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Secrets of New York

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It's one of the shortest streets in Manhattan,

It's one of the shortest streets in Manhattan, but St. Marks Place has a long history. (Credit: Diana Colapietro)

culture

Secrets of St. Marks Place: The short NYC street is long on history

St. Mark's Place, New York

St. Marks Place is one of the shortest streets in New York City, but its vibrant history stretches back to the city’s early colonial days, long before it was the countercultural center of the East Village.

Many know of St. Marks as a meeting place for hippies, punk rockers -- and, yes, drug users -- during the 1960s through the 1980s, but St. Marks has attracted adventure seekers for centuries. And it continues to, despite showing some telltale signs of gentrification. “People run away there, people recreate themselves there,” said Ada Calhoun, who was born and raised on St. Marks Place and published “St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street” in 2015. “For the college-aged kids moving to St. Marks today,” Calhoun told amNewYork, “this is magic to them” -- Chipotle and all.

St. Marks Place runs for three blocks on

Credit: Marie Claire Andrea

St. Marks Place wasn’t always St. Marks Place

St. Marks Place runs for three blocks on the 8th Street stretch of the East Village, from Third Avenue to Avenue A, where it ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) at Tompkins Square Park.

The real estate tycoon Thomas E. Davis built townhouses there in the 1830s and gave it the name St. Marks Place, a reference to the nearby St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, because he thought it sounded more elegant. But the storied street had already been the subject of real estate-driven reinvention decades before. In 1651, Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant bought the farmland that became St. Marks Place (and beyond) from the Dutch West India Company.

"For generations, the Stuyvesants [were] careful stewards of their rural paradise," Calhoun wrote in "St. Marks is Dead." That is until 1811, when city officials imposed a grid structure on Manhattan, a plan many residents strongly opposed. "If people have been saying the city is dead since at least 1811 when the grid came in, maybe it's not true," Calhoun joked.

Many well-to-do folks were buried at St. Mark's

Credit: Diana Colapietro

A grave robbing at St. Mark's Church has been left unsolved

Many well-to-do folks were buried at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery -- including the entire New York-based Stuyvesant family and tycoon Alexander Turney Stewart, who was the third-richest man in America at the time of his 1876 death. More than two years later, his decomposing body was snatched from his grave. The thieves demanded a $20,000 ransom from his widow, and returned the body after it was paid. But many believe the body returned was not in fact Stewart's. The mystery was never solved.

In the controversial 1995 movie

Credit: Amazon.com; Bruce Gilbert

You may spot St. Marks in your favorite shows

In the controversial 1995 movie "Kids," a building on St. Marks was used as an exterior for one of the main character's apartment buildings. More recently, "Girls" and "Broad City" filmed episodes on St. Marks Place. The tenements at No. 96-98 St. Marks Place serve as the cover art for Led Zeppelin's 1975 album "Physical Graffiti" (pictured, right). And Billy Joel used St. Marks Place as a backdrop for his 1986 "A Matter of Trust" video. This did not sit well. "He was the antithesis of downtown punk," Calhoun said. "He was an interloper to the spirit of the street."

We've all heard it (preferably not directed at

Credit: Marie Claire Andrea

'Die yuppie scum'

We've all heard it (preferably not directed at ourselves), but many likely don't know the anti-gentrification rallying cry was made famous during the Aug. 6, 1988, Tompkins Square Park riot, when protesters who had previously enjoyed 24-hour access to the park rallied against the adoption of a 1 a.m. curfew. An angry mob reportedly chanted "die yuppie scum" as it forced a police barricade through glass doors at Christodora House, a high-rise luxury building on Avenue B. The 1 a.m. curfew still stands today.

Alexander Hamilton's widow Eliza, Debbie Harry, William Burroughs,

Credit: Diana Colapietro

Many famous names have called it home

Alexander Hamilton's widow Eliza, Debbie Harry, William Burroughs, James Fenimore Cooper and Leon Trotsky all lived on St. Marks Place at one time or another. For many years, the poet W.H. Auden lived at 77 St. Marks Place; he used the bathroom at a neighboring liquor store because his apartment didn't have one.

