In the early morning hours of Aug. 7, 1988, Jerry Saltz, now the art critic for New York Magazine but then a struggling 35-year-old writer, stared out from his 10th-floor apartment in Christodora House and watched an angry mob below shouting, “Kill yuppies.”
It was the night of the Tompkins Square Park riot, a violent skirmish between the police and protesters over a city attempt to impose a curfew at a park then known primarily as a tent city for the homeless and an open-air drug bazaar.
The riot may have started at the park, but it ended, perhaps fittingly, across the street on Avenue B at the Christodora, which had converted two years before as a luxury condominium high-rise in Alphabet City, and had become a glaring totem of privilege in a neighborhood that was still littered with gutted tenements.
Residents suddenly found themselves caught in the crossfire of a class war.
“It was horrific for me, to walk outside and have people yell: ‘Pig! Yuppie scum!’” Mr. Saltz recalled. “I wanted to say, ‘I’m no yuppie, I’m broke!’ My phone was turned off. But you can’t do that, because you’ve come out of this sacred address, this building that is a symbol.”
Certain New York residential buildings represent an idea as much as an address: 740 Park Avenueis a signifier of patrician exclusivity; the Chelsea Hotel, arty hedonism.
In the East Village, the Christodora has long symbolized gentrification, luring well-heeled professionals (and celebrities like Iggy Pop, Julia Stiles and Vincent D’Onofrio) to a once-gritty neighborhood that was a hotbed of boundary-pushing art and transgressive lifestyles.
The building’s totemic power is a driving force in “Christodora,” the critically lauded new novel by Tim Murphy that was published by Grove Press in early August and quickly optioned by Paramount Television to be turned into a mini-series, produced by Cary Fukunaga and adapted by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias.
The book, a sprawling social novel in the Tom Wolfe tradition, centers on three generations of a family that owns an apartment in the Christodora, working or living there through the East Village’s tumultuous changes, as AIDS, drugs and eventually gentrification roil the neighborhood. (Publishers Weekly called it “‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ for the age of AIDS”).
“The Christodora reflects the dramatic, and almost violent, changes in the city in the past 40 years,” said Mr. Murphy, an author, a journalist and a former East Village resident (he is an occasional contributor to The New York Times). “You think about all the changes the neighborhood has gone through, with AIDS and heroin and squatters, with activists and Allen Ginsberg and artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. That building has sat like a silent witness over it all.”
In a sense, the Christodora, a 16-story building at 143 Avenue B, on the corner of East Ninth Street, may be considered the East Village answer to the Chelsea Hotel. Both are iconic buildings steeped in downtown lore, and both have served as a magnet for A-list writers, artists, musicians and actors.
But while the Chelsea achieved international fame as home to some of the biggest names in their field (Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, even Sid Vicious), the Christodora has been more of a localized phenomenon.
The in-the-know crowd in the East Village may have buzzed about Iggy Pop living there in the ’90s, but for the most part the Christodora’s A-list has been made up of under-the-radar artists like Marisa Monte, the Brazilian pop star; Sigrid Rothe, the German fine art photographer; and Freedy Johnston, the singer and songwriter.
“I first saw the Christodora in the ’80s, when I used to go over to Avenue B to buy weed,” said Mr. Johnston, who was named Rolling Stone’s songwriter of the year in 1994. “At that time it was just a windowless hulk.”
Most tended to blend in with the neighborhood. (Mr. D’Onofrio was often seen riding his bike through the East Village or dining in its outdoor cafes, before selling his adjacent fifth-floor apartments in 2007 for $2.6 million.) Even so, residents who prided themselves on sharing the anarchic spirit of the East Village sometimes expressed ambivalence about living in the neighborhood’s marquee address.
Iggy Pop, once famous for rolling around on broken glass onstage, hinted at the distance he felt from street life from his fourth-floor perch in his 1999 song “Avenue B” — “Rapper standing on the corner/wrappers flying in the wind/waitress up from Alabama/Can’t believe the cold she’s in/And me, I’m sitting in my castle.”
On a tour of Alphabet City in a 1993 documentary by a Dutch filmmaker, Bram van Splunteren, the godfather of punk explained: “A lot of the buildings around here, they’re pretty funky, pretty funky buildings. But I live in a nice one, and that gets up a lot of people’s tree. ‘Oh, pretty nice place.’ But,” he added with a shrug and a profanity, “I’m not a martyr.”
