years earlier with black poet Alene Lee. The original version of the short novel was set in Paradise Alley, where Lee lived, and used her real name. For legal reasons, her character was re-written as Mardou Fox, one of the novel’s jazz club crowd; Kerouac’s character pursues an affair with Fox at her tenement apartment in what was changed to Heavenly Lane in San Francisco.
Despite the 3,000-mile relocation, Kerouac’s description of the courtyard is unmistakably of the Lower East Side of the 1950s. He describes seeing it for the first time: “A great iron gate rasping on the sidewalk to the pull, the insides of smelling garbage cans sad-leaning together, fish heads, cats… the wash hung over the court, actually the back courtyard of a big 20-family tenement with bay windows, the wash hung out and in the afternoon the great symphony of Italian mothers, children, fathers… yelling from stepladders.”
In the mid-’60s, Paradise Alley was renovated; a fountain was built in the center of the courtyard, which became a gathering place for residents. Artists flocked to the buildings, drawn by the affordable rents and communal vibe. Actor Morgan Freeman lived there, as did noted jazz saxophonist George Barrow. The buildings and courtyard were razed in 1985 after a fire.
Composer and multi-instrumentalist David Amram lived on East Eighth Street and often visited Barrow in Paradise Alley. Amram, who was also friends with Kerouac and Lee, says that Mardou Fox of The Subterraneans was unlike the Alene Lee he knew.
David Amram, Musician
Alene loved jazz, she was really intelligent, really gorgeous, really smart and very strong and independent. And didn’t take any crap from anybody. And Jack really fell in love with her and I think she liked Jack but she didn’t want to be with anybody that didn’t treat her with the respect that she felt she deserved. She was very strong and independent, which a lot of women were, especially the ones that hung out with us.
In the book it looks like she was just some desperate person but actually she was a very strong, independent person that just had her own way. She was really somebody that was much more on the ball than that public perception of just some kind of a hip person hanging around with Jack Kerouac.
Incidentally, in The Subterraneans, and Jack told me himself, it was partly her, partly someone that he’d imagined and embellished on, and partly some other women that he knew who were similar, who were strong and independent and kind of mysterious and had their own way.
Paradise Alley was a step above the building that I lived in. When George [Barrow] was there, he always kept a really nice place. He was very meticulous. He was really devoted to music and no matter how crazy the circumstances, always followed what Mingus told us both the first night I was in the Mingus quintet with George, Mal Waldron and drummer Ron Jefferson. Mingus told us, “No matter how ratty the joint, every night with me is Carnegie Hall.”
Every time I played with George, it was Carnegie Hall, because, due to his high standards, warmth and devotion to music, he made every event elegant as well as inspiring.
The wonderful thing about Paradise Alley at that time: it was a place with a whole lot of people who got along, not only with people in the arts but got along with people in the neighborhood.
Wesley Waites, Photographer
It was very communal. Everybody knew everyone because you got together down at that courtyard. It was fantastic, that’s the only way I can put it. It was my first apartment after moving out from my parents’ and it just blew me away that the place could be like that.
The guy that did the reconstruction of the buildings closed up the entrances off of Avenue A and made the entrance on 11th Street. You came through a gate and then you were in that courtyard that would have spanned those three buildings.
There was a little fountain in the middle of the courtyard, the courtyard was brick, and there were a couple of benches around the fountain. I had a gorgeous large studio with a huge skylight.
A buddy of mine who lived in the apartment next door to me, he and I one summer night just decided to have a party. We put speakers out on the fire escapes and bought two kegs of beer and I don’t know, we must have had everybody from the East Village in there who wanted to party. The gate was open and people just came in and partied for quite a long time.
When I met Morgan [Freeman] he had just moved here from San Francisco and his plans were originally to become a dancer in Broadway shows. And he was taking a lot of dance classes.
And I remember one winter we figured out every way in the world to cook Spam. Nobody had any money. Now he can probably buy Spam, the company. Morgan’s always been a very down-to-earth person. And we just hung out in each other’s apartments and got to be very friendly.
It was different from the rest of the neighborhood because of the courtyard. You always ran into people because of the courtyard. People lingered in the courtyard. In the summer, it was nice to sit out there in the evening. You heard the water in the fountain. It was just a lovely place to live in.
Bill Cherry, Bartender
It was a wonderful place. George lived downstairs below me, I was on the top floor and Morgan was across the courtyard from us. So as you come out of your building, you’re actually facing each other because you’re in the courtyard and you could leave from there.
When I arrived there I had just separated from my ex-wife and I was working at the Public Library on 42nd Street and I couldn’t afford to live any other place than the Lower East Side. I had met a young lady at the library and we were living together and we found Paradise Alley through the newspaper. We went down and we found this place, it was fantastic. She was a gymnast from Germany and I felt like I was out of shape so I started taking dance courses. When I met Morgan, he was also taking dance courses.
I met this young lady, she was a dancer, beautiful little young sister. Her and Morgan were involved. And they broke up and I don’t know how I met her but I met her and before I knew it we were living together. So Morgan and I had something in common. So we used to laugh about that part.
Paradise Alley, it was special in that sense. Morgan and George were personal friends and we spent a lot of time talking, just bullshittin’ around.
We just had a nice cozy place to live in, we were off the street, we used to have people come out with cheese and wine in the evenings and put tables out there and we’d sit around and bullshit and stuff like that. It was just a fantastic place to live.
I had been into jazz all my life, from high school days in the ‘50’s and when I met George, I saw him one day, he was carrying his baritone case, and we started talking and he found out that I was into jazz almost as much as he was and we became friends and started talking.
I used to go down to his apartment and we’d hang out and I’d listen to him rehearse. And he actually took me to one fantastic session. He did the album The Blues and the Abstract Truth. George was on that with some of the best artists around at the time.
George just had a great sound. So we became friends and what happened was I left the library and became a bartender and I started working the jazz clubs around the city.
It was the best time in my life. I was poor as hell, but we never had to go above 14th Street for anything. West Village, take the crosstown bus at Eighth Street, back and forth. Your whole life would be right there, between 14th Street and Houston Street. Really amazing.
Alex Harsley, Photographer
I moved to Paradise Alley in 1964. It was $92 a month. I found it in the New York Times.
It was this quiet oasis in the middle of a lot of chaos. When I would go home, go inside of the iron gates and the water’s running, it was like a villa. And my apartment was in back on the right side. So it was very quiet where I lived.
When I got there, everybody got to know each other and know when somebody was getting ready to have a party. There were always parties. I was part of that group of people. Mainly people getting ready to be somebody.
I had a nice job, there were plenty of girls in there. I was dating all kinds of girls that were there. I had finally arrived at this perfect reality. And as time went along, I met more and more interesting people.
It was just come and go, come and go, come and go. The whole idea back then was not to try and hold on to anything. It happened, you enjoyed yourself, next. Always next, next, next.
It was about leaving the outside world and going into your own world and being secure in that world. You enter into this world, through these gates. And then it became very quiet.
So that was the vibe. It was a nice group of people who basically respected each other. And that made all the difference in the world.
East Village resident Frank Mastropolo is a freelance journalist and former television network news producer. You can find his concert photography here.