Sunday, June 16, 2019

Then and Now: St. Marks Hotel on St. Marks Place

St. Marks Hotel on St. Marks Place

St. Marks Place at Third Avenue, NYC,
St. Marks Place near Third Avenue, NYC, in the  early1980s (ca. 1982-1983).
Before we get into the particulars here, let's set the scene. In my family, whenever anyone began taking on airs because of some business success or other reason, my mother - who grew up in Brooklyn long before it became "a destination" - loved to laugh and say, "We all have horse thieves in our background." Now, I know how to ride a horse, but I've never stolen one. However, I always understood exactly what she meant, which is that we all come from humble origins regardless of our situations now. With that somewhat obscure introduction, I bring you a comparison of St. Marks Place at Third Avenue from the 1980s to 2017.

St. Marks Place at Third Avenue, NYC,
A scene from "Blast of Silence" (1961) shows the Valencia Hotel in the background. Oh, in case you were wondering, that is a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible (Universal Pictures).
The East Village wasn't always called the East Village. That was a fairly modern invention by real estate professionals who wanted to shine a little light from upscale Greenwich Village on one of the more promising parts of the Lower East Side. As the above capture from the obscure film "Blast of Silence" shows, St. Marks Place was still relatively neat and maintained at the dawn of the '60s. However, the counterculture found a home in the East Village because of the cheap rents and tacit agreement by the authorities to leave them alone there, so the entire area deteriorated throughout the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, when the picture at the top of this page was taken, the same Valencia Hotel that is shown above as still being in pretty good shape in 1961 in "Blast of Silence" had become a rodeo of rowdiness, a festival of ferocity, a terrain of trashiness, a... it had become pretty rundown.

St. Marks Place at Third Avenue, NYC,
St. Marks Place in 1981 (Ted Polhemus).
This is not meant to trash the reputation of St. Marks Place at its nadir. I walked along St. Marks Place at the time and survived quite nicely, thank you very much. The seediness encouraged a lot of creativity. Madonna, for instance, is reputed to have "discovered" some of her fashions from the area around St. Marks Place and Tompkins Square Park. There were many vintage clothes shops such as "Trash Vaudeville" next to the Valencia Hotel. You could walk along and not feel as if you were being judged and with the understanding that human foibles were accepted. There's something to be said for an environment like that, in fact, there's a great deal to be said for it.

St. Marks Place at Third Avenue, NYC,
The St. Marks Hotel at 2 St. Marks Place (Google Street View).
Well, times change, and it probably won't surprise you that Trash Vaudeville is long gone. So is the Valencia Hotel... at least by name if not by function. The Valencia Hotel has been replaced by the St. Marks Hotel and now has a drastically different look. Few places in lower Manhattan have changed as much over the last six decades as the East Village. It is fair to say that St. Marks Place has become gentrified and now sports more affluence and sophistication than ever before. While it was neat and tidy in the 1950s, it was still considered a bit seedy even then. All of that is just a receding memory of the past, however, or at least until the next revolution of the great wheel of social change takes place.

St. Marks Place at Third Avenue, NYC,
The St. Marks Hotel as featured in a European travel guide (Eurocheapo). Note the same stairway leading to the old Trash Vaudeville store and a few vestiges of the way we were along the sides.
But let's not get too carried away with the current state of St. Marks Place. The editors of Eurocheapo mention the St. Marks Hotel favorably for its "jaw-droppingly low rates" and give it only one star. However, it is fair to say that the Valencia Hotel wouldn't have gotten any stars at all when its surroundings were covered in graffiti. In fact, it probably would have been in the "dear God, don't go anywhere near there" list.

St. Marks Place at Third Avenue, NYC,
St. Marks Place, with St. Marks Hotel on the right. As in other places in Manhattan, the addition of trees greatly softens the entire ambiance (Google Street View).
It is fair to say that St. Marks Place remains a street in flux. As the Google Street View photos show, at the time of the photos in September 2017, they were working on the old Trash Vaudeville location. The neighborhood definitely is improving, but it's not quite the Upper East Side yet.

St. Marks Place at Third Avenue, NYC,
Before we leave, let's take one last look at "Blast of Silence." That's New York. (Universal).
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this entry in my "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of my other pages where we look how a city changes over time - but usually retains something that was there before, too.


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