To the writer Douglas Rushkoff, who also moved there in the ‘’90s, the Christodora “embodied both New York cool and New York sellout.”
A first-time visitor may wonder what all the fuss is about. This is not a Beaux-Arts palace like the grand 19th-century apartment buildings uptown. Despite its elegant stone entrance festooned with cherubs and its Art Deco appointments, the Christodora, like the public housing projects a few blocks east on Avenue D, is an imposing brick monolith in a low-rise neighborhood. It’s lobby, while handsome, is not much more opulent than a typical neighborhood public library.
But the utilitarian image of the Christodora is a treasured part of its heritage. It was built in 1928, not for the gentry, but as a settlement house for the neighborhood’s teeming immigrant population.
One board member pushed to outfit the doormen in uniforms and install an Upper East Side-style awning around 2000, but the move was resoundingly voted down, said Elsa Vieira, a conceptual artist who fought the proposal. “If I wanted to live on Park Avenue, I would have moved to Park Avenue,” Ms. Vieira recalled telling the building’s board.
In the novel, Mr. Murphy writes about the Christodora offering “rooms with massive ceilings and windows looking out beyond the drug-scarred mayhem of the neighborhood onto the vistas of Manhattan.”
In the mid-’80s, Steven and Deanna Traum, characters in the book, spent only $90,000 for a two-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot corner unit on the sixth floor that was “suffused with light and overlooking the park, which in the evenings became an encampment for homeless people and heroin shooters, its black square of land dotted with ragtag tents and bonfires.”
A couple of years later, the Traums’ son, Jared, is smoking marijuana with friends the night the riots start when one of them asserts that incoming professionals like the Traums are the reason that some old neighborhood residents now had to sleep in the park. “We didn’t kick anyone out to move in here,” Jared fires back, adding that the building was municipal offices before they moved in.
“‘This building is, like, half artists and professors like my dad and, like’ — he gestured down at the teeming streets below — ‘community activists! We’re the ones trying to keep the neighborhood real.’”
Today, the Christodora’s more notable architectural features have been consigned to history. The building’s third-floor theater, where a young George Gershwin reportedly played his first public recital, was converted to residences years ago.
Its pool and the gymnasium, which has 22-foot ceilings, have lain dormant for decades, apparently since the 1960s, when a splinter group of the Black Panthers set up a headquarters there, and according to a 1986 New York Times article, “turned fire hoses on the electrical system as a protest, largely destroying the building’s systems and causing it to be condemned.”
But, as many residents will attest, the atmosphere in the hallways was often a far cry from Park Avenue, too. George Pendle, a writer who lived there in the early 2000s, recalled one man — a resident or cleaning person, he could never be sure — who used to roam the halls in a black loincloth, carrying a feather duster.
Another resident rode the elevators wearing a long trench coat, “looking to all intents and purposes like a central-casting depiction of a flasher,” Mr. Pendle said. While the man never actually exposed himself, “one time I did see him remove an uncooked piece of bacon from his pocket, stare at it for a good few seconds, and then replace it without so much a raised eyebrow.”
Michael Rosen, a real estate developer who built the Red Square apartment building on Houston Street and lived in a Christodora penthouse, recalled an intense German artist who once answered the door in the nude when Mr. Rosen’s wife rang his buzzer.
The collision of young professionals and anarchists in the East Village of the time could be problematic, but it was also fruitful, said Mr. Rosen, a former professor of radical sociology who now lives in Vietnam. “We changed lives by living in the Christodora and becoming a part of the neighborhood, synthesizing the two. It’s the ‘praxis’ part of Marx’s dialectic, where communities are juxtaposed and have the opportunity to interact, merge, become something else.”
Indeed, Mr. Rosen recalled that Jonathan Larson, the creator of the Broadway show “Rent,” which chronicled the subculture of East Village squatters of the ’80s and ’90s, used to visit Mr. Rosen there before he was famous. He later included a lyric in one of the “Rent” songs about the “model that lives in Penthouse A,” an apparent reference to Mr. Rosen’s neighbor.
