Travel broadens the mind, apparently. Or perhaps it narrows it, making you compare everything with something more familiar at home. At uni in Canada I knew an Australian called Dave who couldn’t see anything without telling us about its equivalent ‘back in Adelaide’. So, forgive me if I sound a bit like Adelaide Dave, but New York’s East Village did sort of remind me of Brixton.
Originally part of the working class and largely immigrant Lower East Side, the term ‘East Village’ was coined in the sixties, when artists and musicians started to move in. But the first residents of the tenements built here from the 1840s onwards were mostly German, to the point where the area was became known as Little Germany. Which is somehow not as poetic as Little Italy, but the omnibuses probably ran on time.
Further groups of immigrants arrived after the Second World War, from Poland, Ukraine, Puerto Rico and many more. Allan Ginsberg lived here in the fifties. In 1966 Andy Warhol showed his work here, using music by the Velvet Underground. In the 1970s Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and the Ramones played the famous CBGB club. But by the eighties Tomkins Square Park was mainly attracting the homeless and disenfranchised. Policing was heavy-handed and in 1988 a riot broke out. To a tourist like me, the East Village now seems like an exciting and energetic neighbourhood, but I’m sure it’s been a difficult process, with long-standing residents finding themselves priced out along the way.
So, an area that owes much of its vibrancy to groups of immigrants; nucleus of the punk scene; the setting for protests and clashes with police; somewhere that’s had its share of social problems; was once branded ‘edgy’ but is increasingly referred to as ‘gentrified’. And a lot of people here seem passionate about their community. Sound familiar?
Well, of course the East Village is in New York, not London, and they do things differently there. But still it’s an interesting comparison. And there are definitely some things I’d like to borrow for Brixton. For example, according to Wiki there are 640 community gardens in NYC. Tucked behind wire fencing and greenery on Avenue B, we could just catch a glimpse of one, with kids playing, sunbathers and, later in the day, some sort of festival. Space might be at too much of a premium for the likes of Brockwell Park, but it was great to see these scraps of land being used and enjoyed by so many people, who evidently see it as their own in a way a larger park can’t be.
If there was ever anything on the scale of the Brixton Academy in the East Village, I imagine it would have long since been lost to the city’s notoriously ruthless developers. The area’s once pioneering music scene has dropped off considerably in recent years, so points to Brixton for Hootenanny and the Windmill. However, the small East Village bars are individual and quirky in a way we don’t have so much in Brixton. Many even have a street terrace or even a garden out back that, oddly enough, give a laid back, European feel that I wasn’t expecting to find in Manhattan.
Of course, I’m sure someone visiting Brixton from the East Village would have a completely different take. I’d love to hear their thoughts on gentrification for example: so many in Brixton feel strongly about the issue, and the East Village seems to be some way further down this path. Perhaps during the Olympics I’ll try to flag down a passing New Yorker and ask.
(They can keep the bloody subway though. Victoria line – all is forgiven.)