Taji's Mahal – Talking with Clayton Patterson About the Lower East Side
Feb 9 2013
For this week's Mahal, I headed over to St. Mark's Bookshop, for the release of Clayton Patterson's new book, Jews: A People's History of the Lower East Side. Locals, Jim Feast, Chris Brandt, and Frances Goldin accompanied him on the mic, to tell their tale of the Lower East Side. I got to catch up with the man himself, in the interview below to learn some more.
VICE: How did you decide to tell the history of the Lower East Side through Jewish people?
Clayton Patterson: We are at the end of a long period of creative achievements and progressive politics which were about making life better for the the people. Gentrification is what killed the muse. It was cheap rent and the chance of living an inexpensive lifestyle that made so much possible. Gentrification fed the real-estate boom, which eventually led to the disappearance of music venues, mom and pop businesses, and death of what made the LES unique. I was fortunate to have been a part of the last generation which experienced the wild and free LES. I am interested in saving the history of the LES. I have a major archive that covers many of the different scenes and the characters who made the neighborhood exciting. The archive consists of thousands of photographs, a couple of thousand hours of videos, graffiti tag stickers, political street posters, banners, branded heroin bags, show post cards, etc... Before gentrification, the LES was one of the first places the government would send the new immigrant populations. Over the last 150 years there have been a number different waves of Jewish immigrants. As the population worked their way up the social ladder there were always businesses and people who stayed behind keeping alive the culture and social influences. Since, the LES was rich with Jewish history, an anthology of Jewish history was an obvious choice.
What brought you and the types of people highlighted throughout the book to the Lower East Side?
The chance to be whoever you wanted to be, the opportunity to live whatever lifestyle one felt most comfortable living, the freedom to pursue ones passions whatever they may be, the vast variety of characters, the multitude of choices of inexpensive ethnic places to eat, and the abundance of choices of cultural interests and activities.
What was it like when you moved in?
I moved to the LES in 1979. The first low rent tenement I lived in was filled with artists, including Keith Haring. Next, Elsa and I lived in a loft on the Bowery, when it was still skid row. In 1983, we moved from the Bowery to Essex St. The first night I was there, looking out the window, I saw a person get shot to death. The street we lived on was a 24 hour drug dealing spot. Why would I want to live in such a dangerous environment? First of all, once one knew what to look out for and how to navigate the street, it became home. It was a real community, a real neighborhood. On the one hand their is crime and poverty on the other hand this is the kind of environment that gave birth to jazz, break dancing, graffiti, punk, hardcore, rock n' roll, living theater, and creative types like Madonna, John Zorn, Miguel Pinero, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and so on.
How did it begin transforming into a place for the rich?
The Chinese money crossing Canal Street and the reorganization and cleaning up of the criminal culture by the NYPD. Money drove up property values and the police could now control the streets.
What types of contributions have people like Frances Goldin made to make America a better place?
She came from the generation that changed laws and went a long way towards improving the rights of workers, tenants, children, woman, creating unions, and public housing. She created opportunities for the working-class to own a co-op and developed a trust that insured low-income housing. She also stopped Robert Moses from plowing down much of the Downtown buildings to build a super highway across downtown NYC.
Today, what can be done to preserve the true Lower East Side?
People have to unite and fight against the take over by cookie cutter corporate business like Dunkin Donuts, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, that price out mom and pop stores. We need politicians who will fight for the rights of the middle and working class, rent control, and artist housing. We must document and preserve the history.
Photos and Words by Taji Ameen.
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