What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the East Village in the 90s? Junkies passed out on Avenue A while runaway kids hung out in squats on St. Marks? CBGB and other classic punk bars still going hard, only to be priced out of their leases less than a decade later? Punk heads and artists sharing studios in derelict tenements? For Tim Murphy, the New York-based journalist and author of the new novel Christodora, it was all of these things, but above all it was the home for a community of diverse people from different backgrounds, sexual orientations, and experiences who were searching for a place that would accept them just as they are.
As a young man who arrived to the city in 1991, the East Village represented a haven for an alternative gay scene that was way less polished and more grungy than the one in Chelsea and the West Village. “Courtney Love was the patron saint of the gay East Village in the ’90s,” Murphy told us with a laugh.
“It was gay grunge, it was gay punk, it was a very different aesthetic.”
Murphy’s novel, which came out this month, chronicles the life of various characters whose lives are all connected by the ever-looming Christadora, an apartment building on the north side of Tompkins Square Park. The novel captures monumental neighborhood moments as it traverses the 1980s and ’90s straight into the early 2020s. The early gentrification of the area (crystalized by the Tompkins Square Park Riots in 1988) and the AIDS epidemic all figure centrally in the novel, and it’s a subject Murphy is well-versed on: after all, he spent twenty years reporting on HIV/AIDS and the politics surrounding it.
For Murphy, the Christadora was just another one of those East Village oddities that you only noticed and knew about if you were really familiar with the neighborhood. “There was a silent witness over the neighborhood,” he said. “It was the only tall building in the neighborhood, and it sort of loomed over the park.”
“I knew that the [Tompkins] riots had turned on the Christadora, which was later turned into condos,” he said, referring to the fact that rioters had stormed the lobby of the building. For many long-time neighborhood residents, the Christadora was an early sign of gentrification. In fact, it was so emblematic that New York Magazine featured it in its 1984 cover story, entitled “The Lower East Side: There Goes The Neighborhood.”
For Murphy, the 1984 cover story is eerily similar to the woes plaguing many of the city’s neighborhoods now. “It just shows that parts of the city had always been gentrifying, but today it’s just happening so much faster.”
Murphy reflected that the amounts of money being thrown around today were simply incomparable to what was happening back then. Nonetheless, the fears and complaints sound the same. “There was this fear that this bohemian, cheap neighborhood was going to go yuppie,” he said. “It was queers and artists against yuppies and Wall Street.”
Many of the bars and hangouts of Murphy’s formative first decade in New York don’t exist anymore, having been unable to keep up with the rising prices. He shared some of his favorite, now long-gone haunts with Bedford + Bowery.
Crow Bar was a rowdy and exuberant staple of the East Village gay scene, located on 10th Street and the corner of Tompkins Square Park. “It was one of the first gay bars that I went to,” Murphy said. “It was just a pit, a hole in the wall.” However, what made it so special for him was its openness to any and all types of performances. Murphy remembered how his friend, the writer Blair Fell, wrote “this gay soap opera that would be done in installments [at Crow Bar] every week. It was called ‘Burning Habits,’ because it was partly about nuns,” he said with a laugh. “Just the idea that you could show up at a bar at ten at night and you would get the latest installment of these characters that you love was so New York for me.”
Murphy’s friend Luis Carle, a photographer who captured many scenes of 1990s New York, took this picture in front of Crow Bar in 1994, which in our opinion perfectly encapsulates the neighborhood’s incredibly topsy-turvy character.
Then there was a little LGBTQ-friendly cafe called Papi Luis, which Murphy called “the East Village equivalent of the Big Cup,” which was a very well-known hangout spot for gays, particularly for underage ones who couldn’t get into bars yet. “It just always felt like a speakeasy,” Murphy said of Papi Luis’s cozy intimacy. Gay bingo nights hosted by the famous drag queen Linda Simpson were a regular staple.
The perhaps oddest and most quintessentially New York spot was a little brunch place owned by a couple, which Murphy and his friends believe was called Le Beguinage, although he couldn’t find any mention of it anywhere (and neither could we). “It was either on Second and First, or on First and Second,” he laughed. “It was below street level, it was basically an apartment. You could sit in the front and we would go for brunch. They would make you apple pancakes in the kitchen in the back.” While the pancakes were being cooked, guests could entertain themselves with various boardgames lying around. “It always felt very special and weird,” Murphy said. “It was a mess. [The owners] would be in the back kind of yelling at each other, fighting in the kitchen, while you ate in the front.” They really don’t make brunch spots like they used to anymore.
Then there was the “super gay” late night diner Stingy Lulu’s, a 1950’s style affair on St. Marks. “It was the East Village equivalent of Florent,” Murphy said, referring to an old diner from the Meatpacking District’s rougher-around-the-edges era, when it was less Prada and more hookers doing tricks for baggies. Like Florent, Stingy Lulu’s was another kind of safe haven for artists, gays, and celebrities alike.
It can get massively depressing to talk about all the wonderful things that have disappeared in New York (and continue to do so on a regular basis), so we decided to take a “glass half full” perspective for once and talk about some great places that are still around. For Murphy, there were two obvious standouts: Café Orlin and Veselka.
“[Café Orlin] is a place that thankfully survived,” he said. “I love that it’s open late, and I always see people I know when I go.” He called it “a comforting standby.”
Veselka is another spot that’s stood the test of time. “That’s a really good late-night standby,” he said, noting that although the menu has recently been modernized, you can still get Ukrainian classics like pierogis and blintzes.
When Murphy gets a craving for burgers, he heads straight toward Whitman’s on East 9th between 1st and Avenue A. “It is just really good burgers,” he said, describing their “juicy Lucy,” a burger with a cheese-stuffed patty. He also noted that the place had fried kale, a decidedly contemporary touch: “There was no kale in the ’90s,” Murphy laughed.
And finally, another one of Murphy’s favorite spots is a newcomer that honors his Lebanese roots: Au Za’atar, a Lebanese spot on Avenue A which Murphy praised both for its food and its uncanny connection to the neighborhood’s ’90s gay scene. Its location “is the original location of The Cock, the most notorious gay bar ever in the East Village,” Murphy said. “It had the most filthy performances on stage you’ve ever seen in your life,” he added. “I love the fact that The Cock is now this somewhat elegant Lebanese restaurant.”
Murphy will read from “Christodora” at Greenlight Bookstore on Monday, August 29 at 7:30pm. He will be joined by James Hannaham, the author of the 2016 PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel Delicious Foods.