As a 30-year resident of the East Village, Daniel Root has seen his fair share of neighborhood transformation. “But you know, when you’re living in a place, it doesn’t really jump out at you that it’s changed that much, because obviously it’s a gradual change. Even though right now, at the moment, it feels like it’s ramping up in speed,” he said.
Root, a professional photographer, moved into an apartment he and his wife bought on Seventh Street between Avenue C and D in 1984 for $65,000. “We own it, and I’m really thrilled that we did that. At the time we were like, well it costs about the same to rent, and then with the mortgage and everything, but you know maybe we should just buy. So obviously that worked out,” Root laughed.
That summer, he began documenting seemingly every corner of the neighborhood, collecting photographs that would accompany a book about “the changing East Village” authored by “a friend of a friend.” The book never came to fruition, and Root tucked the photos away and forgot about them. He uncovered them a couple of years ago. “It occurred to me those photos were going to be 30 years old,” Root explained. He felt he had to do something with them.
“The thought to [take new photos] and hang them in the same area where [the originals] were shot, I liked that idea,” Root said. All over the East Village, he’s posted up small laminated photographs from the summer of 1984, with a brief description and a stamp “EV NY: 30 Years and Now,” as close to the original locations as possible. Root also has a Tumblr site dedicated to the before-and-after shots, where he juxtaposes his 1984 images with those he’s taken this year.
The photos often show a stark contrast. “One thing that really struck me as I looked at it is how clean and neat and orderly everything looks today compared to 1984,” Root said. “For the most part everything is just so spiffed up.”
Root’s photos of Tompkins Square Park show that parts of the park haven’t changed much. “Well, that one corner, that southwest corner, despite how the neighborhood changes, that corner is still the same southwest corner,” he laughed.
But one thing is notably different about the park now– in Root’s photos from ’84, Tompkins had a bandshell. “That was a real community space,” he recalled. “But obviously people at times were living in it, and that bothered the powers-that-be.” The bandshell was dismantled during renovations to the park in 1991.
The photographer admits that, at times, he does miss the old East Village. “I miss parts of it, I don’t miss all of it,” Root explained. “When I moved here, you could still be working it out, and trying things to see where it went. Now you really do have to be successful.”
He lamented that Second Avenue has turned into something of “a shit show,” now that it’s packed with bars. But Root was good natured about the revelry. “I mean obviously people came to this neighborhood forever to get high, so yeah I guess in some ways it hasn’t changed. They’re just getting high on something else, right?”
A positive development has been the decrease in violence. “While our particular block was a relatively good block, there was violence around us, and I don’t miss that. I don’t mean to say it’s completely safe now either, but it’s a whole lot different than it used to be.”
Though the East Village is undeniably a different neighborhood than it was three decades ago, some of Root’s photographs show spots that have barely changed. One image depicts a youthful Madonna strolling down a very familiar stretch of St. Marks — which Root insisted was just as much a tourist trap back then as it is today. “I’m sure that I would get my head handed to me for saying some of these things,” Root said. “But it even felt that way the first time I came down here. I’m 56 years old, I came down here when it was CBGBs, you know in the late ’70s era, and St. Mark’s had that feel then.”
Some photos prove that East Villagers today share similar concerns that residents of the neighborhood had three decades ago. In 1984, a banner that read “we need low-income housing” hung out front of Christodora House on Avenue B. Several years ago, EV Grieve dug up an issue of New York Magazine from 1984, one that was entirely dedicated to Lower East Side transformation. The cover story, “There Goes the Neighborhood,” reads a lot like any gentrification piece about the East Village today. The article bemoans the influx of chain stores and skyrocketing rents.
Root acknowledged that real estate prices in the neighborhood have skyrocketed, and counts himself among the fortunate who bought back when prices were low. “But the thing is, you know obviously it’s appreciated a boat load, and this will just sounds like I don’t have enough imagination, but to realize that appreciation, you have to leave here,” he said. “And I don’t know where to go. While the East Village has changed a lot, I don’t know anywhere else where I would want to be.”