“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring” said David Bowie who recorded his first No1 U.S. single, “Fame”, at the legendary Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street.
If West 8th Street could express itself in words, it would perhaps choose ones similar to Bowie’s to reflect upon its own journey and destiny. There are, of course, many forms of expression and West 8th Street remains one of New York City’s most inventive streets, from its rich cultural history to the energetic, hugely talented people who today own and run the street's thriving independent businesses, and who keep the street’s magic very much alive!! To understand 8th Street’s journey, and far from boring destiny, it is important to understand its recent times.
Paved in a rich artistic, cultural and progressive history, the street is home to the thriving Electric Lady Studios created by Jimi Hendrix, was home to the first Whitney Art Museum and is where the groundbreaking group, the “New York School of Abstract Painters” came together to change the world of art and America’s role within it.
The street was a birthplace of the “Beat Generation”, whose leaders, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg, gathered at the legendary Eighth Street bookstore. The street was home to dozens of iconic bars and clubs where world famous musicians started out as unknowns, there was the 8th Street Playhouse screening the Rocky Horror picture show each Friday night…the list could go on.
In the 80’s and 90’s West 8th Street fell upon hard times like many parts of New York City. There was crime, retail vacancies and a loss of the eclectic businesses which gave the street its heart and soul. It then became a mecca for shoes and youth apparel, with bikers flocking to the street on weekends.
Things began to change in the mid 2000’s as the first of a new wave of 8th Street visionaries arrived on the block, unwittingly perhaps, beginning the corridor’s unknown journey back to vibrancy. Recognizing the magic of the street, that breathed beneath the veneer of dilapidation, Jonny Cohen opened the 8th Street Winecellar. It was a huge gamble but Cohen’s attitude was “people put on their brave pants when they want a drink.” And that is just what happened, people put on their brave pants and began returning to 8th Street.
There has since followed an influx of new exciting businesses including eclectic fashion and art stores such as Storm Ritter Studio and ShopUntitled, vibrant yet different bars like Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor and Analogue, thriving restaurants, which include Il Bambino, Amelie and Loring Place. Other unique food and drink concepts include La Paniniera, Ancolie and Lena. These new businesses sit alongside 8th Street stalwarts such as Uncle Sam’s Army & Navy surplus and EVA’s restaurant. One thing all these businesses have in common is they are small, independent and owned by hard working individuals who are as creatively talented, and contribute as much to the vibrancy and magic of the street today, as all of the artists and creatives who have pounded the street in decades past.
The arts scene of 8th Street also remains very much alive, with the New York Studio School educating the next generation of artists while offering some of the most innovative arts exhibitions and programing in New York City. The Electric Lady Studios remains as strong as ever with modern greats such as U2, Adele and Lady Gaga regularly recording there.
Drawing on Bowie’s words, we don’t know where the street is going, but it won’t be boring! Like many other streets in our ever-evolving city, the future is not always clear-cut nor certain. It takes the cohesive and collective hard work of many people to keep 8th Street alive, vibrant and magical, yet far from boring!
Today that is exactly what 8th Street is, alive and magical, and like our city, the street continues it's unfolding journey.
However, it retains its distinction from many other streets because of the diverse, independent stores, owned and run by creatives, who truly love the street for both its past and present, and passionately believe in its destiny of remaining a special and unique Village street.