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Jump Starting to Level Five

The Biology of NYC’s East Village and Lower East Side Art Farms

Written by Wendy R. Williams
Photographed by Mary Blanco

(Cover photo: Poet Ira Cohen in front of Double Happiness Bar)

Once upon a time, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow created the theory of a hierarchy of needs:

  1. Physiological Needs (air, water, food, sleep, sex, drugs, Starbucks, a few extra cans of Red Bull, etc)
  2. Safety Needs (not living in the South Bronx, kung fu classes, owning some mace)
  3. Love and Belonging (having sex without paying, a mother with a working check book)
  4. Esteem Needs (“Hey, don’t you know who I am?”)
  5. Self-Actualization (painting, writing poetry, wearing costumes, getting tattoos, marching in parades)

Maslow’s idea was that people would work their way up the ladder, starting with the basics (food, water, sex etc.) and moving up to Level Five where they would have earned the right to spend their summers painting in an art colony. He envisioned an orderly logical progression of first things first, where people took care of their basic needs and then turned to expressing their inner artists. Okay.

Well, there is a tribe of people who obviously never read Maslow, the inhabitants of NYC’s East Village and Lower East Side. These natives are living lives that have Maslow’s hierarchy turned upside down, lives that went straight to Level Five. The East Village and Lower East Side are strange and wondrous places where living art come first and everything else is second. Lands where the natives paint/write/act/perform/ howl with the hope that someone else will help out by liking them, loving them, protecting them and paying the rent. Where the desire to create (or some form of incipient insanity) is so great, that all is lost for the love of self expression, a place where the dogs howl at the moon. And I’m not talking about a bohemian fantasy like the one in Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge, but a hungry-stinky-hung-over-drugged-out-credit-cards-maxed-out reality. A place where life is tough and only the leather-clad survive. But excess body hair and evictions aside, the natives that flourish in the East Village / Lower East Side are a hardy bunch, resembling the scrappy weedy trees that force their way through cracks in the concrete of urban wastelands. And these artists/trees survive and flourish, because as every farmer knows, if you want a seed to grow, first you must use your foot to stomp it into the ground.

New York Cool photographer Mary Blanco and I caught up with a bunch of these hardy artistic souls on Friday April 22, 2005 at Double Happiness Bar, a former speakeasy now turned trendy bar at 173 Mott Street in downtown New York. We were there for the Tribeca Film Festival Premier party for the documentary Excavating Taylor Mead. Taylor, in case you didn’t know, was one of Andy Warhol’s film stars and was also recently featured in Jim Jarmusch’s movie, Coffee and Cigarettes (see the Excavating review and the Taylor interview in this issue). Taylor is a Lower East Side resident (living in a marvelously filthy rent controlled apartment) and a resident barfly at all the neighborhood’s best watering holes. He is also the fairy godmother for the neighborhood’s stray cats, wandering the streets late at night distributing cat food.

Penny Arcade


Multi Media Artist Collette


Sam Selvaggio, Dharma and Greg's Shea D'lyn
and Sam Mendez


Film Maker Crystalle Moselle
and Harif Guzman

So if you are visiting New York and you want to see the natives howl, take a trip to the Lower East Side and view the artists in all their fermenting glory. And if you can’t make it this year, come back in a few years and look for the same bunch in Brooklyn or Long Island City. Because, just like the hardy weeds that flourish in the neighborhood, if you pave the artists out of the Lower East Side, they will travel underground until they can find another scrap of fertile soil and recreate Level Five.

Rock on!



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