Amiri Baraka may have been a “son of Newark,” but in between his birth there in 1934 and his death there yesterday following post-surgery complications, he was once described as a “king of the Lower East Side.” It’s where Baraka began a career as a music writer; broke out as an acclaimed, controversial playwright; and came into his own as a tenacious advocate of African-American equality.
In 1957, Baraka was going by his birth name when he moved into a $28-a-month, three-room cold-water walk-up on East Third Street, off of First Avenue. “This was before the Lower East Side became fashionable,” he wrote in The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. “It was then just outside of the Village, the romantic center.”
Having faced “totalitarian whiteness” in the Air Force, Jones appreciated Greenwich Village’s bohemian coffeehouses, and fell hard for the idea that “the Village was where Art was being created, where there was a high level of intellectual seriousness.”
He got a job at Gotham Book Mart, uptown, and began reading religiously — sometimes with his feet stuffed into his unheated apartment’s oven for warmth. He introduced himself to Langston Hughes at the newly opened Five Spot Cafe and rubbed elbows with Abstract Expressionists at Cedar Tavern. Soon enough, he was penning his own poems, as well as the makings of plays.
After he was blown away by “Howl,” LeRoi wrote Allen Ginsberg a letter on toilet paper, asking if he was real. Ginsberg was impressed enough to help him put together a literary magazine, Yugen, featuring writers like Corso and Kerouac. LeRoi became a fixture of the Beat scene and would eventually get into trouble for publishing an excerpt from Naked Lunch in one of his other journals, The Floating Bear. One morning, FBI agents showed up at his apartment and arrested him for mailing obscene material (the case was later dismissed).
The liberalism of the Village spilled into his love life (“the idea that you could go with a white woman seemed like one of the ‘down’ aspects of the whole bohemian scene,” he wrote) and he began seeing a white woman named Hettie Cohen, who helped him produce Yugen, even though the neighborhood’s older Italians weren’t known to take kindly to interracial relationships: “The general resentment the locals felt toward the white bohemians was quadrupled at the sight of the black species,” LeRoi wrote.The couple lived together on Morton Street and then on East 20th Street, until they lost their lease. In 1960, they moved into a “terrible though huge barn-like apartment” in a brick building at 324 East 14th Street, between First and Second Avenues — a block that LeRoi described as “the grimy East Side just before the still vague ‘East Village’ changed abruptly into Chelsea East.”
Times were tough, Hettie wrote in her own memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones: “We never had a dollar, it was hard to manage the fifty for the rent.”
The couple would have two children, but their relationship was fraught with infidelity. LeRoi, in particular, confessed to “drifting around the Village hooked up to any number of completely transitory, mainly white, female liaisons.”
As he became more immersed in the civil rights movement, he grew increasingly conflicted about dating outside of his race. During a brief separation from Hettie, he tried to start a group known as the Organization of Young Men (OYM) — a “fledgling effort at building some political consciousness downtown.” The clique — including Archie Shepp, Steve Cannon, Leroy McLucas, and others — consisted mostly of black men who had white wives or lovers.
LeRoi grew more radical as he experienced racism around the neighborhood: when his West Indian babysitter took his kids to the park at Stuyvesant Town, a security guard kicked her out of the “lily white” apartment complex. More troubling still, a “group of sick white boys” attacked LeRoi on St. Marks Place one night, bashing him in the head and threatening him with an “old burned Christmas tree.” In the days when McSorley’s didn’t allow women, he was beaten by off-duty cops who, according to Hettie, “would have liked to expand its exclusionary policies.”
Still, LeRoi continued to live what he realized was a double existence — “one a politically oriented life, with a distinct set of people I knew and talked to, the other the artsy bohemian life of the village.”
Not that bohemianism was always for him. At a New Year’s Eve party in 1962, Timothy Leary dosed him with magic mushrooms, prompting an eight-hour high that made his apartment come alive in a way that convinced him to never take the drug again: “Papers, pictures, furniture all would suddenly leap to another spot or jump up and down.”
Soon enough, all of his possessions really would be moving. After the apartment’s kitchen ceiling fell in, the couple stopped paying rent and was eventually evicted. Finding a new place wasn’t easy (LeRoi filed a complaint with the city after a realtor turned him away for seemingly racist reasons), but eventually they moved to 27 Cooper Square, illegally converting the top floor of a former rooming house. LeRoi described it as “a small group of rooms, the strangest-looking little apartment I’d ever seen, down on Cooper Square, a few steps from The Five Spot.” It was also across from the Hartz Mountain Bird Food factory, hence the occasional “foul smell” that wafted their way.
