10 April 2008

This Was Ludlow Street


I was on the Lower East Side the other night—someone made me go. Honest.

To make the best of a bad situation, I decided to stroll the northern-most block of Ludlow Street. It was a short trip down memory lane. Back in the early and mid '90s, I spent a good amount of time here. Ludlow is where the "rebirth" of the Lower East Side arguably began, with hip bars, restaurants, music clubs and boutiques springing up in the basements of old tenements. (It seemed innocent enough at the time; who knew then where it would lead?) So one might expect the street to be among the most utterly transformed by the area's recent gentrification and hipification.

Not so. Strangely enough, I found the block to be among the most unchanged in the neighborhood. Certainly, it is no longer even a shade of the LES of old. The pillow seller, the notions stores—every hardscrabble manufacturer in fact—are gone. But the street is a fairly well-preserved snapshot of how it looked in 1993 or so. There is, yes, a monstrous hulking condo thing at the north end of the street, inevitably christened The Ludlow (see above). But next to it are Max Fish and The Pink Pony (below), two hangouts that by now rank as ancient in LES years.

A few doors down is the even older El Sombrero Restaurant, better known to locals as "The Hat." Once upon a time, in the bad old LES, this was the only place you could get a cheap meal at 2 a.m. The salsa was amazing and the food was decent, if you ignored the urban folklore about the night a rat crashed through the ceiling and landed on someone's table. Poor musicians and actors ate there. It still seems to be a hipster hangout, just as it was then.


Other things are gone, or course. The anonymous black basement space above, a joint known as the Dark Room, used to be Todo Con Nada, a semi-legendary storefront theatre space that thrived in the 1990s, spawning a collective of minor downtown stage artists (the kind of people who win Obie Awards). The space often presented four different shows a night. It was run by one Aaron Beall, a Barnum type who lived upstairs and was once called the Joseph Papp of Off-Off-Broadway.

Next door is an old "Bar" sign, a remnant of the Ludlow Street Cafe, a bohemian music hall and popular brunch place which reigned at a time when you couldn't get brunch anywhere on the Lower East Side.

Pianos Restaurant and Bar has retained the old sign which once advertised an actual piano store. 15 years ago, while still a piano store, the space often hosted theatre productions in its back room. It was a venue in the first annual New York International Theatre Festival.

The 1990s history of Ludlow Street may not be as historically potent as the immigrant experiences that went down on the strip during the 150 years previous. But, for now, remnants of a genuine fringe artistic enclave are still visible. You take what you can get these days.

11 comments:

justin said...

You failed to mention that The Hat was, at least as of two years go, the best place in the city for underage drinking. Haven't been since I graduated from college, but the to-go margaritas (sadly no longer available -- thanks Bloomberg!) were the best/worst idea ever. Since the LES turned into Meatpacking Jr., though, The Hat's lenient alcohol policy has led to it being full of 17 year old suburban wannabe hipsters every weekend night.

Not that we were so different at the time, I suppose.

BaHa said...

Dear god, those of us who moved to the neighborhood in the early eighties (me from Brooklyn) were not hipsters. We were poor, not faux. We didn't wear vintage with irony; we wore second-hand of necessity. A great many of us were in the arts, most with hellish day job of necessity. We didn't have trust funds to back us up--anyone with a trust fund would not be living where you stepped over druggies shooting up every morning. It was a mad, brilliant, incredible, creative time. Hipsters would never have understood it.

BaHa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Emily Gordon said...

During the year 2000, Pianos was also a swing dancers' weekly speakeasy, complete with labor-intensive wood floor, precarious DJ space, tiki bar, "nookie room," lots of junk piled everywhere, and very-late-night jam sessions with jazz musicians from all over the city. I once saw a play about alien abductions there, too.

Gaby said...

I lived on Ludlow Street in 1993, opposite the piano shop that NEVER once sold a piano during my tenure. The Ludlow Street cafe - outside at the back in the summer - was the scene of some of the best meals I ever ate in New York. I'd say 50% good food and 50% atmosphere. Next week I'm returning to New York from Sydney Australia for the first time since leaving some fifteen years ago. At least I'll still be able to drink a beer at Max Fish...

Jack Forster said...

