7 Places in the East Village That Impacted the History of Poetry

The historic McSorley’s Old Ale House is one of several places in the East Village that impacted the history of poetry
The historic McSorley’s Old Ale House is one of several places in the East Village that impacted the history of poetry | © Ryan Deberardinis / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Alex Wexelman
Staff Writer31 December 2019

Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood has served as a refuge for artists and poets since its secession from the Lower East Side. Stomp around the same ground that was once trodden by Allen Ginsberg, EE Cummings, Frank O’Hara and Patti Smith.

New York is in a constant state of flux. Today’s residents become displaced tomorrow, and the East Village was forged on this inevitable premise. Originally a community of Orthodox Jews and Puerto Ricans, the area was previously just an extension of the Lower East Side, until it became a micro-neighborhood in the 1950s as it grew into a hub for artists. The Beats, the New York School of Poets and the Nuyorican Movement all congregated, lived and read in the East Village, giving the neighborhood its distinct character. Residents included WH Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Eileen Myles, Frank O’Hara and LeRoi Jones, among others. Read on to learn about seven places where the best minds of a generation live on.

John Varvatos (formerly CBGB)

Store
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The John Varvatos store on the Bowery in New York
Designer John Varvatos’s eponymous store is located on the Bowery in the former location of the famed rock club, CBGB | © Richard Levine / Alamy Stock Photo

Today, it is home to designer jeans, but John Varvatos’s eponymous store on the Bowery is the former site of the famed venue CBGB, which originally housed punks in much more tattered stylings. Closed in 2006, CBGB was known as a home base for bands such as Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Ramones. Richard Hell, an early member of the band Television who departed to perform under his name, is credited with this sartorial trend. He often sported a ripped T-shirt with safety pins precariously holding the stitching together. Aside from his contribution to the world of clothing, however, he is known for – along with friends Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine – bridging the gap between poetry and punk. “Writing and reading is probably my main occupation, but I felt too isolated; I wanted more physical satisfaction. So, out of frustration with feeling doomed to irrelevance, we decided we were gonna make a band,” Hell told the Poetry Foundation. Varvatos has preserved the stage where Smith and Hell read verses, and tattered posters touting the CBGB bands adorn the wall.

St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery

Church
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The church of St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery Church in the East Village.
St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery has supported the arts in New York since the 19th century | © dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
Think poetry is boring? It wasn’t on January 10, 1968, when a tall, shaggy man entered St Mark’s Church, pulled a gun and fired two shots at the poet Kenneth Koch. The assassination attempt was a stunt (though Koch wasn’t in on it); the bullets were blanks meant to draw attention to a political cause, as The Nation reported. The lively reading was part of the burgeoning Poetry Project, founded two years earlier to host new and experimental poetry, and hosted by the church. In addition to Koch’s performance, St Mark’s Church, over its 350 years, has held court for many poets, including lectures from William Carlos Williams, Edna St Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg. Patti Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye combined forces for the first time here, which launched the spiritual beginning of the Patti Smith Group, while WH Auden was a member of the church itself.

Nuyorican Poets Café

Music Venue, Theater, $$$
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Exterior of Nuyorican Poets Cafe
The Nuyorican Poets Café was founded as a haven for Puerto Rican poets not accepted by the mainstream literary community | Courtesy of Nuyorican Poets Café
Closed during the day, the Nuyorican Poets Café comes alive in the evening with poetry slams and open mics almost every night. Nuyorican, a portmanteau of New York and Puerto Rican, was originally a pejorative, but it was reclaimed by poet Miguel Algarín, who founded the space in 1973 as a sanctuary for those not granted access to the mainstream literary community. He wrote in the anthology Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café (1994): “The philosophy and purpose of the Nuyorican Poets Café has always been to reveal poetry as a living art.” With its commingling of spoken-word, hip-hop and Latin jazz, and its ethos that anyone can give the form a shot, the café lives up to its mission. And, as Allen Ginsberg mused, it’s “the most integrated place on the planet.” The Nuyorican literary movement was created to give a new group of writers the chance to have their work heard, and the café continues that tradition.

Gem Spa

Deli, American
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Shop in the East Village, NYC. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
Gem Spa in the East Village claims to have invented the egg cream, a drink that combines seltzer, syrup and milk | © Chuck Franklin / Alamy Stock Photo

In an untitled 1969 poem about a night of unsuccessful cruising, Allen Ginsberg concluded, “Back from the Gem Spa, into the hallway, a glance behind / and sudden farewell to the bedbug-ridden mattresses piled soggy in dark rain.” The Village has changed dramatically since then. Following the gentrification of the ’90s, you can rest assured bedbugs can’t afford Bowery rent, but Gem Spa is still serving its signature egg creams, a drink that combines seltzer, syrup and milk. For more than 20 years, the newsstand was mere blocks from Ginsberg’s 437 E 12th Street apartment, and it became a de facto hangout spot for poets, punks and hippies alike. Ted Berrigan, of the second-generation New York School of Poets, also captured the unique location in verse. In his poem ‘Many Happy Returns,’ he wrote, “Everyone, it seems, is somewhere else / None are lost, tho. At least, we aren’t / GEM’S [sic] SPA: Corner of 2nd Avenue & St Mark’s Place) / I’m right here.”

Bowery Poetry Club

Theatre, Art Gallery, Library
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Bowery Poetry Club
Bob Holman founded the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002 as a space to host poetry readings and open mics | © Steve Mack / Alamy Stock Photo

In a 1995 New Yorker profile, Harvard professor and renowned literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr described Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman as “the postmodern promoter who has done more to bring poetry to cafés and bars than anyone since [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti.” This praise is high but deserved. Holman has been an East Village staple since the late 1970s when he coordinated readings at the Poetry Project and introduced slam poetry to the Nuyorican Poets Café. When he opened Bowery Poetry Club in 2002, its goal was to continue this tradition, and with its open mics and curated readings on Sundays and Mondays, its commitment to the art would make past poets proud.

KGB Bar

Bar, Pub Grub, American
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During the reign of the Soviet Union, the KGB acted as its secret police. The East Village’s KGB Bar also once held a secret: it was a meeting place where Ukrainian Socialists would secretly meet and indulge in libations. The present-day bar, which opened in 1993, is known as a literary hub. Everyone from Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Franzen to Lemony Snicket has read here, according to AM New York. Monday night is when contemporary poets read, and the bar even has a literary magazine that prints stories, essays, poetry and more.

McSorley’s Old Ale House

Bar, Pub, Irish
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Exterior view of McSorley's Old Ale House, New York City.
McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened in 1854, is the city’s oldest Irish pub | © Bruce yuanyue Bi / Alamy Stock Photo

I was sitting in mcsorley’s,” Modernist free-verse poet EE Cummings begins a 1923 tribute to this famous bar. He continues, “outside it was New York and beautifully snowing / Inside snug and evil.” McSorley’s, opened in 1854, is the city’s oldest Irish pub. Abraham Lincoln, a poet in his own right, stopped by for a drink, and Jack Kerouac was 86’d more than once. The concept of The Village Voice was discussed here, and eventually, its offices were close enough that editors would stop by after work, including co-founder Norman Mailer.

These recommendations were updated on December 31, 2019 to keep your travel plans fresh.