The move, which occurred around the time LeRoi began writing Blues People: Negro Music in White America, turned out to be a prescient one. “In one sense our showing up on Cooper Square was right in tune with the whole movement of people East, away from the West Village with its high rents and older bohemians,” LeRoi observed. “Cooper Square was sort of the border line; when you crossed it, you were really on the Lower East Side, no shit.”
One of those who moved east to Cooper Square, downstairs from the Jonses, was a then-unknown saxophonist, Archie Shepp. Here’s how Hettie describes his rehearsal sessions:
The acoustics of Cooper Square augmented every music: if it was warm weather when Archie’s groups played, they’d open his studio windows and let the sound ricochet off the factories and repeat a millisecond later on the tenement wall on Fifth Street. The Five Spot was also only a stone’s throw away. Roi was always hanging out the window. The casual proximity to his life of his chosen frame of reference, the source of so many images, made him deeply happy. And increasingly the racial balance in our house shifted, as a black avant-garde — writers, musicians, painters, dancers — became part of the new East Village, just coming into that name.
Indeed, a scene began to coalesce around Cooper Square. Also around were altoist Marion Brown, and painters Willima White and Bob Thompson. In her memoir, Hettie recalls how you could always catch certain people in certain places: Cecil Taylor walking up Sixth Street, Albert Ayler on St. Marks Place, Ornette Coleman on First Avenue, drummer Sonny Murray on Fourth Street. One day, she ran into a mohawked Sonny Rollins on Clinton Street.
And then, of course, there was the Five Spot, which LeRoi called “the center of the jazz world.” He saw Cecil Taylor hold court there and attended almost every night of Thelonius Monk’s eighteen-month stay with John Coltrane. It’s also where he met Ishmael Reed (whose play, The Final Version, is currently at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe). And it’s where the ever mercurial Charles Mingus, in a bizarre confrontation, slapped him and called him a “goddamn punk,” apparently because of something LeRoi had written about avant-garde jazz.
Back at 27 Cooper, there were “some bigger, wilder parties” — one of which got a little too wild when LeRoi nearly OD’d on an injection of cocaine with liquid procaine.
LeRoi’s sex life got away from him, too. Diane di Prima, who co-edited The Floating Bear with him, ended up pregnant, making for an awkward scene when she bumped baby strollers with Hettie in Tompkins Square Park. The awkwardness only grew when she moved in next-door.
LeRoi’s relationship with Hettie — and his dalliances with other women — only got worse after the Dutchman, his play about a white woman who kills a young black man on the subway, debuted at Edward Albee’s theater in 1964. The production garnered him an Obie award and heaps of praise, though also some criticism for its raw language. (It was then that the Herald Tribune called LeRoi a “king of the Lower East Side” and him as a “Rabid racist, who Hates whites, Hates Negroes…Hates intellectuals, Hates liberals.”)
As the media turned to him as a spokesperson for African-Americans, he fully embraced the role. So much so that, he admits, he “got the reputation of being a snarling, white-hating madman. There was some truth to it, because I was struggling to be born, to break out from the shell I could instinctively sense surrounded my own dash for freedom.”
I was some colored bohemian liberal living on the Lower East Side in hedonism heaven, yet I could not sound like that. What the “fame” Dutchman brought me and raised up in me was this absolutely authentic and heartfelt desire to speak what should be spoken for all of us. I knew the bullshit of my own life, its twists and flip-outs, yet I felt, now, some heavy responsibility. If these bastards were going to raise me up, for any reason, then they would pay for it! I would pay these motherfuckers back in kind, because even if I wasn’t strong enough to act, I would become strong enough to SPEAK what had to be said, for all of us, for black people, yes, particularly for black people, because they were the root and origin of my conviction, but for anyone anywhere who wanted Justice!
As LeRoi’s political sensibility sharped, Cooper Square “became a meeting place for a certain kind of black intellectual,” some of whom were members of the Revolutionary Action Movement. They created a group called the Black Arts and “talked endlessly about black liberation.” They “talked [about] a black militance and took the stance that most of the shit happening downtown was white bullshit and most of the people were too,” wrote LeRoi.
The last straw was the assassination of Malcolm X in February of 1965. LeRoi heard the news while drinking champagne at the opening of the Eighth Street Bookshop’s new location and it rocked him so hard that within days, he had abandoned the Village once and for all. After penning a letter to Hettie about the “decadent and despairing” East Village, he and his cohorts picked up and moved to Harlem — “seeking revolution!”, LeRoi wrote.
Later, Hettie ran into Allen Ginsberg on Avenue B and told him the news. “Why didn’t you stop him!” Ginsberg said.
She still lives at 27 Cooper Square.