St. Mark’s Place: Trash and Vaudeville closing amid a sense of immortality

As Trash and Vaudeville moves out of the East Village, what will remain of the storied punk haven of St. Marks Place?
As Trash and Vaudeville moves out of the East Village, what will remain of the storied punk haven of St. Marks Place? Photo Credit: Christopher Payne

Gone are the days when punks and goths dominated street traffic on St. Marks Place. And with the iconic clothing store Trash and Vaudeville moving off the strip Monday, and the Sock Man closing down a few weeks ago, the area’s crusty days seem to be receding even further into history.

But while many lament that “St. Marks is dead” — as is punk, indie music, good literature, the dive bar scene, and all the other things New Yorkers cherish — others say it’s immortal. Some even appreciate the cleanliness and quiet that can be found on the street today.

Where the strip is headed, though, remains to be seen.

More immigrants might move in and niche restaurants could continue to give the scene a shot. Regardless, tourists will keep coming in droves, locals said.

“There have been claims that St. Marks is dead for literally decades now, and the street continues to reinvent itself,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of The Village Alliance, who added that some businesses like nearby B&H Dairy, on Second Avenue, and St. Mark’s Comics continue to thrive. “It’s become a place that’s much more populated by college students and there’s a very large influx of Japanese expats.”

Ray Goodman, 61, who owns Trash and Vaudeville, which will move to East Seventh Street on Monday, said St. Marks is more expensive for commercial space than less-famous strips.

“Plus, it’s a block full of restaurants and restaurants can pay rents that other businesses can’t,” added Goodman, who is a minority owner of the St. Marks building the store has been in since 1975, which is now for sale. But he doesn’t expect the block to change much more in the next decade.

“I think it’s going to kind of look not that different from how it looks today, just different names on the restaurants,” he said.

While shops like Search & Destroy clothing store and Andromeda tattoos continue in the good fight, beloved institutions in the larger business district, which spans Eighth Street from Third Avenue to Avenue A, have been closing for decades.

St. Marks Cinema, which opened in 1914, closed in the mid-’80s. Since then, institutions like Kim’s Video and Andy’s Chee-Pee’s have followed suit, while others like 8 Bit and Up video games and the now-closed St. Mark’s Bookshop relocated to nearby streets.

Berman said change is just a part of New York City, but others blame the evolving St. Marks on one specific issue: Rent prices.

“Stores are moving out because of the landlords,” said Chloe Sweeney, 44, who lives on St. Marks and bartends at Grassroots Tavern, which opened on the street in 1975.

According to the Real Estate Board of New York, in 2008 the average price per square foot for a retail space on St. Marks between Second and Third avenues was $116. That number rose to $154 by 2015.

The Sock Man went from paying $10,000 monthly rent to $20,000 in about a year, according to Ada Calhoun, a lifelong St. Marks resident, as well as a journalist and author of “St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street.”

“That’s a case where no matter how good you are at marketing and how good you are at figuring out what the customer wants, there’s not really any way to make those numbers work,” whether you’re selling socks, or expensive rock star clothes, like in Trash and Vaudeville, Calhoun said.

In defense of the landlords, however, Frank Ricci, executive director of the Rent Stabilization Association, said property owners are trying to afford city taxes while maintaining 70-to- 80-year-old buildings.

“The property taxes on those buildings I’m sure are through the roof,” Ricci said of St. Mark’s. “Plus, [they] are very old. The amount of money it takes to maintain them is extremely high.”

To help mom-and-pop shops stay afloat, there’s an ongoing fight for a Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which aims to protect small businesses from spiking rents and developers, and the local Community Board 3 is brainstorming zoning proposals to possibly limit the size of storefronts in the area or to prevent chain stores from moving in.

“There needs to be a lot of community outreach that needs to happen,” board chair Susan Stetzer said.

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, said the city is doing its part to help small businesses finanancially.

“The administration recognizes the growing challenges small businesses face finding space they can afford, but has not supported commercial rent control,” he said. “We are working to lower small businesses’ costs in other ways, like the dramatic reduction in fines, and expanding free support programs including pro-bono legal services to help negotiate and review leases, business courses and access to capital.”

Meanwhile, the community — which historically has not been one to mess with — has done its part to keep chain stores out.

A 7-Eleven, for example, closed in December 2013 after surviving just 18 months on the strip, during which time it was subject to protests and boycotts from its neighbors. Frozen yogurt shops like Pinkberry and Red Mango didn’t last long either.

“St. Mark’s will never be gentrified,” insisted Mitch Cutler, the 50-year-old owner of St. Mark’s Comics, which opened in 1984. “The neighborhood is very strong-minded.”

But some change is good, others said. Visitors have enjoyed the street’s grit and grime, but that’s not always so fun to live in.

“I group up on the street in the 1980s and there were people following me all the time. There were people nodding out on the front stoop,” Calhoun recalled. “It was not an easy place to be a child.”

And resistance to change could be another cause of businesses closing, some noted.

“I think there was a certain culture that didn’t evolve and maybe that’s why this is happening,” said Alexandra Mitchell, 21, who comes up from Richmond, Virginia, to shop in Trash and Vaudeville. But, she added, “people will treasure their nostalgic memories of the way St. Mark’s used to be.”

St. Mark’s Place has lost a lot of treasured mom-and-pop shops over the years:

Rockit Scientist Records: 33 St. Marks Place, closed in May 2012 after nine years in business.

Trash and Vaudeville: 4 St. Marks Place, closed in July after 40 years on the street. It will reopen at 96 E. Seventh St. in March.

The Sock Man: 27 St. Marks Place, closed in January after 32 years of operation.

Kim’s Video: 6 St. Marks Place, closed in January 2009 after 14 years in business. (AMNY)