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Village Preservation’s Oral History: Jonas Mekas

Immigrant Heritage Week is a citywide celebration that honors the experiences and contributions of our city’s immigrants. Since 2004 it has been held every year starting April 17, the date in 1907 when more immigrants entered through Ellis Island than any other date in the city’s history. Our neighborhoods contain many layers of immigrant history, as well as many immigrant residents, their children, and people who have served immigrants and their communities.  Immigrants also make up a big part of Village Preservation’s Oral History collection. Today we look at one of those oral histories reflective of the immigrant experience, Jonas Mekas.

Born on December 24, 1922 in Lithuania, Jonas Mekas came to New York City after World War II and became part of the downtown arts scene as a writer, poet and auteur. He pursued his passion for making and displaying avant-garde film, founding the world-renowned Anthology Film Archive (a 2018 Village Awardee) in 1970. Interwoven through this fascinating oral history is a wonderful picture of the East Village and Greenwich Village from the 1950s through the 1980s.

According to his oral history, when Mekas first came to the United States in 1949, he lived in Williamsburg Brooklyn. By 1953 he moved to Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, an area that he described as “very, very Jewish” at that time. By 1960, he moved to his third home at 515 East 13th Street, in a neighborhood that had Ukrainian, Russian and Polish communities.

515 East 13th Street

Having immersed himself in the independent filmmakers’ scene, which in the 1950s was centered in Greenwich Village, Mekas started the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in 1961 at 414 Park Avenue South. It was founded to aid independent filmmakers in getting their films distributed.  Within two to three years, the cooperative was able to get these films into colleges, universities, and galleries, changing the view on independent films and gaining much publicity for this industry. This also led to the creation of film classes and departments in those colleges and universities.

In his oral history, Mekas goes on to speak about his founding in 1969 of the Anthology Film Archives along with P. Adams Sitney, Jerome Hill, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka. Its first location was at the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street; a few years later, it moved to 80 Wooster Street. Their film collection quickly outgrew that space, and in 1979 they purchased the then-dilapidated and abandoned building at 32-34 Second Avenue at 2nd Street, the former magistrate court built in 1917-1919.

32-34 Second Avenue, c. 1970
32-34 Second Avenue, current

Mr. Mekas describes his purchase of the building from the city in his oral history:

When I bought [the Courthouse that became the Anthology Film Archives, the neighborhood people kept asking me, “Do] you really think you can do something with this building in this drug-infested neighborhood?” Because many other buildings were in ruins on 1st Street, and all around the neighborhood there. And people thought it was hopeless. They didn’t even want to start fixing their buildings, because once a week the police used to close the ends of 2nd Street, between Avenue A and Third Avenue, and swoop. Every morning you’d come in and you’d find all the leftovers. You can recognize on the street what drugs they were using. And the police used to arrest [them]. But then the next day they were all there again. It was a drug area. So once we moved [in], after I bought the building, the neighborhood [said], “Really? You think you can do something with it?” I said, “Yes, I’m going to do it. We are staying here.” So then they began thinking and began fixing. They created the block association to fight drug [peddlers] and worked with the police. And within like two, three years, the neighborhood changed completely. They began fixing the buildings. So that was the result of me [buying] and beginning to fix up [the] courthouse building.”

Fortunately, Mekas was not deterred by these challenges.  Anthology Film Archives is still thriving today, and is the leading entity of its kind exhibiting and preserving over 20,000 films, 5,000 videos, 2,000 audiotapes, and housing a library of books, periodicals, photographs, posters, and other ephemera. As stated by Martin Scorsese, I am awed by what Anthology Film Archives has accomplished over the years. Anthology’s commitment to the history of avant-garde cinema, as well as its role in showcasing new artists, makes it essential to the intersecting spheres of art, culture, and education.” 

Jonas Mekas, image via NY Daily News

To listen to the entire interview of Jonas Mekas and/or read the transcript, click HERE. To access the entire Village Preservation Oral History Collection, click HERE.

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