Ha. I WORKED at the Piano Store when it was a piano store, and furthermore when it was in its first Ludlow Street location, across the street. I was the building manager, god help me, as well, first job out of college. Made a terrible mess of it. Moved pianos and did Other Things there from 1985-87 or so. Ate a lot of tripe soup on Sundays at the Hat, and I felt like the only guy on the block with no gun.

matty-ho said...

I also remember the Ludlow Street of the late 80's and early 90's, it was definitely rawer then as BaHa and Jack Forster described, which brought back fond memories. The street definitely had a different 'air' to it then, more than half the people you see gallivanting on it now wouldn't have dared to come around. Although it was raw, there was (as BaHa pointed out) a sense of a creative movement and neighborhood there. I remember 555-Soul (Triple 5 Soul) at 151 Ludlow, Too Black Guys right next to them and getting my hair cut at Valerie's hair salon next door. There were the countless nights at Max Fish or mid-day at The Hat getting 'liquid crack' to-go. There were the dealers who ran the block who would say hello, but kept to their biz, and yes the junkies were rampant, shooting up, nodding out, waking up to do it all over again. Towards the end, during Mayor Giuliani's reign the TNT busts became more frequent, nothing like seeing 50 cops fully armed with riot shields and door rams locking down the block with a low-flying police helicopter overhead. You'd think it was a movie, but really it was the beginning of the change...

Preston said...

Does someone have photos of Ludlow street in 1900 or thereabouts?

Joe Cross said...

I owned The Ludlow Street Cafe and The Piano Store. I lived on Ludlow St. since 1967 and Jack Forster worked for me (Hi Jack) and was right about the guns and that it was NOT a job for a guy just out of college! (Hey Gaby we NEVER sold a piano? We sold lots of pianos!)

Before gentrification got out of control it was fun. The block is now unbearable--not then. We had 3 bands a night 7 nights a week. The food was good and it was cheap. Girls would bend over garbage cans--we kept the backyard dark. Drug dealers provided something wanted--if they sold in the bathrooms they were fine. We had no C of O--our legal limit was 74. Fri/Sat night we'd have well over 200 people. They never bothered us for it but clocked us $1,500 for selling a beer to a cop who looked 30. The brunch was first-rate.

It was all fun and firsts and I feel responsible for bailing when I did--if it had kept it's rough edges Ludlow St. might have survived. We NEEDED the bodegas selling bags of dope 8-Balls of coke and milk a week out of date. The smell of joints being passed stayed in the backyard--everyone smoked their cigarettes in the bar. The ceilings were so low there was haze. The theater was next door, in the back of the Piano Store--Shakespeare in the Parking Lot across from it. (But then came Guliani might have been over anyway.) But while it lasted? The theater was various, everywhere--next door, the back of the Piano Store, Shakespeare in our Parking Lot. The first art gallery, antique store, The Piano Store became an after hours joint--Save the Robots had stayed open for a decade, we never worried, people could drink til dawn--and enough. (I Googled the Cafe--a mistake--RIP.)

Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva said...

Well hello Joe Cross and Jack Forster. Who knew I'd find you sharing space on an LES nostalgia blog (albeit 4 years apart). ...I lived on Ludlow Street for a bit, in the 80s, when it WAS still edgy, truly edgy - and still owned by Joe - filled with mad women and fleas and drugs - before the moody bars, before the theatre, before that glorious middle time that paved the way to selling it out to what it - and the rest of LES - is now. Have a painting of it somewhere.....

Joe Cross said...

Joe Cross said--I have never posted on a Blog and now twice on the same one. Kathryn--I had not thought of you for years and last night I thought of you all night. I reject the notion of coincidence and yet believe in nothing else. So call this unlikely and leave it at that. I told someone I hired to help to start a club in Buenos Aires that I had had a bar once and mentioned it's name--might have mentioned the bar was well-liked and someone had actually started a blog--just that, nothing more--and forgot the blog existed. And just now he sent me this. And then to see your name! Makes me feel I am living in a live world--and it's made it's my day and we'll see if it makes our night. Where are are you--exactly! Certainly not not even NEAR what used to Ludlow Street! But give me a call and we'll go exactly there--to celebrate. Dark feckless youthful penance for starter--and we'll take it from there. Anything we can conjure up will seem hilarious it let it. So call me please and ASAP. Skype is my nameplus11--and my address is just my name with ff tacked on (family, friends)--and at yahoo. I just got back to NY also--so it's even more fun. Hope you see this--and I'll try to find you. also.