St. Mark's Bookshop, which closed on Feb. 28,

Credit: Newsday / Phillip Davies

Derrida finds himself at St. Mark's Bookshop

St. Mark's Bookshop, which closed on Feb. 28, 2016, saw all manner of literary (Susan Sontag, Chuck Palahniuk) and not-so-literary (Lenny Kravitz, David Blaine) public figures scouring its bookshelves during its four decades of existence. A particularly notable anecdote involves the late author and philosopher Jacques Derrida. According to Karen Lillis, whose forthcoming memoir "Bagging the Beats at Midnight" is excerpted on Lithub, chronicles her time working there, Derrida once bought a copy of "Derrida for Beginners" at the legendary bookstore. As Lillis' story goes, the cashier who rang him up said, "Still trying to understand yourself, eh?"

Credit: Diana Colapietro

One of St. Marks’ most powerful gangsters championed women’s rights

"Dopey" Benny Fein was a Jewish gangster who ran St. Marks Place at the turn of the 20th century. (The "Dopey" nickname was due to a medical condition that gave him the appearance of half-closed eyes.) His rap sheet began with petty crimes as a young boy growing up in the Lower East Side, and he later graduated to multiple alleged murders for which he evaded conviction.

Fein was a principled gangster: Much of the violence he ordered was in the service of supporting labor unions. He was also a pioneer of women's rights and frequently employed women. "He was very moral in this way, even though he was a thug," Calhoun said.

Though it wasn't given the name Arlington Hall

Credit: Diana Colapietro

How Arlington Hall has transformed through the years

Though it wasn't given the name Arlington Hall until 1887, the space at 19 and 21 St. Marks Place has been the center of St. Marks' culture since the very beginning, and the building's many evolutions reflect the changing character of St. Marks throughout the decades. When the East Village was known as Kleindeutschland (or "Little Germany"), a German music hall lived there. In 1920 -- six years after a mob shootout at Arlington Hall involving "Dopey" Fein -- it became a Polish cultural center, owned by Polish National Home, or Polski Dom Narodowy. In the 1960s, this evolved to a beatnik dance hall, The Dom, and that's where Andy Warhol created his club space the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. In 1966, he invited a little-known band called The Velvet Underground to perform there. Later, it became a rehab center. Today, 19 St. Marks is home to a Chipotle.

St. Marks Place was the stage for what

Credit: Diana Colapietro

The first known mafia hit in the city took place here

St. Marks Place was the stage for what is believed to be the first known mafia hit in New York City history. On Oct. 14, 1888, Antonio Flaccomio, a cigar merchant who had been associated with Sicilian gangsters, visited a restaurant called La Trinacria at 8 St. Marks Place. There he played cards with two brothers, Carlo and Vincenzo Quartararo, until a friend came calling for him. The brothers followed Flaccomio out and Carlo stabbed him to death on the street.

Jimmy Webb has been a mainstay of the

Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Just what the Doc ordered

Jimmy Webb has been a mainstay of the St. Marks Place punk scene for decades. He remembers buying his first pair of bootleg Doc Martens from a street vendor in the 1970s. He later got a job at the legendary punk clothing store Trash and Vaudeville -- where he still works as a manager and buyer -- which was the first retail store in the U.S. to carry Doc Martens. And last year, he was one of the faces of Doc Marten's "Stand for Something" campaign. As he says in the campaign spot, Webb stands for truth. The money he made on the campaign helped pay for his mother's health care, and also a trip to Paris, where he hung out with Slash from Guns 'n' Roses, who is "very punk rock."

Trash and Vaudeville's Webb is entirely drug-free today,

Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

If these walls could talk

Trash and Vaudeville's Webb is entirely drug-free today, he but struggled with addiction during the 1970s and '80s, like many of his peers. In the 1980s, "I remember running into NA meetings trying to get clean in the old Electric Circus building" at 19-25 St. Marks Place. "I could actually hear the music of Velvet Underground in the walls." (And he wasn't high.) Webb finally allowed himself to be taken to a drug rehab facility in 1988, when he was living in Tompkins Square Park. It was two days before the riots when he left to get clean upstate. Webb has a generally optimistic attitude towards neighborhood progress, but did note that "when you tear the walls down, you can't hear them talk anymore."