The Archives of the East Village Eye Go to the New York Public Library

In November, Leonard Abrams opened every box in his storage locker in Ridgewood, Queens, and inspected its contents. Half contained his personal belongings. In the other half were seventy-two yellowing issues of the East Village Eye. The newspaper, which Abrams published and edited from 1979 to 1987, covered the era’s monumental art scene, the gentrification of downtown Manhattan, and the swelling AIDS crisis in real time. This was the day he would finally part with its physical remnants, having sold his archive to the New York Public Library.

I watched as Abrams made his way through each of the cardboard boxes: one was a wine box, one was from Amazon, some were ripping along the folds. He unearthed a menorah, a ceramic peach, a dress coat he’d meant to wear to a recent wedding, and an old address book, in which he showed me the entry for the famed drag queen Ethyl Eichelberger. Abrams’s archival broker, Arthur Fournier, held a clipboard, checking off each of the nineteen official boxes and accordion folders as Abrams located them in the piles stacked taller than any of us. When the full inventory was accounted for, the two men loaded the boxes onto a dolly, and then into Abrams’s cherry-red minivan.

Fournier and Abrams had spent eight years trying to place the Eye archives. They were a comical duo: Fournier, earnest and enthused, wore a cardigan, a scarf, and sunglasses. He was in salesman mode. When Abrams told me that the thirty-pound newsprint on which the early editions of the Eye were printed “crumbles eventually,” Fournier emphatically denied it. Abrams, twenty years Fournier’s senior, was wearing a leather jacket, and driving with one hand on the steering wheel and the other in his lap. “Take a breath, Arthur,” he muttered. He had an inconspicuous cool befitting the former editor of Cookie Mueller, Gary Indiana, David Wojnarowicz, and other icons of the nineteen-eighties.

When we arrived at a processing center of the New York Public Library, we were met by Julie Golia, the curator who had accessioned the collection. Everyone was jubilant, celebratory, complimenting Abrams, who was complimenting Fournier, calling him a “trouper.” Abrams, Fournier, and library staffers loaded the boxes onto a two-level dolly, and we walked with them down a long hallway, past a door ominously labelled “Disaster Recovery” and into a meeting room. There, the staff quickly counted the boxes; they’d conduct a full inventory once we’d gone.

Golia explained to us what would happen next: when the library acquires a collection, it is inspected for pests and water damage. When necessary, materials are isolated and treated in the Disaster Recovery room. Once they’ve been cleared, the collection moves into the archival-processing queue and the items are rehoused in acid-free folders and boxes. The library’s staff begins to make the finding aid, essentially an index of the collection. This inventorying can be time-consuming, depending on the scale of the collection, which can vary widely—the Eye archive arrived in fewer than twenty containers, which is relatively small. The library’s New Yorker archive, on the other hand, is stored in more than two thousand containers.

After the finding aid is finished, complete with curatorial and biographical notes, each collection is driven by a special vehicle to the library’s main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at Forty-second Street. The archival collections are stored seventeen feet below Bryant Park in the top floor of the Milstein Stacks, which also houses many of the library’s books. The twenty-nine thousand linear feet of archival materials in Golia’s division are not organized by the Dewey decimal system or by Library of Congress control number. “It’s just about where it fits,” Golia told me, “it’s almost modular.” In the climate-controlled vault—sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit, forty-per-cent humidity—archival boxes line giant, compacted bookshelves. When a staff member swipes their key card and enters their code, the automated shelves move laterally across the floor, separating to create a path between the appropriate rows. Once the page has retrieved the boxes, the shelves slide again, collapsing into many metres of boxes with no space between them. Golia says the East Village Eye archives will arrive at the basement stacks in about a year. The finding aid will go live on the N.Y.P.L.’s Web site, and researchers will officially be able to view the materials.

As Golia explained the process, Abrams was visibly moved, yet characteristically irreverent. “I don’t care what order they’re in!” he insisted, when Golia told us it was library policy to preserve the way donors had grouped their own collections. “Leonard organized them in a certain way, because that’s the way his mind worked, and part of what we’re trying to preserve is the way his mind works.” Abrams waved his hands dismissively, the journalist both flattered and uncomfortable with attention turned his way. Before we left the library’s processing center, he had a question: Would they let him throw a party?

The East Village Eye débuted in May of 1979, with the no-wave musician James Chance, then known as James White, on the cover. The inaugural issue reported on recent arson cases in which multiple tenement buildings had suspiciously burned down, likely, according to a local fire marshal, for landlords to collect insurance payouts. Contributors reviewed the nascent, wholesome New Cinema movement and several nearby vegetarian restaurants. The newspaper was large: eleven by seventeen inches folded; Abrams chose the size partially to be distinctive, and partially for a wide centerfold canvas. The first Eye had the homespun look of a zine—many of the ads were handwritten and hand-drawn; one of the letters to the editor was from Abrams’s aunt, wishing him happiness in his new venture. Later issues were more conventional, with actual letters to the editors and advertisements from the neighborhood’s bars, restaurants, and galleries. But they continued to feature original artwork, including comic strips by Lynda Barry and drawings by Ellen Berkenblit.

