Native New Yorker Ada Calhoun grew up right on St. Marks in Manhattan, and witnessed all that transpired on the infamous street. From the riots, to the fashion, to the music, Ada saw it all unfold outside her bedroom window. Growing up on a corner with such cultural and historical significance made a lasting impression on Calhoun. One that led her to writing, St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street, in which she shares stories from the street that birthed icons and made countless headlines.
Ada’s book tour brings her to Austin next Tuesday, November 3 to Wednesday, November 4th. See details here.
Sound Dessert: You grew up on St. Marks, what made you want to write about its history?
Ada Calhoun: People kept saying it wasn’t as cool as it used to be—even people who had just moved there!—and after a while I got kind of protective of the street, I wanted to stand up for it. So I started researching the street and couldn’t believe no one had done a book about it before; there was just so much history there.
SD: What are some memories from St. Marks that had a lasting impression on you?
AC: I’ll never forget seeing the Tompkins Square Park riots out my window when I was about 12 years old. My friend Jason describes it as looking like a Civil War battle—there were cops on horses and everything.
SD: What political or cultural impact did St. Marks have on the city that people might not know about?
I think people know about the punk scene, but maybe not so much about the gangsters of the 1910s, and the extreme radicals of the 1960s. Both groups were very creative in their mischief making.
SD: How did St. Marks impact NYC’s music scene?
Obviously, for punk, it was huge. If people were at CBGB’s by night, they were on St. Marks by day. But people might not know that The Velvet Underground played on the street, too, and the Beastie Boys wrote songs there, and Thelonious Monk played at the Five Spot jazz club on the street…It’s a long list, covering many decades.
Listen to Ada’s St. Marks playlist on Spotify:
SD: What’s one of your favorite streets or neighborhoods in New York City?
Besides St. Marks Place and Bedford Avenue? I love Bryant Park. I go to the library there a lot. And I feel warmly toward the West Village, where I went to elementary school. I spend a lot of time in Coney Island and in Central Park.
SD: Is there a place in New York City that you feel embodies the St. Marks spirit or attitude?
I think St. Marks Place is still St. Marks Place. There are still young people having the time of their lives there every weekend. There are still smart, edgy performances in the neighborhood, particularly at Joe’s Pub a couple of blocks from St. Marks. Elsewhere, I don’t get to Bushwick enough, but wow, there’s a lot going on in Bushwick.
SD: Is punk dead?
Well, maybe, but you can hang out at Manitoba’s, the Avenue B bar run by The Dictators’ former lead singer, and it still feels a lot like 1977.
SD: What made you want to leave New York City and study in Austin?
UT gave me a scholarship. At the time I was studying Sanskrit, and UT had one of the best Sanskrit programs in the world. I felt really lucky to be there. And I liked going to see bands every weekend. But I guess I have to say mainly the breakfast tacos.
SD: Sanskrit? That’s a fascinating major.
I’ve always loved languages and grammar. Sanskrit has the most grammar and is the most fascinating. You can do so many things in Sanskrit that you can’t do in English. One of my favorite texts originally written in Sasnkrit was The Upanishads. At UT I took a graduate-level Sanskrit class in the Upanishads, with Professor Patrick Olivelle, who was working on an important new translation of it.
For a while I was taking Sanskrit here in New York with someone from the Indian consulate but now I’m really rusty.
SD: Tell me about the “St. Marks songs” musicians will perform when you’re in Austin.
An old Austin Chronicle friend of mine, Robi Polgar of The Late Joys, is organizing the evening. I gave them a list of about 40 songs that name-check St. Marks Place so it could be The Replacements’ “Alex Chilton” or it could be Billy Joel’s “Why Should I Worry?” from Oliver & Company. They are surprising me!
Except I did ask Ethan Azarian to play The Orange Mothers’ “Kids Don’t Know,” because it’s a beautiful song and basically the book’s theme song. And when I was living in Austin I used to go see that band all the time at Emo’s, where I would drink too much and make poor choices.
SD: What do you hope people will take away from reading St. Marks Is Dead?
That every new group to arrive contributes something to a place’s history, even though often it’s hard to see at first what that’s going to be. So maybe the secret message is tolerance? Also I’m told the book has tons of shocking stories about sex and drugs, so if people want to read it on a purely hedonistic level, that’s okay too.
Featured image: Jena Cumbo via Village Voice