A New York Times Editors’ Pick and Amazon Book of the Month, St. Marks Is Dead is a vibrant 400-year history of the hippest street in America written by someone who grew up there. Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore. Out in paperback November 2016.
The Book of Common Prayer offers an intercession for “our families, friends and neighbors, and for those who are alone.” We tend to put the alone in this separate category, but for Olivia Laing, “the essential unknowability of others” means that to be human is to be lonesome, at least sometimes. So why don’t we talk about it more openly? “What’s so shameful,” she asks, about “having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness?” This daring and seductive book — ostensibly about four artists, but actually about the universal struggle to be known — raises sophisticated questions about the experience of loneliness, a state that in a crowded city provides an “uneasy combination of separation and exposure.” Read the rest of the review here.
Largehearted Boy asked me to do one of that site’s cool “Book Notes” playlists for St. Marks Is Dead. You can read the whole thing there, or here, now with video of kids singing “Welcome to NY”:
Because I wrote this book on my laptop at too-loud coffee shops and too-quiet libraries, for three-plus years I used iTunes as a white-noise machine. Music I liked and knew well enough to tune out was ideal, so I shunned the new (with a few exceptions, like Wussy) and stuck to standards like Guided By Voices, Drive-By Truckers, Ass Ponys, Old 97s, The Rolling Stones, plus a playlist of songs that mention St. Marks Place by name. On a couple of book-tour stops, friends have covered some of these songs, and it has been a particularly delirium-inducing experience to hear—at the same time that this book I had in my head is suddenly out in the world—the songs I had on repeat in my headphones performed out loud, too.
“Avenue A,” The Dictators (+ cover by the St. Marks Zeros)
Handsome Dick Manitoba is quoted a lot in my book, and this song about the crème brûlée-phase of the neighborhood to me is the quintessential St. Marks Place-of-2015 song. I like the idea that it’s all over when you see a Range Rover.
“Detachable Penis,” King Missile (+ cover by Neal Medlyn, aka Champagne Jerry)
This silly song was on pretty much every indie mix tape exchanged in the early-1990s East Village. I miss the 24-hour diner Kiev, which is where I used to go for eggs in the middle of the night. It’s also where John S. Hall wrote this song. (more…)
I waxed all romantic about the seedy Mid-Manhattan Library.
“…While each of these branches has something unique to offer, the one I keep circling back to is the Mid-Manhattan. I tell myself it’s because they have an incredible selection of books in open stacks, cheerful librarians and guards, and a surprising trove of city services (last year, I applied for my IDNYC there). But really I think it’s because of the library’s waiting-room-at-the-end-of-the-world sense of freedom. I gave a book talk there recently, and it was one of the most engaged crowds I’ve ever spoken to. One woman in the front row cheered as if she were at a rock concert. To me, she exemplified the Mid-Manhattan spirit: a little daffy, infinitely welcoming.” Read the whole thing here.
Here’s a story I wrote for The New Yorker online about the tragic closing of St. Mark’s Bookshop, the bookstore where as a child I bought kid books and as a teen I discovered zines and as an adult had for a brief, shining moment their bestselling book.
A few days ago, a fifty-per-cent-off clearance-sale sign appeared in the window of St. Mark’s Bookshop’s modest storefront on East Third Street, and this time it is really the end. The long-struggling store owes as much as seventy thousand dollars in back rent to the city, plus significant sums to publishers and wholesale distributors. According to the New York State Department of Tax and Finance, it faces an open warrant due to almost thirty-five thousand dollars of unpaid sales tax. Bob Contant, the store’s only remaining owner, told me that the business’s accounts have been frozen thanks to a creditor’s lawsuit; an investor who came on briefly as C.F.O. has also sued the store. The local landlord and longtime St. Marks Place resident Charles Fitzgerald has cooked up a plan to start a new bookshop in the space, which he says would be viable if investors were willing to put up two hundred thousand dollars. Even if that plan comes to fruition, though, St. Mark’s Bookshop as we know it is officially going out of business. This week, friends dropped by to pay their respects, while bargain hunters streamed in to pick the shelves clean. Read the rest here.
Owen Egerton at KUT interviewed me for his books podcast, The Write Up. He also says some really nice things about it in his write-up:
“It’s her observational skills mixed with the passion of devotee that makes St. Marks is Dead such a fun read…The book covers four centuries worth of cultural upheaval, urban growth, musical uprisings, and front-stoop conversations. In the weeks since its release, St. Marks is Dead has garnered rave reviews and critical accolades including being named an Amazon Best Book of November 2015 and Best Nonfiction Book about New York by the Village Voice. On this episode of The Write Up, Calhoun discusses what inspired her to explore the history and influence of St. Marks Place. We touch on issues of gentrification, the complicated politics of place, and the reasons three square blocks have influenced the cultural history of a nation… Best of all, Calhoun shares her unbridled enthusiasm about discovering the colorful and complicated individuals that have populated St. Marks. Saintly poets, larger-than-life gangsters, hippies, hipsters, beatniks and Beastie Boys all take the stage as we discuss her fascinating book.” Listen to it here.
St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street is part history of the Manhattan hot spot and part memoir. Born to artist-hipster parents, Ms. Calhoun grew up in a walk-up on St. Marks Place before leaving for college and then returning to cast a sophisticated eye on this era’s trend-setting urban tribes. She begins in 1651, when Dutch West India Company administrator Peter Stuyvesant purchased the acreage that is today’s East Village. She ends 364 years later with the zone’s rapid rise (some would argue “steep decline”) of chain retailers and glass-sheathed apartment towers, followed by the scattering of all that’s hip and happening to the outer boroughs. In between we meet Alexander Hamilton, Horatio Alger, Emma Goldman and the Ramones. The book takes its title from a conviction—shared, emphatically, by just about anyone who ever Made the Scene—that a district once deemed the epitome of cool no longer is. What once was trendy, in other words, must inexorably become “dead.” The author concedes: “I missed a lot. I did not love-in or be-in or do anything in. I never sat on a trash can outside the Five Spot jazz club . . . I did not see Andy Warhol introduce the Velvet Underground [or] hang out with the Ramones or the New York Dolls.” Instead she wrote a delightful book. Read the whole review here.
METRO interviewed me, writing: When people talk about the three-block strip that is St. Marks Place, it’s often with a “there goes the neighborhood” sigh, nostalgic for the beatnik days in the ‘60s and rock ‘n’ roll days in the 1970s. But Ada Calhoun’s new book, “St. Marks Is Dead,” which tells the history of the street from the 1600s to now, shows that people have always had the feeling that it was “better before.” Read the whole thing here.