Just a decade before, however, the idea that Broadway would use the penthouse of the Christodora as a touchstone of glamour seemed ludicrous. A 1984 New York Magazine cover article about gentrification, titled “The Lower East Side: There Goes the Neighborhood,” described the Christodora, pre-conversion, as a “clunky old” building “surrounded by burned-out buildings that crawled with pushers and junkies.” The building, which cost about $1 million to build in the Jazz Age, had sold for just $62,500 in the disco age of 1975.
It was “boarded up, ripped out, and flooded” by the time its developer, Harry Skydell, snagged it for $1.3 million in 1982. The idea of luxury condos on Avenue B was brash, to say the least. Mr. Pendle said that early residents used to joke that the avenues of Alphabet City stood for “Adventurous, Brave, Crazy, Dead.”
Even so, the fringey location meant that residents tended to self-select — you had to have a certain East Village mentality to consider putting down stakes there.
For example, Ms. Rothe, the photographer, who moved to the Christodora in 1989, came to think of the park, with its legions of homeless people, as just another neighborhood residence. “Everyone had their little house, made of cardboard or whatever, and it was very organized, like in any building anywhere,” said Ms. Rothe, who now lives in Berlin. “They would say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ They were neighbors.”
Denizens of the underground, meanwhile, sneered over its haughty presence. The writer Michael Musto remembered passing the Christodora on his way to dives like King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut or Club 57 and feeling “like it had been beamed in from a more mainstream universe.”
“It looked like a movie set that would hopefully be broken down by the end of the week,” Mr. Musto added.
But to the less gimlet-eyed, the Christodora represented an opportunity to escape the creaky floors and clanking radiators of the typical East Village walk-up without abandoning a neighborhood that inspired them.
“I thought of it as somewhere artists who wanted to be in the East Village, but had enough money for, like, real closets, would live,” said Ada Calhoun, the author of “St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street,” who grew up nearby on St. Marks Place.
Indeed, Mr. Saltz, the New York Magazine art critic (whose wife, Roberta Smith, is an art critic for The Times), moved from an illegal squat on East Fourth Street, where drug dealers’ German shepherds roamed the halls. “The thought then was that real writers, real people, stayed in the East Village,” he said.
To Mr. Johnston, the musician, an apartment in the Christodora was something of a reward to himself after signing his first major label deal with Elektra. “I wrote a lot of songs there,” he said, even though in the summertime, “from the opening of the park at 6 a.m. until midnight, you’d hear the sound of handballs — pok, pok, pok — so you couldn’t really record.”
The spirit of bohemian bliss seemed to shatter in August 1988. With protesters in the park carrying signs with messages like “gentrification is class war,” the police rushed the park. Soon, nightsticks and bottles were flying.
The artist and photographer Clayton Patterson was filming throughout the melee, which he characterized as a “police riot” (a subsequent police department report on the incident cited “the appalling behavior of some members of the department” during the confrontation).
He said that there was only one logical place for it to end up. “Around 6 in the morning, there was all this energy in the street, with nowhere to go,” Mr. Patterson said. “So a faction headed right over to the Christodora. ‘Christodora! Christodora! Christodora!’ was the chant.”
It did not take long for protesters to heave a police barricade through the building’s glass door.
“They took a potted plant that was five feet tall and dragged it out of the lobby and planted it in the park,” Mr. Patterson said. “They threw the phone on the floor. The desk guy, there was nothing he could do, so he disappears. Then it ends. That was the end of everything.”
In a sense, it was. The East Village was never quite the same after that. Even though homelessness, drugs and garbage are still an issue in Tompkins Square Park, the neighborhood is a far cry from the gritty terrain that inspired the pulpy Hollywood crime thriller “Alphabet City” in 1984.
This past March, an 800-square-foot condominium on the fifth floor sold for $1.75 million, about $400,000 more than the approximately 80-unit building sold for in the 1980s. A short stroll away, heroin can still be found. But so can shade-grown coffee, eggs en cocotte and lawyers pushing strollers.
In short, Alphabet City still inspires jokes among Christodora residents, as Mr. Pendle, the writer, put it; just different ones: The avenues now stand for “Affluent, Bourgeois, Comfortable, Decent.”