Arts and Entertainment

An Ode To St. Marks Place

You can try walking down it to really know it, but you’ll never really know this most personality-filled street in all of Manhattan no matter how many times you traverse through it.

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Downtown Manhattan. Critics who defend its uptown counterpart may call it downright filthy in terms of both appearance and atmosphere, especially when they try to strike juxtapositions between the two halves in favor of their defense.

“Are you really going to try to compare Canal Street fashion with any of what you’ll see in the Upper East Side?” Oh, quit that condescending attitude. I’m not “going to try”—I WILL gladly strike such comparisons. Blame it on the fact that my high school is in the “Triangle Below Canal Street,” because I adore downtown, and not just TriBeCa. As a matter of fact, my favorite street in all of the five boroughs is nestled just a brief train ride away from Stuyvesant.

St. Marks Place is a street smacked right in the East Village. You can’t miss it because of its distinctive bohemian flair. Perhaps one of the first things you’ll notice are the open-air markets selling quirky sunglasses, caps, and possibly even drug-related paraphernalia tailored to tourists who find themselves hopelessly wandering in the area. These street vendors are here year-round, rain or shine, tempest or tranquility. In the evenings, they shine with an enticing ambiance, illuminating the entire street with a glow that provokes a tide of emotions that both soothe and excite the spirit. A more conservative person may find St. Marks wacky in the daytime, but they’d find its summer nightlife thrilling and mysterious, never knowing what awaits them as they take their next step down the block.

The sellers, or even the mysterious neighboring tattoo parlors, are not the primary reason that St. Marks Place has an artsy eccentricity about it. Personally, I believe it’s the unusual contrasting elements thriving together that give the street its unconventional charm. Take Search and Destroy, a store specializing in selling punk clothing and items that could serve as gag gifts. Overpriced sukajan jackets and plastic doll heads stacked on one another are sights not uncommon here. The interior is bathed in pale fluorescent light as the eyes are overstimulated by what could easily be mistaken for a century’s worth of things stuffed in an attic. From the outside, passersby will usually find vintage dolls in bright colors under the store’s black-and-white logo.

The shop itself is situated above Kenka, an izakaya (a type of Japanese bar where drinks and tapas are the main focus) specializing in fare such as okonomiyaki (fried cabbage pancakes covered in a variety of sauces) and karaage (fried chicken). This place is dormant until it opens up at 6:00 p.m., its small space quickly filling up with consumers ravenous for bar banter and edibles. Don’t tell your parents about this place, though. The graffiti-decorated bathroom walls, with their occasional explicit piece of artwork and various advertisements, may be too loud for the faint of heart. Ordering takoyaki (squid balls) may be awkward to do in front of your mama when there’s a tastefully-done erotic artwork of a posed and poised young woman covered in tentacles neighboring your booth.

Historically, St. Marks Place has also been associated with alternative artists. Andy Warhol, an icon of modern American pop art, once had a nightclub known as The Electric Circus, an establishment that was THE place to dance the night away in the crazed era of the ‘60s. Unfortunately, the nightclub closed down before the turn of the century after someone tried bombing it down. Today, a Chipotle rests in its place, leaving its existence in the memories of those who had lived to experience it. It’s tragic that a mainstream chain fast food establishment replaced something one-of-a-kind, but perhaps this was the only way St. Marks Place could keep something so iconic a secret of the past to present passersby.

Unorthodox compared to anything else you’ll find in the city, St. Marks Place yields to no conventional rule. It’s random, it’s colourful, and it’s full of vivacity and sensory overload. If you were to personify this place, it’d be no saintly figure, but boy would it have the guts and grit of Joan d’Arc. It might have some dirt on its pavements from untold happenings of the past and unmentioned consequences of one bar-hop too many, but its refreshing charm prevents it from ever being considered squalid and tainted by reality. Whether you have a remotely rebellious bone in your body or not, this brief street is worth a solo stroll, as it embodies originality.