United States of America

Like a local in East Village, NYC

Words Roberto Serrini

Photos Roberto Serrini

March 2016 from issue 39

Tags: new york city, nightlife, urbanites, usa

Like a local in East Village, NYC

Far from the neon glare of Times Square, the East Village is a tantalising fusion of urban grit and city cool. New York filmmaker Roberto Serrini gives an insider’s glimpse into his unique neighbourhood, and explains why he’d never live anywhere else.

Brick Lane. Haarlemmerstraat. 7th Street. They might all sound wildly different, but at their root these streets all harbour the same eclectic soul.

My particular 7th Street is located in the East Village in Manhattan, and I’ve called it home for most of my life. It is by no happenstance that I put up with five flights of stairs, impossible parking and a light dusting of heroin addicts on my way home; I chose this address over any other in the city, if not the world, because nothing comes close to its character, anywhere.

Diversity is at its best on 7th Street, if not the entire East Village. For anyone who demands a healthy dose of stimulus to keep their ADD at bay, the East Village is a natural remedy. Located east of Broadway between 14th and Houston streets, my neighbourhood is a turbulent mix of art and garbage, complex culinary dining and simple street food, deep religious roots and hedonistic sinners. While it’s impossible to bombard a reader’s senses with the raw, visceral environment that is the East Village, allow me to take you down my favourite street to give you a taste of what 
my home has to offer.

Starting at the western end of 7th Street, experience living history inside McSorley’s Old Ale House, established in 1854. It is unfair to call McSorley’s a bar when really it is a museum that serves beer. The guts of this old beast are lined with ancient artefacts from a city long gone: an invitation to the Brooklyn Bridge opening, a letter from Teddy Roosevelt, even Houdini’s handcuffs. As a local, I can’t say I call McSorley’s 
a hangout – it’s frequently overrun by tourists, only serves two beers (light or dark), and the way they clean their glasses is reminiscent of a old cowboy film – but I wouldn’t change it a bit. Again, this is not an East Village bar, it’s an East Village museum, and while MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) is amazing, I doubt you’ll see many bar fights inside.

Wandering eastward you’ll pass a bevy of strange little shops, some that seem to be brand new and others perfectly ancient. There’s a little place where you can still fax things for five cents a page, Pilar’s Jewelry Repair – which I’m convinced is stuff from Pilar’s dresser drawer – and a Thai place whose delivered fare is the best you’ve ever tasted, until you see where it comes from. At the end of the block, you’d walk right past Jimmy’s No. 43, a subterranean cavern filled with the world’s best craft beer and amazing ‘hunter’s fare’ food, without even noticing it’s there. In a city constantly evolving due to the necessity of novelty, the East Village somehow remains constant – and yet continually surprises. It would seem that Houdini left more than his handcuffs here.

On the corner you will find Moishe’s. I have seen New York University students dare each other to eat something from this ancient Jewish bakery, and while it looks condemned, its chocolate cigars and raspberry rugelach (Jewish pastry) are the best in the city. I can hear old man Moishe, the owner, saying, “Who needs a fresh coat of paint when our confections are this delicious?” And he’s right. With sweet pastries in hand, continue down the block to Abraço Espresso, which serves the finest coffee you’ll find outside of Italy. Don’t judge the flavour of the coffee by the size of the shop; I have seen people lined up around the corner, waiting for a taste of the caffeinated delights coming out of this closet. Personally, I only drink its lattes, which can only be described as liquid cake. A warning to the Starbucks-goer: these are coffee purists. I have witnessed a young mother of two denied a ‘red-eye’ (drip-brew coffee with espresso) with a very disgusted look and a “we don’t do that sort of thing here” rebuke. She realised 
her mistake upon first sip and quickly departed, stroller in tow, whispering apologies to the espresso-laden air.

At this point it’s time to eat something serious, so I suggest the arepa de pabellón from Caracas Arepa Bar. Consider, if you will, a gently fried cornmeal dough stuffed full of delicious slow-cooked beef, salty white cheese and sweet tender plantains that greets your tastebuds with a Latin lover’s kiss. Don’t waste your time with dessert here my friends, for you have two fabulous choices just next door. Butter Lane offers myriad exceptional flavours on top of fluffy cupcakes. This is basically Magnolia Bakery without the tour bus outside. If creamy delights are more to your taste, venture into the closet with Big Gay Ice Cream. Greeted by a giant purple unicorn and more sparkles than a stripper’s bed sheet, Big Gay serves up chocolate-dipped, salty cones that will soon have you flying the rainbow flag. Walk a block to Tomkins Square Park and watch dogs play and junkies squabble while you slip into a blissful sugar coma. When you are done, head across the street to Niagara, a real local bar, where you can still get a shot of Powers and a bottle of cold beer for US$5. Let the night slip away as you watch the game, talk to an old-timer or eavesdrop as two drunken students passionately argue the plot points of their new short film.

This is just one street in the East Village. Just around the corner there’s plenty more to see, including Pommes Frites, the Russian & Turkish Baths and Brindle Room, home of the world’s best hamburger. Or the secret bar behind a wall in a hotdog stand, the hidden marble cemetery, or the two-tonne monument you can spin if you push the right way. While much of the rest of New York has replaced its old soul with a shiny new culture, the East Village stubbornly holds onto the character and grime that kept this city together through thick and thin. In a city that doesn’t sleep, the East Village is the afterparty New York goes to. It’s not glamorous, and it may not be pristine, but you can come as you are and find whatever fix you may need.

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