Abrams never struggled to find contributors. People wanted to be associated with the paper, Abrams explained, because of its editorial sensibility. “I had a nose for news,” he told me, in the only compliment I heard him afford himself, “and the news I had a nose for was ten years ahead.” Having shuttered an earlier attempt at a publication in Denver after only two issues, Abrams also knew that the kind of newspaper he wanted to run “required a social movement and a scene.” The East Village had both.

The cultural historian Tim Lawrence told me that he drew more heavily from the Eye than from any other source for his book “Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980–1983.” “You could read the Eye and feel fully fed, with all cultural, sensory, and political bases covered.” As he read through the issues, which Abrams gave him access to, he couldn’t believe how underutilized the Eye was. “It felt like the springboard for a hundred more books.”

“New York experienced a community-driven cultural renaissance during the early 1980s that stands as one of the most influential in its, and perhaps any city’s, history,” Lawrence wrote in “Life and Death.” The Eye charted this “cultural renaissance” in real time. Abrams published the work of writers and artists now considered seminal, including Wojnarowicz, Mueller, and the musician Richard Hell, who wrote a column for the paper called “Slum Journal.” (In one column, he claims to have invented American punk rock.) The avant-garde writer and punk icon Kathy Acker gave one of her first interviews to the Eye. The paper published one of only a few contemporaneous reviews of the monumental Times Square Show, now seen as one of the most important New York exhibitions of the twentieth century. (Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Alex Katz exhibited art work, and the Times Square Show also débuted an early iteration of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” the artist and activist Nan Goldin’s slide show of diaristic photographs.)

And the Eye honored New York’s Black art and night life. In the January, 1982, issue alone, there are interviews with the d.j. Afrika Bambaataa and the graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy; a review of the film the latter had recently starred in, “Wild Style,” now a hip-hop classic; a photo series of teens break-dancing at Lincoln Center; and a fashion writeup of “The Crew Look,” advising a reader on the components of outfits worn by “break-dancer crews, bicycle clubs, gangs.” This issue includes interviews with the rock singer Joan Jett and the gay activist Vito Russo—a characteristically eclectic portrait of New York culture. Graffiti, too, was taken seriously: the same 1982 issue profiles, in addition to Fab 5 Freddy—who’d been part of the Fabulous 5 group in the late seventies, known for spray-painting entire subway cars—Futura 2000, another graffiti artist who’d begun on subways, and by 1981 was touring with the Clash, creating work live onstage as the band performed. The critic Steven Hager, who was fired from the Daily News for praising graffiti, has said that the Eye was the only place that would let him write seriously about the medium. There’s a friendly rivalry between the Eye and the Village Voice about who was the first to ever define hip-hop in print, but the Eye seems to have won. (In that 1982 interview with Afrika Bambaataa, Michael Holman offered this parenthetical: “Hip hop: the all inclusive tag for the rapping, breaking, graffiti-writing, crew fashion wearing street sub-culture.”)

The political commentary reflects the crankish mood of bohemian New York during this period. Developers plan to gentrify Chinatown with luxury condo towers, and three hundred residents arrive in protest at the Community Board meeting. Mayor Ed Koch is interviewed. On the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, the writer Josh Gosciak questions the instrumentalizing of this history for Zionist gains. AIDS gains deadly momentum in the city, and appears more and more in the Eye. The medical misinformation of the era is recorded like a tragic time capsule: “Don’t worry about AIDS, for God’s sake,” writes the Eye’s resident advice columnist, Mueller, who had gained a devout following after starring in early John Waters films. “If you don’t have it now, you won’t get it,” she says, “Not everybody gets it, only those predisposed to it.” Mueller would die of AIDS-related pneumonia four years later, in 1989, less than two months after the same disease killed her husband. AIDS would ultimately claim the lives of many of the paper’s contributors and subjects. One of these contributors, Wojnarowicz, wrote four essays for the newspaper, and was profiled in 1984. “How do you feel about the East Village?” the interviewer asks Wojnarowicz. “If all the hype and nonsense theories I’ve heard about the East Village were one big throat,” he responds, “I’d volunteer to strangle it.”

The Eye ceased publication in January of 1987, when Abrams was simply too tired to continue. He estimates that he was working fifty hours a week on the paper, and, while he delegated all that he could, there wasn’t anyone who could take over for him. Even with all this work, the newspaper didn’t make any money. Only a few staff members were paid, and only when there was money to pay them. I told Fournier I’d read that one art director had been paid in drugs—“He wishes!” Abrams said. By the end of 1986, Abrams was broke and worn down: “It became physically exhausting to the point that I couldn’t hold a pen.”

In the final issue of the Eye, Abrams signed off with an editor’s letter that reads as an elegy to the East Village:

The kinds of events often found in clubs in the past, with
installations and performances conceived and produced independently of
mainstream institutions, mixing different crowds and fields and
resulting in exciting syntheses, are rare now. This is a shame:
firstly, because the sale of liquor at such events has probably
afforded more money for art and music than any other source apart from
institutions; and secondly, because a club setting allows for
immediacy, informality, and a diverse audience.

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