Writer Ada Calhoun Reflects on Growing Up on New York's 'Hippest Street'

Nov 23, 2015

Credit Photo by Neal Medlyn, St. Marks roof, 2015

Author and journalist Ada Calhoun's newest book St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street chronicles the history of a few select city blocks of Manhattan and the personalities that have made it legend.

Calhoun knows New York. She was born and raised on St. Marks, a stranger to the safer suburbs and cul-de-sac living. As a journalist, she covered the crime beat for The New York Post and reviewed theater for New York Magazine. She’s a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and written wildly acclaimed op-eds for the New York Times.

It’s her observational skills mixed with the passion of devotee that makes St. Marks is Dead such a fun read. Calhoun takes us for a stroll down the street and its history. Along the way she points out the steps where Thelonious Monk would hang out between sets at the Five Spot jazz club or where Leon Trotsky once chatted with like-minded revolutionaries or Andy Warhol would seek inspiration. The book covers four centuries worth of cultural upheaval, urban growth, musical uprisings, and front-stoop conversations.

In the weeks since its release, St. Marks is Dead has garnered rave reviews and critical accolades including being named an Amazon Best Book of November 2015 and Best Nonfiction Book about New York by the Village Voice.   

On this episode of The Write Up, Calhoun discusses what inspired her to explore the history and influence of St. Marks Place. We touch on issues of gentrification, the complicated politics of place, and the reasons three square blocks have influenced the cultural history of a nation. She describes her research from discovering forgotten books and histories to simply starting conversations with the people living on St. Marks today.

She also tells us about her career as a journalisft and ghostwriter, the continuing challenge of making a living in creative careers, and how writing this book has impacted her craft. We talk about the adventures of growing up in the East Village of New York City in an apartment overflowing with books and being a teenager exploring the hangouts of New York. We talk about how being a mother herself affects her view of the world.

Best of all, Calhoun shares her unbridled enthusiasm about discovering the colorful and complicated individuals that have populated St. Marks. Saintly poets, larger-than-life gangsters, hippies, hipsters, beatniks and Beastie Boys all take the stage as we discuss her fascinating book.