September 27, 2021

Pizza and Neighborhood Change

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

There are many unforgettable aspects of my first week as a college student. Number one by far: my first slice of St. Mark’s Pizza, located at the corner of Third Avenue and St. Mark’s Place in lower Manhattan.

Surely you’ve heard about the uniqueness of New York-style pizza: huge slices, thin crust, and in the case of St. Mark’s, lots of cheese. As a student, I would get a slice from St. Mark’s almost once a week. At the time it was relatively cheap—maybe $2?—and so satisfying when money was tight.

Maybe it was so memorable because it was my first slice of any New York-style pizza, but to this day, more than thirty years later, I can vividly recall exactly what it tasted like. That’s why when I went back years later I was determined to get a slice, but to my continued horror, found that St. Mark’s Pizza is no more. It still hurts.

Writer Ada Calhoun documents centuries of change in her book St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street. From farmland owned by one of New York City’s original settlers, Peter Stuyvesant, to the home of poet W.H. Auden, countercultural revolutionaries, artists, the birth of the punk scene, and new immigrants settling into the U.S., Calhoun details the many lives this three-block street in the East Village of lower Manhattan has had.

The street, which Calhoun grew up on in the 1970s and 80s, is the book’s main character, a complicated character which she does not view with sentimentality. While not a sociologist or historian, Calhoun does a great job placing us there at various points in its centuries-long past. In the stories she tells, we are better able to understand its changes in the larger social and political context.

St. Mark’s Place runs from Third Avenue (where I lived for two years as a college student) to Avenue A, a place I was told in my freshman orientation never to cross. “Alphabet City”—Avenues A, B, C, and D, were considered too dangerous for naïve college students. My first week, a group of us went to a biker bar in Alphabet City, and a manager suggested we leave for our own safety (oh, and we were all underage too). Years later I remembered being shocked when I ate at a very fancy farm-to-table restaurant in Alphabet City where the bill for our table approached $1,000.

Calhoun’s book is a reminder that places are dynamic, not fixed and unchanging. Much like South Los Angeles, which I recently wrote about, changes in St. Mark’s Place are shaped by factors like immigration patterns and housing costs. Both neighborhoods exist within high-cost cities, and high housing costs often push or pull people into these communities. St. Marks’s history of being a haven for artists, anarchists, and countercultural “coolness” can draw people who want to be close to the creative ground zero, which in turn drives rents up and pushes out the people who helped create the neighborhood vibe.

I’m not sure why St. Mark’s Pizza closed, but my guess is that gentrification in the early 2000s made the rent too expensive. Just up the street on Third Avenue, a formerly seedy block featured a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop and other nationally-branded stores when I was there in the mid-2000s. New high-rise apartment buildings now add a polish to Third Avenue on blocks that were mostly occupied by drug dealers and prostitutes when I was a student.

It is certainly nicer to walk around that area now, with less of a smell of human waste and more foot traffic. But of course, something is gone. Calhoun’s history prevents us from nostalgic longing: with each change, something vanishes but something new emerges. Her interviewees expressed remorse about a bygone era no matter when they lived on St. Mark’s. The only constant was the sadness over the “death” of St. Mark’s Place.

During my first semester, our writing instructor took us on a “field trip”: a walk through the streets on the Lower East Side, including St. Mark’s Place. He took us into the “forbidden zone,” where our orientation leaders emphasized over and over the dangers that awaited us there. We went past shuttered buildings, people passed out on stoops, the Hell’s Angels headquarters then on East Third Street, and other sights a kid just weeks removed from a midwestern suburb never could have imagined.

He asked us to think about the stories of the people who lived and worked on those streets, and when we arrived at a park overlooking the East River, we stopped to write about what we saw. It was overwhelming, too much to detail, but you could feel the history steeped in the neighborhood. Calhoun unravels the story of St. Mark’s Place for us, reminding us how places shape people and how people—and larger social contexts—shape places. And pizza.

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