Alphabet City in the 21st century is calmer than its late 20th century self. The roots put down by its artist founders still exist, but with the rest of New York, it grew into a trendy area. It still maintains its bohemian and edgy flair but has begun to epitomize “shabby-chic” with street art paired with Starbucks and Capital One. The neighborhood is still heavy with indie coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, and avant-garde performance spaces, despite the increasingly expensive rents.
Alphabet City was the true and living image of urban grit. The romantic notions of starving artists, intellectual freedom, and free love; the rejection of popularly accepted social norms and culture, the complete freedom and abject poverty that has been romanticized in film and literature and music for the last few decades. The dreams and aspirations of the neighborhood didn’t last — Alphabet City, like the rest of the East Village, was devastated by the AIDS epidemic. The impact was profound and the landscape of the neighborhood began to shift.
At the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood changed drastically. From being home to Puerto Rican and African American populations, the area became home to a newly forming bohemian lifestyle in New York City. As an extension of the Lower East Side, Alphabet City, which sits on the outskirts of the island, was decrepit, and home to a , as the New York Times put it in 1984, “stubbornly persistent plague of street dealers in narcotics.”
Alphabet City has managed to escape a lot of the heavy development that other lower Manhattan neighborhoods have experienced. Most buildings are generally short and prewar, with a few public housing projects in between, but there is no doubt that the area has cleaned up. More and more condos and high-rise buildings are being developed, and different types of New Yorkers are moving in, but many buildings are still mixed-use.
Alphabet City was once a salt marsh, a kind of wetland that was drained in the 19th century and then reclaimed by real estate developers. Through the 19th century, Alphabet City was home to immigrants, largely of German descent. At a certain point, the neighborhood was known as “Little Germany”. The German immigrants began to be replaced by Eastern Europeans in the late 1800s. After this transition, the neighborhood became known as one of the worst slums in the city. It consisted of tenement housing with no running water. The primary public bathing location was located on 23rd Street and Avenue C and the area became the red light district of the city.
It became one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city, partially due to it’s proximity to the garment factories. Once the subways were constructed, many of the immigrant workers who made their living at these factories relocated to more affordable parts of town that were now more easily accessible.
Alphabet City became the homebase to thousands of Puerto Ricans in the middle of the 20th century, and the area became known as “Loisaida”, Spanglish for Lower East Side. The Nuyorican Movement sparked in Alphabet City, strengthening Puerto Rican cultural identity in New York. This movement, along with low rents and the creative atmosphere created by Nuyorican intellectuals, began to attract a bohemian population.
Coffee shops here have an air of inspiration to them – after all, the area is filled with creative types – so stop by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe or Ciao for Now for your java fix. Restaurants are vibrant in Alphabet City: Cienfuegos is a must for great Cuban food and atmosphere (and rum punch bowls). To really embody the spirit of Alphabet City, catch an underground music show at Nublu or a free performance in Tompkins Square Park, or stroll the streets to look for the many wall murals that have been splashed onto the buildings of the neighborhood since its renaissance in the later 20th century. If you’re looking for green activities, take a look at the offerings at Sustainable NYC, a general store offering products and quirky gift items that are local, organic, recycled, fair-trade, repurposed, and eco-friendly. And if all that tires you out, relax with a drink at Amor y Amargo (“Love and Bitters”), which serves up some of the best homemade bitters in the city, or dance the night away at Bedlam.
Tompkins Square Park is home to many of the vibrant annual events that are a must-see in Alphabet City: the outdoor drag festival Wigstock, the Howl Festival commemorating Allen Ginsberg, and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.