Taking Back New York's East Village

Drag queen Adrian Lopez Acosta poses backstage during Wigstock at the Howl! Festival.
Drag queen Adrian Lopez Acosta poses backstage during Wigstock at the Howl! Festival. (Helayne Seidman - Helayne Seidman Ftwp)
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 29, 2005

NEW YORK, Aug. 28 -- Maybe it's that fat old drag queen in the blond wig and sequins swinging a blue-suede phallus. Or the orange-haired singer for Uncle Jimmy's Dirty Basement who describes himself as Ed Sullivan if Ed had been an agoraphobic, somewhat delusional 35-year-old confined to a basement in Indiana.

Or maybe it's the young temptress who sways to and fro in Tompkins Square Park before stripping butt naked. For a few bizarro-yet-sweetly-nostalgic days this past week, the East Village and Alphabet City raised their graying head and howled.

It was the third annual Howl! Festival, a cacophonous celebration of all that's alternative and odd. Puerto Rican graffiti artists laid down their tags on canvasses stretched around Tompkins Square Park; Zero Boy offered comic sound raps; drag queens trooped to Wigstock; and Willie Villegas Y Entre Amigos cooked the best salsa this side of San Juan.

Allen Ginsberg, whose epic poem gave its name to the festival, once described the East Village with a kind of poetic reportage:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for a fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."

To which the latte generation might respond: Whatever.

Where's the Starbucks?

That's the big fat thought cloud that loomed over this particular exercise in brilliant excess: Was this just a psychedelic memory lane? Just last week, the Village Voice declared the bohemian West Village as dead as that T. Rex at the American Museum of Natural History. When there's a German beer garden on Avenue A and developers retail $1.15 million Viking-stoved, Thai-bamboo-floored condos with really excellent views of the Jacob Riis projects, can the East Village avant-garde still be avant?

Is this a celebration of what is, or what was?

"We've seen it's possible to take neighborhoods and turn them into theme parks," said Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club, who recently hosted the American debut of the poet laureate of Yemen and led a reading of Ginsberg's "Howl" in Tompkins Square on Friday night.

"We're saying, 'No thanks, we'll hang on to our own neighborhood.' "

Penny Arcade, a fifty-something blond performance artist who cavorted with Andy Warhol, is more sardonic. She's been at too many dinners where conversations begin with the words: Do you know how much the co-op next door sold for!?


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