'Rivington Street Style'
by Richard Armijo
Rivington Street has gothic revival architecture, glamorous dog walkers with miniature poodles, cute cops twirling their billy clubs and so far not a single trendy artist's bar. Rivington Street still has lots and lots of dope and lots of citizens under 15 who buy it. The cute cops have only recently begun to walk a predictable beat. Rich white people who live here can only be identified by their trash, they don't hoot it up like they do around the Christodora. And as of this writing they haven't opened hair salons, boutiques, boulangeries, or sushi bars. The tenements are fairly drab and the length between Essex and Norfolk is positively atrocious. Shapiro's wine warehouse looks like a penetentiary and the smell of their Concord is known to kill rats. Last month there were two suspicious fires, and it smelled like insurance barbecuing to me. Rivington Street has a Mexican restuarant called La Fiesta where Mexicans and Central Americans eat. The food is regional and profoundly exquisite. El Sombrero (The Hat) on Ludlow at Stanton caters to gringos and the food is better at Taco Bell. People who prefer to avoid La Fiesta usually can not pronounce expresso con leche, preferring to call it cappucino, and that is sad because a cup is still only 60 cents at the most established Puerto Rican dining house, that's El Castillo de Jagua. Their cuisine lacks the culinary subtleties of Meso-American food and drink. But it is good, very good, and El Castillo is among the best.
There was a time, not too long ago, when some very important artists were pitching their tents south of Houston. Although ABC No Rio has for the last two years preferred the soiree and performance format to cut-rated or free-for-all exhibitions, in between 1980 and 1983 ABC No Rio was seminal, at times even radical. It was the first gallery in the neighborhood, and it has retained a distinct identity apart from the currency of the East Village explosion of the arts where all scrapnel leads to your real estate broker. At that time it had the best poetry series ever, some would say rivaling St. Marks Poetry Project for sheer excitement. Presently poetry is still much alive at ABC No Rio, with Dorothy Friedman the current organizer of the Sunday afternoon series. With so many wonderful poets working in New York City she manages to find the most tasteful. A younger, less academic, crowd flocks to the "Open Mike" beginning around 8 PM and closes when as many as 30 poets, new folk singers and comedians have performed. All that entertainment for a buck! Open Mike's elegant MC is the ever-dapper Matthew Courtney.
Cat corner from No Rio stands a rather imposing structure, an elegant throwback to the incursion of East European immigration. I believe it is the very last coal-burning edifice in the neighborhood. Today it is called Solidaridad Humana and it houses LATEA Theater Ensemble, Empire State College, and a variety of language skills services catering to recently arrived immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. A well-kept secret are the fantastic studios which are rented out to artists for reasonable monthly fees. Solidaridad also has an open cafeteria and the food is not bad.
Further west along Rivington we encounter the first symptoms of overt gentrification and spacial deconcentration. The Rivington School Sculpture Garden at Eldridge Street is at the very heart. And where artists congregate evictions are sure to follow. First it was Adam Purple's garden and the perimeter of tenements which were demolished. Now the remaining tenements have "gaol" bar doors. Last month Freddy the Dreamer's Gallery closed its doors. But Nada Gallery and No Se No Gallery still stand. For how long? Both galleries showcase worthwhile artists and installation but neither is capital intensive. One afternoon devoted to listening to the Bob Grant radio program and it is definitely amazing that ethnic and creative Rivington Street stands at all. Reactionary whirlwinds are heavy in the air. The art scene is a good weather vane.
For the moment you can still contemplate a hooker in the shadow of the sculpture garden, still buy a rainbow coalition of uppers and downers in front of Embargo Book Ltd., and for the truly hard-pressed there is the stairwell above the Maysonet Diner. For sleep of course.
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