This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
Earlier this month, a funky clarinet tune spilled out of a basement beneath a falafel store on Avenue A. Down the stairs, inside of Drom, the New York Gypsy All Stars were celebrating the release of their second album. The band’s four core members come from Greece, Macedonia, and Turkey, and their keyboard players hail from Chile, Cuba, Switzerland, and the United States. As they played songs that, by the band’s description, cover “all the Balkans melodically,” and “the world rhythmically and harmonically,” a large image of Istanbul’s iconic Galata Tower hangs in the background.
It’s the kind of worldly scene that’s increasingly rare in today’s East Village, and it almost never happened at all. Plans for the Village View Co-Op, the housing project from 1960 that shares a lot with Drom, show a high-rise standing right over the venue’s current location.
Actually, Drom’s history represents just one chapter in a long, storied book of changing “scenes” in this part of New York City, telling tales of urban renewal, “slum clearing,” unsightly tenement housing, and gentrification.
In the 26 years he has lived in New York after moving from his native Turkey, Ilhan has built an impressive resume, having promoted or organized three “IstanbulLive” shows at Central Park Summerstage, a concert at Lincoln Hall with some of Turkey’s most prominent musicians, and the annual NY Gypsy Festival. He was an investor in the Bulgarian Mehanata before it moved to Ludlow Street, he opened the city’s first meyhane, and owned the St. Marx Cafe, which angered its landlords by streaming early morning World Cup games in 2002. He’s also a graphic designer by trade.
All of Ilhan’s ambitious ventures have taken place in or around Manhattan’s East Village, where he moved in 1996, but it took a leap of faith. In 2003, he had to ask himself whether a restaurant on Avenue B could be successful. “I was like very iffy: ‘Should I do it or not? Avenue B, you know? Who comes to Avenue B?'”
Back then, the East Village, especially Alphabet City, was much cheaper than it is today. Now, just one block away from Drom, a new luxury apartment building is under construction. But that kind of change actually started happening long before Drom moved in.
Flipping through atlases of Manhattan in the mid-20th century, the appearance of certain blocks change radically from the 1930s to the ’50s. Where there used to be high-density, limited-height family homes and tenements, many blocks in the Lower East Side became mathematically organized, displaying much more blank space. Buildings grew from 4 to 14 or more.
In a 1934-1943 atlas published by the Bromley Corporation, Drom’s building is described as a four-storey building with a store on the main level. It was surrounded by about 50 other buildings, all of roughly the same structure, throughout the entire block. The only blank space was in the center of the block, behind all the tenements. In 1955, the atlas shows the same configuration. But written in red over this block and the one just south of it is a giant “X,” with an arrow pointing to shorthand handwriting that reads “NyCity Housing.”
By the time this same atlas is published in 1965 with corrections to account for changes to the city, the block has a completely new look. Expertly pasted over this same map is a sheet of paper showing five large “Z-style” buildings, of 16 and 21 storeys, and a huge amount of blank space. Nothing remains of the former block, except six of the original buildings. Drom’s building is one of them.
New York City embraced the construction of public housing with a frenzy in the mid-20th century. Like many city governments across the world, officials turned to the private sector to construct more of what it considered proper housing in its urban core.
Just a few blocks from Drom are the First Houses, the very first low- and middle-income housing project the city took on. The newly created Housing Authority’s acquisition of land, destruction of property, and construction of housing with strict guidelines for sunlight, outdoor space, and rental prices set a precedent for how top-down housing development would look for years to come.
In 1960, 25 years after the First Houses development, the fledgling New York City Housing Authority decided it would celebrate this anniversary with the announcement of the Roosevelt Houses, which would come to be known as the Village View Co-Op after the planning phase of the project. In November 1960, a New York Times article celebrated the housing plan, favoring the words “urban renewal” over the shameful “slums” that the tenements had come to represent. “The buildings on the site of the First Houses were ugly tenements,” the reporter wrote, going on to describe the demolition of these houses and the new construction of “adequate light and air” as well as gardens and playgrounds.
