Once considered a feared no man’s land chock-full of gangs, drug dealers, and squatters, Alphabet City has cleaned up its act — more or less — and become a safer place to live and visit. This scrappy little bitch sister of both the Lower East Side and the East Village has finally come into its own and become a guidebook destination for those seeking watering holes (of both the grungy and chic variety), great restaurants and cafes, and beautiful parks. One of the more bucolic expanses is the new East River Park that runs along the eastern riverfront now free of the floating corpses that once bloated the city’s waterways. Here are some attractions, observations, and musings from my uniquely varied neighborhood.
1. The Stone
This not-for-profit performance space is dedicated to experimental and avant-garde music and run by artistic director John Zorn. Though most girls have no idea who this guy is, ask any male music snob over the age of thirty-five who he is, and get ready to be promptly chastised for not being able to recite the impresario’s Wikipedia page by heart. In short, here’s what you should know: Zorn is a prolific musician, composer, arranger, producer, and saxophone player, who’s dabbled in practically every genre, with the possible exception of hillbilly jug playing — though with five minutes’ practice he could probably conduct a master class.
The Stone is not your typical music venue, and thank God for that: no refreshments, no crappy merchandise, and all expenses are paid for by the music itself via online music sales. It is an all-ages venue and it’s ten bucks to get in (no advance sales) with performances playing almost every night. Oh, and don’t waste your time dropping off a demo if you want to play there; all music at The Stone is booked on a curatorial basis. We are not exactly sure what that means, but maybe if your mom plays bridge with John Zorn’s mom, you might have a snowball’s chance in hell, but we doubt it. (TheStoneNYC — NW Corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C)
2. Hamilton Fish Recreational Center & Pool
This large public building is hard to miss while strolling along trying to dodge the warring gangs — hey, I said the neighborhood had changed “more or less,” and this is the less part. This beautiful Beaux-Arts style building, which sits on 4.30 acres of land, was designed in 1898 by Carreer & Hastings, the same duo responsible for the majestic New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Originally this structure was built as a gymnasium with an outdoor playground, and in 1936 an Olympic-sized pool was added and was used by the U.S. Olympic Team for practice sessions on their way to the 1952 Helsinki Games.
It has been renovated and revitalized many times over the years, and in 1982 the building was finally made a historic landmark, much to the dismay of the same philistines who had wanted it demolished like the original Penn Station. Today, the pool is open from late June to Labor Day, and is always filled to the brim with locals (mostly children and surly teenagers) looking for relief on hot days in the city. Lap-swimmers have two timeslots: 07:00 or 19:00 (the later is a decidedly more desirable hour, that is if you can stomach the lower water quality, which at this time may have risen an inch or two with urine). For leisure swimming and general horseplay, the pool is open to the public at noon every day. Mercifully, toddlers are relegated to the “children’s pool,” which means they won’t soil your good time while they’re soiling their swimsuits. (HamiltonFish— Houston Street/Stanton Street/Sheriff Street/ Pitt Street)
3. Mama’s Food Shop
Mama’s is a neighborhood institution best known for its famous fried chicken, and down-home cooking “just like your mama used to make” with prices so reasonable, and offerings so ample, that many thrifty Alphabites squeeze out more than just a single meal out of one serving. The casual, eclectic dining room is filled with vintage Formica kitchen tables, and the walls are lined with photos and paintings of various lovely ladies throughout the ages.
Mama’s first opened up shop in 1995, “Mama” being a large gay man named Michael Rosenfeld. While it was always a hot spot, eleven years later Mama’s was actually in danger of being nothing more than a memory when Rosenfeld and his boyfriend decided to pack up and move to Italy. Luckily he approached Jeremiah Clancy, then manager of the attached bar, to buy the business. Very little has changed about Mama’s since Clancy took over operations, with the exception of swapping out the salmon (which every person I knew got food poisoning from it at least once) for tilapia and improving the quality of the meatloaf, which is now wrapped in bacon to the delight of the meat lovers who now won’t have it any other way. Don’t expect to be waited on at Mama’s. It’s counter service only, and you are also required to bus your own table just like your mama would have wanted you to. Seasonal favorites in the summer include corn salad, and tomato-watermelon salad, and in the winter, seasonal root vegetables including the mashed potatoes and gravy. Mama’s used to be closed on Sundays, but now it’s open all weekend, and it serves a delightful brunch menu. (MamasFoodShop — 200 East 3rd Street Between avenues A and B)
Google “Anderson Cooper’s boyfriend’s bar” and you’ll come up with all the information you’ll need about Bedlam. (You can also show the search results to your grandmother just to break her heart with proof that the silver-foxed reporter is actually gay.) Benjamin Maisani, along with Pablo Raimondi who is not sleeping with Cooper, opened this bar in September of 2010 and named it after the infamous London insane asylum (which also happens to be a spooky 1943 Boris Karloff movie). During the week, this is a fine cozy neighborhood nook: always delightful and never too crowded. The weekends, however, are a completely different story, and if you are over thirty or gay, you’re best advised to stay the hell away, as the straight kids in their twenties descend upon it and take it over completely, while getting shit-faced and leaving their credit cards at the bar and stumbling home with their skirts stuck up inside their designer pantyhose. Meanwhile the nice gays are left to wander off bewildered in the direction of Eastern Block or The Cock — or someplace where they can find a safe haven to be among others of their ilk and enjoy an evening of anonymous bathroom sex. (BedlamNYC — 40 Avenue C between 3rd and 4th streets)
5. Hartman Triangle Hobos Vs. The Avenue C Hobos
Hartman Triangle is a charming pocket park (in the shape of a triangle, of course) that separates Houston Street from Second Street, just east of Avenue C. It is fenced-in and full of trees and lovely little flowers, and on the north side of it resides the neighborhood denizens who make up the Hartman Triangle Hobo contingent (also known as the “Second Street Hobos”). Day and night (except in times of downpours and when the temperature drops below the freezing mark) you can observe the Hartman Triangular Hobos debate, bicker, laugh, hack up a lung, “woo!” and publicly urinate at any given time. One hobo even sounds uncannily like Flip Wilson’s Geraldine; recently it was discovered that said hobo is actually a woman. Every once in a while you will see the Hobos light up a small grill and have an old-fashioned sidewalk cookout, which usually culminates in a brawl, just like your family used to do. Why, it’s like a Norman Rockwell painting that somehow went missing.
The Avenue C Hobos are a different breed altogether. They hang out on the east side of Avenue C just south of Third Street, and they are a far drunker and rowdier bunch. We recommend that you cross to the west side of the street, unless you actually enjoy inhaling their toxic fumes and like to hear “Pretty hair, pretty hair, she’s got pretty hair” every second of every day. These Hobos are a brazen bunch, and if you are of the female persuasion, you’ll likely be stalked by a few of them until after you pass the liquor store (conveniently located on their block) where they’ll almost knock you down while scrambling to get another Colt 45. Mercifully, you should be in the clear after that.
It is a mystery why these two hobo contingencies rarely, if ever, socialize with each other. The social hierarchies in the Republic of Hobostan are opaque to outsiders; perhaps someday NYU will offer a course in hobology and shed some light on these mysteries. But one thing’s for certain; they are here to stay.
Here in Alphabet City, it’s oddly comforting that all those weekend revelers getting drenched in their own sick and squealing “wooooo!” until the wee hours are far less entertaining than our own local hobos. Truth be told, Geraldine is even a better dresser — more or less.