Looking back to Mid-Century Downtown New York

After re-reading Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil’s book Please Kill Me: The Oral History of Punk, I’ve been curious to learn more about the New York City that Richard Hell and Patti Smith were inspired by. I’ve been told horror stories about living Downtown in the 1970s and 1980s, but I suppose one’s hero’s can make a dump on The Bowery seem romantic.


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Mellon Tytell
William S Burroughs and Gregory Corso standing in front of the West End Bar, 1973, 124.1994

Of course, we have to start with one of the fathers of punk-rock, William S. Burroughs and one of the youngest of the beat poets, Gregory Corso. Although the West End Bar was over one hundred blocks from the downtown scene it was a popular meeting place for students at Columbia University. Patrons included Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the 1940’s and continued to be a meeting place for students and intellectuals until it closed in 2006.

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Ken Heyman, Greenwich Village, 1980, 2009.93.23


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Leon Levinstein
, St. Marks Place, 1968, 2011.53.5

Robert Frank  is said to have walked into CBGB‘s one night and made the observation “It looks like the way people dress is very important.” This is true, the “look” was  intentional and the author of the next book on my list, Richard Hell would intentionally cut his clothes to achieve his desired look. Malcolm McLaren even stated: “Richard Hell was a definite, 100 percent inspiration, and, in fact, I remember telling the Sex Pistols, “Write a song like Blank Generation, but write your own bloody version.” Their own version was Pretty Vacant.


McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York: Grove, 1996. Print.

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About Emily P Dunne

archivist, librarian, ICP library
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