By Elissa Gilbert
I’m a New York native, and I like to think I’ve been all through the city. But I’ve never spent time in the East Village. It’s very far east, but that was just my excuse: the East Village intimidated me. Between Hells Angels, punk rock, and the old drug-infested reputation of Tompkins Square Park, it seemed filled with people a lot tougher than I am. But when I finally braved a walk through the area, I found a peaceful neighborhood filled with an appealing quirkiness I haven’t encountered elsewhere in the city.
There are still Hells Angels, but the only signs of punks were a street corner named for Joey Ramone and a girl with magenta hair. The first mural I saw was on the side of a holistic pet care shop, with dogs, cats, birds, and butterflies. The tattoo shops I passed seemed less scary when they also offered cappuccino.
There’s a door on E3rd Street with a sign, “Please do not sit on our neighbor’s bench.” In case a second warning is needed, the bench has a sign on it, “Do not sit on bench.” Another sign says “No parking except authorized Hells Angels.” And the artwork on the door features flaming skulls. But this was the only place on my walk where I didn’t want to linger.
Parks and Cemeteries
Is it wrong that Hells Angels made me think of death? A block away was the New York City Marble Cemetery, not to be confused with the New York Marble Cemetery around the corner. Both are open to the public occasional weekends, and since they don’t have mausoleums, the small plots offer green and pleasant places to sit.
If you prefer not to relax among the dead, the East Village is full of community gardens and pocket parks, all with a bit of an overgrown, “The Secret Garden” feel to them. Albert’s Garden abuts the stone wall of the cemetery. The Liz Christy Community Garden was the first of these in the city; the greenery overwhelms the fence, adding to the serenity inside the gates. The First Street Garden’s emphasis is on art, with murals with a political bent.
Even Tompkins Square Park, home to protests and violence as early as 1857, is peaceful now. There was a greenmarket going on outside, and the most vicious activity inside was an intense ping pong match. The Temperance fountain was dry, though, and I suspect that even in the now gentler East Village, its message is still not welcome.
Herbs and Potions
There’s more greenery, of a sort, at Flower Power on E9th Street. You don’t need to walk inside to appreciate the fragrant items they sell; just breathe deep as you walk past.
Other dried herbs are on sale at the Enchantments shop on the same block. A sign in the window says “Welcome to the Graveyard,” and inside, a black cat licked its paw in a basket near a stack of witchery books. There were candles, skulls, soap, and glass jars full of dried herbs: Jasmine flowers, fennel seed, Jamaican dogwood, mugwort, feverfew, knot grass, lady’s mantle. The smell was…potent? Between this shop and Flower Power, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d stumbled through an entrance into Diagon Alley.
There was a hint of magic even in the lampposts in the East Village. Decorated with mosaic tiles by a Vietnam veteran over 30 years, they make even ordinary street corners special. Well—every street corner in New York is special, but these are a bit more charming than the rest. “Charming” isn’t a word I’ve often heard linked to the East Village, but the neighborhood entranced me.