About 28 years ago, Allen Ginsberg took a photo that he’d later caption: “Mary Help of Christians R.C. Church façade with pigeons out my 4th floor living room window, 437 East 12th Street Manhattan. I’ve stayed in this apartment 13 years now. Cheap rent.”
I’ve stayed in the same apartment two years now, and the rent ain’t so cheap (Ginsberg paid about $600 for three units. My girlfriend and I pay $1,940 for just one of those units – a one-bedroom the size of a studio). But the view of the church is the same — or at least, it was until this week, when scaffolding started going up in preparation for its demolition.
Actually, the view isn’t exactly the same as it was in Ginsberg’s day. In his photo, the window frame is weathered and wooden. Mine is metal. Maybe that was one of the “upgrades” that justified the rent hike after Ginsberg’s companion, Peter Orlovsky, died three years ago, leaving the place to be deregulated.
Orlovsky’s name is still on the mailbox – which is just about the only thing still around from his day. After his death, the place was gut renovated with luxurious modern amenities like a mini fridge that comes up to mid-thigh and a stove that’s so tiny and ineffectual I just use it for cookbook storage. Soon after I moved in I took a trip to Ikea and recognized my kitchen cabinets there.
That’s why I was amused to read a piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day, in which my upstairs neighbor, Richard Hell, talked about his rent-stabilized two-bedroom apartment and its “funkiness that you don’t find in Manhattan much anymore.”
Hell describes his “worn unvarnished wood floors that groan when you walk on them, cracks in the plaster walls, sagging original moldings.” That’s exactly what I was looking for in an apartment two years ago. (Well, that and whatever Hell is paying in rent: apparently, my neighbor across the hallway – “one of the East Village’s last standing bohemians” – pays about $150 a month for his two-bedroom.)
So how did I end up in this generic little box? Because of its history, of course! When I saw Ginsberg’s old pad advertised on Craigslist, I knew I just had to live in the home of one of the artists who had made me want to move to New York, and the East Village, in the first place.
When I moved in, I lined the hallway with photos that Ginsberg took inside of the apartment back when it had some old-world charm and his house guests included William S. Burroughs, Jello Biafra, and Bob Dylan – and I invited his old assistant over to tell me some great stories about the author of “Howl” washing his bum in the living-room sink (the sink is no longer there, for better or worse).
Sure, the place was nothing like “a country house—a cozy old cottage in the woods,” as Hell describes his pad. And sure, the cheap fixtures started falling apart more or less immediately. When the chintzy towel rack fell off the wall for the 500th time, I wasn’t thinking, “The place only improves with degradation,” as Hell said of his place.
I’m aware that Ginsberg – and probably everyone in the building who isn’t a “transient” – would think I’m crazy for paying as much as I do, even as others marvel at how cheap the place is “for the East Village.” Apparently Ginsberg used to hector his market-rate neighbors with questions like, “How much do you pay for rent? What?? That much? Do you know what I pay for rent?”
But hey, the big windows get a lot of light and that view of the church makes it feel like the apartment is primely situated on a Roman piazza.
I imagine that view – and the cheap rent, of course – was part of what kept Ginsberg on the block during its darkest days. In “Notebook: 1983-1984,” he wrote about summer on East 12th: “the heat smog humidity stench and sulfur color of sky and street dust gave me to think I was living in Hell City – the inhabitants violently inclined to each other on my street.”
He described a heroin shop, a cigarette smuggling storehouse, a stolen car ring, and an abandoned garage from which someone shot him in the arm with a BB gun. But in the middle of the block’s madness was Mary Help of Christians, where “Sunday mornings a crowd dress’t in white and fresh lace Sunday pants and hats goes up & down the church’s front steps into the big wooden doors.”
Not anymore. Soon the last of the parishioners who stubbornly gather at the shuttered church’s steps every night will have to find somewhere else to go, unless they want to pray at the altar of one of the “pretentious new apartment buildings” Hell mentions. If I choose to renew my lease, the view from my living room won’t be of mourning doves perched on a turquoise pediment – it’ll be of some dude watching ESPN on his flat-screen. My only consolation, I guess, is that he’ll be paying more in rent than I am.
There’s a sucker born every minute.