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Naming a Neighborhood: The East Village

The area now known as the East Village was historically part of the Lower East Side, which was one of the most densely populated and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, especially during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, it was primarily populated by immigrants, particularly from Eastern, and to a lesser degree, Southern, Europe.

A group of ‘Hippies’ outside Gem Spa in 1969, by which time the term “East Village” was being used more regularly

The transformation of the Lower East Side into what we now call the East Village began in the mid-20th century. After World War II, many of the tenement buildings in the area fell into disrepair, and the neighborhood came to be seen as a slum. However, during the 1950s and 1960s, a cultural renaissance began to take shape, and a new name started being used for the area.

3rd Avenue El near Cooper Union shortly before the El was removed in 1956.

On February 7, 1960, the New York Times published an article where the name East Village was used for one of the first times. The Times wrote “…the elimination of the El helped stir up a minor social and realty revolution on the Lower East Side. It was one of the important factors in the spread of Greenwich Village dwellers eastward…When the El came down, a new area was open to them. This was the Lower East Side between Fourteenth and Houston Streets, between Third Avenue and the East River…As a result this area is gradually becoming recognized as an extension of Greenwich Village…Rental agents – some of them advertising rooms for “$40 and down” – are increasingly referring to the area as Village East or East Village.

In 1958 the Orpheum Theatre took over the old Player’s Theater, which had been part of the famed Yiddish theater district when the neighborhood was still considered the Lower East Side.

Artists, writers, musicians, and bohemians flocked to the area due to its cheap rents and proximity to institutions like Cooper Union and New York University. This influx of creative energy led to the emergence of a vibrant arts scene, with avant-garde theaters, experimental art galleries, and underground music venues popping up throughout the neighborhood. The Times article stated “Another old Village tradition – the off-Broadway theatre – is also found increasingly on the Lower East Side. In the vanguard were the Phoenix and Orpheum Theatres on Second Avenue. And the ghosts of the Yiddish theatre make drama an accepted adjunct to Lower East Side life…On one short block of East Fourth Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery, are the Fourth Street Theatre and the Downtown Theatre. Their atmosphere is made more Village-like by a near-by espresso house.”

The famed music club CBGB that opened in 1973

By the 1970s, the term “East Village” had become widely accepted, and the neighborhood had established itself as a unique hub of alternative culture and creativity. However, this period also saw significant challenges, including economic decline, rising crime rates, and the impact of urban renewal projects.

Pyramid Club, the legendary drag performance venue before it closed in 2020

Despite these challenges, the East Village persevered, and by the 1980s and 1990s, it had become synonymous with punk rock, avant-garde theater, and cutting-edge art. Landmarks like CBGB and the Pyramid Club helped solidify the neighborhood’s reputation as a cultural hotspot. Born of and connected to two of New York’s most well-known neighborhoods, the East Village combined the character of each to forge its own identity in the mosaic that is New York.

Today, the East Village continues to evolve, blending its rich history with modern amenities and a diverse community. While gentrification has brought changes to the neighborhood, including rising rents and the influx of upscale boutiques and restaurants, the spirit of creativity and individuality that defined the East Village remains alive and well.

The first historic district in the East Village was the St. Mark’s Historic District, designated in 1969 and extended in 1984. Then in 2012 the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District and East 10th Street Historic District were designated. See all designation reports here. To explore the East Village in even greater detail, explore our East Village Building Blocks website.

One response to “Naming a Neighborhood: The East Village

  1. Superb piece regarding the Lower East Side, now The East Village. One of the greatest Rock Auditoriams of all time would have to include the Fillmore East, 2nd Ave. East 6th street next door from Ratners. People all over the world would come to witness music history with groups such as The Doors, CSNY, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker, and many more. The sound system was the state of the art and acoustics, being an early Twentieth Century Yiddish Theatre, beyond one’s imagination. I was fortunate, being an 18-year-old at the time, to have met and thereafter talked with the owner Wulf Wolodi Grajonca, Concentration Camp survivor who changed his name to Bill Graham. A great guy, in my world, and changed Rock Performances forever. Thanks again for bringing me back to when NY was a tad more civilized and friendlier.

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