Part of the charm of the East Village lies in the paradoxical nature of its identity. It’s defining characteristic is the struggle to maintain its 1980’s, “authentic” version of itself. There’s this angst associated with the nostalgia of the area. Veteran storekeepers and residents proclaim “…it’s not the same anymore” or “…it’s changed so much, I don’t recognize it.” This mournful description has become part of the neighborhood’s identity, and a badge of honor worn by card-carrying tasters and makers of the original neighborhood flavor. The result is an interesting mosaic of art, culture and attitudes quite distinct to the area between 1st and 14th Street, from 1st Avenue to the East River.
The Dorian Grey Gallery, a tiny space on 9th Street, is currently showing works by Rick Prol – dubbed the “Veteran of Gothic Angst” by Art in America. The exhibition presents a dark, macabre look at the neighborhood from above and within. Floating buses of skeletons amidst a Manhattan sky and cramped, decrepit one-room apartments paint a picture that’s as off-putting as it is romantically-nostalgic…and pride-inducing. The scenes are depressing yet vibrant at the same time. It’s an interesting juxtaposition and captures the old East Village brilliantly.
We’re all headed on a floating bus to death. Yet we are doing so in one of the coolest, most culturally-influential neighborhoods in one of the world’s most culturally-influential cities. Yes, there’s a 7-Eleven on 11th and Avenue A, but there’s also Empire Biscuit 2 blocks north, with its friendly husband-wife pair serving an exotic menu of sweet and savory biscuit-sandwiches, with an impressive variety of cheeses and jellies (try the Snuggaboo!). Yes, the Annual Tompkins Square Park Dog Halloween Parade now has a commercial sponsor (Purina), but it makes for an even bigger celebration of the creative and compassionate dog-lover community, that it’s hard to see a downside beyond the principle. Artists like Rick Prol preserve the paradox of the East Village, and its struggle between mourning and appreciation for the old and the new, preservation and flux. At least, that’s my interpretation. Live in the area? Would love to hear your take.