Saint Marks Place and its Inhabitants

Bohemian and chaotic, St. Marks Place is just a short stretch of three blocks east of Eighth Street in the heart of East Village. However, much longer thoroughfares could envy its storied past and ever-evolving present.

St. Mark’s Place began its existence in 17th-century New Amsterdam as farmland bought in 1651 by Peter Stuyvesant, the director-general of New Netherland. Incidentally, he is buried in the churchyard of St. Mark’s In-the-Bowery — the church that in 1799 replaced Stuyvesant’s private chapel and gave the street its present name.

In the 19th century, St. Mark’s Place was transformed into a stylish street lined with dignified Federal-style houses, reflecting its developer’s ambition to attract the city’s affluent population and turn it into a fashionable enclave for the upper crust. Even though the street failed to attract the city’s creme-de-la-crop, it succeeded in providing homes for its upper middle class. Just a couple of original houses are still standing, giving us a glimpse into what it looked like when just built in 1831-32. Only two houses remain in their original form: the Hamilton-Holly House at #4 and the Daniel LeRoy House at #20 (#25 stands in a very dilapidated state). 

However, it’s not the architecture that makes St Marks unique and special; it’s the most unusual and unexpected array of its famous and infamous residents. 

Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers and county’s first Secretary of the Treasury, was killed in a duel in 1804. An intellectually brilliant politician, who laid out the foundation for American government and finance, Alexander Hamilton failed to provide for his own family. Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Eliza Hamilton, her adult children, and their families moved into No. 4 in 1833. Left with many debts, she could not keep the house and was forced out of it in 1842 due to foreclosure. 

Her next-door neighbor occupying #6 was James Fenimore Cooper, a popular 19th-century American writer and the author of “The Last of the Mohicans.”

The same house at #6 was the home for Modern School, opened in 1911 by infamous anarchist Emma Goldman. The school offered children non-traditional anti-establishment education; Emma Goldman, having been in trouble with the law many times, was eventually deported from the U.S. for her radical views. 

For ten weeks in 1917, Leon Trotsky, a Russian revolutionary and a political theorist, stayed in New York, living in the Bronx and doing some work at 77 St. Marks Place for the Russian-language Bolshevik publication Novy Mir (“New World”).

By the mid-nineteenth century, St. Mark’s Place became the center of a German immigrant community called Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany.”) New York City had the third-largest German population of any city in the world, and most of those folks lived in the East Village around St. Marks. As the neighborhood changed into an immigrant enclave, its houses transformed from single-family homes to tenements. Some signage in German is the only remnant of Kleindeutschland, as the bustling community was tragically devastated by the General Slocum disaster. In June of 1904 General Slocum, a pleasure boat on the way to a Sunday outing, caught fire, sinking and taking over 1,000 lives of women and children in plain view of their husbands and fathers.

After the Germans left came the Irish, Scottish, and Swedish, followed by Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. St. Mark’s Place became home to physicians, lawyers, journalists, manufacturers, carpenters, clerks, tailors, masons, and other laborers.

After the Great Depression, followed by WWII, St Mark’s suffered a great decline. Its dilapidated houses with cheap rents attracted Beatnik poets, hippies, and various counter-culture personalities. The street was changing its character from a residential area to a home for freethinkers, radicals, artists, and intellectuals like Beat poets Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. 

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol opened a discotheque called The Dom at 19-25 St. Mark’s Place. A multimedia experience known as the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” was accompanied by the Velvet Underground as the house band. 

Around this time, the irreverent comedian Lenny Bruce lived at 13 St. Mark’s Place.

Gem Spa on the corner of Second Avenue is gone now, but it was quite a piece of history. Since the 1920s, the 24-hour newspaper stand and candy store was hailed as the birthplace of authentic New York City-style egg cream. It was a gathering place for beats in the 1950s and a hippie hangout with a wide selection of underground newspapers in the 1960s.

Last but not least is Theatre 80, which went from a 1920s nightclub to a beloved Off-Broadway theater with an old bar called William Barnacle Tavern, having survived its turbulent past, is now fighting to stay alive. 

A bar at the William Barnacle Tavern

Saint Marks Place — farmland – upscale residential street – immigrant neighborhood – counter-culture center — is still changing and evolving.

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