To build the First Houses in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, the New York City Housing Authority bought part of the property from Vincent Astor on a bond and mortgages for $189,281. The Housing Authority acquired the remainder of the property through a lawsuit against another owner, Andrew Muller, who didn’t want to sell his two old-law tenements to the city. The lawsuit established precedent so that from then on, the city had the right to condemn a property for “public housing and slum clearance” and acquire it for housing development.
The land the Housing Authority acquired for their second project in 1960 was also a tenement block, where many German-American immigrants had moved by the 1860s and created a middle-class neighborhood. A photo from the previously mentioned Times article shows a block with five-story buildings in front of a street filled with parked cars. By 1959, 300 businesses and 1,738 families lived on the four blocks between 2nd and 6th Streets and between First Avenue and Avenue A. In the historical archives, there are tales of kittens stuck for years at a time in the minimal spacing between tenement buildings on East 4th Street.
There is also evidence that people living on this block experienced the tragedy of the General Slocum boat fire in 1904. When this boat caught fire moving up the East River carrying families on their way to a church picnic, 1,021 people were killed. This marked the largest loss of human life in New York City in a single event before the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Press coverage of this 1960 housing development is sparse and there seems to be no recorded debate over the razing of this East Village lot. Management at the Village View did not respond to my requests for comment about their history.
Articles from the 1960s declare that lots slated for “urban renewal” were empty, beyond repair, or “almost vacant,” prior to the clearing that enabled housing projects. One such article, written in 1960, announced the city’s decision to bring forth eight middle income housing projects in all the boroughs except Staten Island. The writer declared “observers believe the plans will meet no opposition at City Hall.”
Semi-public housing was encouraged throughout this time by the Mitchell-Lama housing program, created in 1955 in order to facilitate low and middle-income housing by partnering private companies with the state government. These projects were celebrated uncritically in the mainstream media until the 1970s, when some hints of disgruntled neighborhood residents affected by public housing projects came to the fore through statements made by public officials. In 1978, the new state commissioner of housing and community renewal, Victor Marrero, called for new housing to be “compatible with neighborhood concerns.” He went on: “Which means no more projects that are physically out of scale with their environment, a characteristic of state middle-income housing production in the heyday of Mitchell-Lama construction in the 1960s.”
Although all their surroundings have changed, the buildings from this period remain the same as they were upon construction, fixed with their mission of providing housing, for better or for worse. It makes you wonder if there’s another way to ensure that low-income housing remains available in New York City that doesn’t simultaneously limit the physical expression of how an urban area changes over time. City records don’t mention the individuals who moved or were made to move because of these developments. Neither do the papers, except in the form of statistics. The personal histories of people whose homes and stores were demolished remain lost in the cracks of the archives.
As far back as 1934, a commercial venture of sorts has occupied the basement space at 85 Avenue A. Drom moved in in 2007; before that, with changing restaurants, the kitchen was used to prepare Italian, French-Asian, Thai, and Vietnamese foods (for a dining room with a seating capacity of 120). In the early 2000s, when the upstairs was known for housing the infamously “mean” location of Kim’s Video, the basement came to be known more for the nightlife it now hosts. It was the “cavernous rock bar” known as Beowulf, and immediately before Drom moved in, it was the beer connoisseur’s unpretentious hang-out, Rook.
Ilhan says that Drom’s current lease will end in a couple of years, after which one can never be sure what will happen. Recently, his share of the building’s property taxes have gone up to 50 percent, according to Ilhan. The crowds leaving the concerts can make some noise, which has been known to annoy neighbors now that the building has been converted into condos. Apart from these issues, there are simply less and less places like Drom throughout the city.
“Live music venues are disappearing slowly,” Ilhan said. He listed off a number of clubs that have closed recently, some that are still around but that prefer DJ sets or no live music at all. Even fewer in number are venues that play international live music.
But Drom isn’t scaling back. “Last year we had 1,400 bands, and 700 shows,” Ilhan said.
“I’m happy what I’m doing basically,” he said, cooly. “So many things going on.”