Earlier today, a one-bedroom apartment at 437 East 12th Street went on the the rental market. Though it’s certainly remarkable for its price—$1,700 a month? In the East Village?—its primary claim to fame is that it housed Allen Ginsberg for over two decades. Here Ginsberg lived with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and would host fellow beat writers such as William S. Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, musician Arthur Russell, and many other characters of various backgrounds and passions. As his health faded and the six-story walkup became too arduous—even if he stopped at each flight and told a story to catch his breath, as was his ritual—Ginsberg left the residence in 1996 for a place a block down, on 13th Street near First Avenue. It was here that he died of liver cancer at age 70. Orlovsky tended to the place at 437 East 12th until his own death last year. Now, after months of renovations, it’s ready for someone to take over for the man who penned “Howl.”
But let’s not kid ourselves here! The East Village as Ginsberg knew it has been gone for a while. Even during the end of his lifetime, in the late 1990s, the neighborhood was a very different place from when he first moved downtown from his Columbia digs early in his writing career. In an article about the poet’s block that ran in the Times soon after his death, Frank Bruni could see the first signs of the vast whitewashing of the history of grime that would continue through the next decade or so.
But over time, to some extent, the neighborhood passed Mr. Ginsberg by. Although it never lost the polyglot, pansexual qualities he treasured, it became less anarchic, more upscale, a target for gentrification and a magnet for a younger generation of sybarites, many of whom did not share that radical political consciousness or have any knowledge of his work.
This trend continued until we get the East Village as it is today. And, given that, if Ginsberg were still alive he would see the best minds of this generation destroyed by… well, Starbucks. In a bit of irony that will nonetheless overjoy the presumably caffeine-addled future denizens of 437 East 12th Street, a Google maps search revealed there to be nine—count ‘em, nine!—branches of the unstoppable java chain within a one-mile radius of Ginsberg’s former stomping grounds. This is nothing surprising, or even that much of a travesty: everyone bites the bullet and pays extra for the signature brew of some frothy concoction every once in a while, and the place certainly does have its devotees (including James Franco, who is a “compulsive drinker of Starbucks coffee” and, incidentally, the star of this fall’s highly anticipated Howl in which he plays Ginsberg). And of course there’s a good chance Allen treated himself to an espresso every once in a while.
But the ubiquity of such a commercial chain doesn’t exactly create fertile breeding ground for the “radical political consciousness” that Bruni was already mourning. Regardless, whomever moves into this historic apartment may or may not be able to name you five poems by the previous tenant, but they will absolutely be able to sate their every yearning for a latte. Future inhabitants, when you do buy that grande Frappuccino a block down from this landmark of American letters, pay some respect. Pour a little out for Ginsberg.