Hey guys! It’s another Block Party, where we explore the rich history of a single Manhattan block. We’re going to take a look at one of my favorite blocks in New York – 2nd Avenue between St. Mark’s Place and 9th Street.
Let’s work our way up one side and circle back, shall we? Go west, young man!
In the early 19th century, real estate developer Thomas E. Davis began converting the farms and orchards of the East Village into posh mansions and townhouses for New York City’s elite. He built two rows of Federal-style homes on St. Mark’s Place, capping the block with a three-story red brick mansion on the northwest corner of 2nd Avenue in 1836. After a few short-lived tenants, Davis sold the building to Eugene and Malvina Keteltas in 1847.
The Ketelti had been part of New York society for centuries. They first arrived in New Amsterdam in 1649 and proceeded to mingle their bloodlines with Fishes, Vanderbilts, and Beekmans. Eugene Keteltas was technically retired when he bought the mansion, but in reality he was hard at work lording over his massive real estate holdings and acting as paterfamilias for his ten children. When he died in 1876, his daughter Alice filled the family power vacuum. In the space of two years, both her brothers John and Philip were suspiciously declared mentally unfit to manage their business affairs – Alice became their legal guardian and seized control of their shares of the family fortune.
The remaining Keteltas siblings died off over the decades. By the turn of the century, Alice was a spinster in her lonely mansion (now with a wrought-iron fence around the perimeter.) Her genteel East Village was no longer the playground of the blue bloods but a crowded immigrant neighborhood full of Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Irish and Italians. Alice finally moved to the Upper East Side in 1912 taking the doors and mantelpieces with her. “The hand of Time has fallen heavily upon beautiful St. Mark’s Place,” Henry Collins Brown mourned in his Book of Old New York (1913), “and where some of our most representative families once lived, the moving picture and garish cafes now hold full sway, and make it difficult for even memory and imagination to restore the splendors of yesterday.”
Of course, the moving pictures weren’t all that bad. In 1918, a combination of office and theater space known as the Astor arose on this spot. Sometime before 1926, the owners changed the name to the St. Mark’s Theatre, offering matinees and double-features for a dime on the first floor. Upstairs, the St. Mark’s Playhouse offered cutting edge straight plays, eventually joining forces with the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967. The NEC created hundreds of plays for African-Americans by African-Americans, launching the careers of Laurence Fishburne, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Richard Roundtree, and Denzel Washington among others.
As hippies and hipsters flocked to the low rents of the East Village in the ‘60s and ‘70s, St. Mark’s toggled between two dollar second-run flicks and double bills of foreign and independent films. Jim Jarmusch once ushered there – he dreaded chastising the Hell’s Angels smoking joints in the front row – and he set scenes for 1980’s Permanent Vacation in his old workplace.
Both the playhouse and the theater closed in 1985, but the spirit of St. Mark’s lived on at Kim’s Music and Video, which moved here in 1988. Yongman Kim rented videotapes from his dry-cleaning business on Avenue A, but he soon found the videos more profitable than the laundry and eventually expanded to half a dozen locations across the East and West Villages, famed both for their phenomenal selection of classic, foreign, and indie movies and their snide clerks. I’ll never forget the first DVD I purchased there (Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai) nor the stinkeye the clerk shot me when I brought it up. “Really?” he sighed, apparently mortified I didn’t buy the Quayles Brothers shorts looping on the TV behind him. Yeah, really, asshole.
But 1988 also saw a Gap take over the ground floor. For months, locals threw rocks, bricks, and the occasional bowling ball through the windows to protest encroaching gentrification. The Gap closed in 2001, but gentrification won in the long run. The last Kim’s closed in 2014, selling its entire stock to a Sicilian village. Where the Keteltas Mansion and St. Mark’s Theatre once stood are yoga studios, massage parlors, and high-priced condos – the Theatre Condominiums, to be precise.
Luckily, history has been much better preserved next door.