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My LES: Penny Arcade

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The artist "Penny Arcade" at The Clemente on Suffolk Street. Photo by Alex M. Smith.
The artist Penny Arcade at The Clemente on Suffolk Street. Photo by Alex M. Smith.

For our regular feature spotlighting the people who live and work on the Lower East Side, we talked with avant-garde performance artist, documentarian and playwright Penny Arcade (aka Susana Ventura).

How long have you lived on the Lower East Side?

I arrived in October 1967 at 17. In early 1971, I left New York for Europe with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, protesting the police state and Vietnam War. I lived in Amsterdam and then the Spanish island of Formentera and Palma de Mallorca for four years. Then, after living in rural Maine for another six years, I returned to New York at Ellen Stewart’s invitation to do a play we had done in 1970 Night Club by Ken Bernard for La MaMa’s 20th anniversary. I have been here ever since, except when I tour.

Why did you move here?

I turned 17 in the Summer of Love 1967 in Provincetown. I met two East Village drag queens that hated P-Town and they gave me their number, saying, “You belong in New York.”

After six weeks in Boston I took a $25 shuttle to New York with a 17-year-old boy named Mark McCarthy and called them from Bleecker and Thompson. They said, “No, all wrong. Come to East 7th St and Avenue C.” He stayed one night and went back to Boston the next day, saying, “This place is too crazy and too scary.” I stayed.

What do you do?

I am a poet and writer of experimental theater and essays, and a performance artist. I co-helm the Lower East Side Biography Project: Stemming the Tide of Cultural Amnesia with my longtime collaborator of 22 years, Steve Zehentner. [It’s] a video project that has broadcast and cybercast weekly since 1999 that seeks to document and preserve the secret history of New York and the iconoclastic people who created the rich tapestry of art, politics and criminality that defined the LES for over 100 years.

Tell us about your apartment — the good, the bad and the ugly.

I have lived in one of the LES’s oldest buildings, on Stanton Street, since 1981. When people asked me where I lived in the ’80s and ’90s, I used to say, “There’s Soho, there’s Noho, and I live in Uh Oh!’ I live on the top floor of the quiet back building, an old loft, manufacturing building built in 1829. It had 14 windows and front and back doors. There were only one-story mechanic shops behind it all the way to East Houston Street, so you heard only the wind and saw nothing but sky.

In 1995 the old landlord bricked up five windows because he didn’t want to replace them. Now all you hear are the building sites drilling; soon those new tall buildings will block out the sky.

What’s your favorite spot on the LES and why?

Clinton Street in the ’80s used to be a street of party favor stores and bridal shops with the most garish dresses. I called it “Rue Des Reves,” the street of dreams. The section from Stanton to Rivington is one story and has a corner garden where Dominicans play loud salsa music and dominoes long into the night. The trees that border it bend over onto the sidewalk, creating a feral overhang, a magical tunnel. Now they clip those trees, but they grow back and hang! This year those buildings will be torn down and built up. We will lose the sky and a great deal of charm.

Favorite cheap eats?

Cornerstone  $4 breakfast with organic eggs. Gaia Café for lunch, $5 panini, my favorite: the Deliziano with anchovies.  Pause Cafe on Clinton Street for juices, bagel and lox, soups. Takahashi on Avenue A for sushi. Ray’s on A for egg creams.

Favorite place for a special night?

Angelica’s for haute macrobiotic food. Angelina’s for steak au poivre. Ghost, the Woodward Gallery’s bar with paintings by the great LES artist Richard Hambleton.  Drinks from master mixologist Ektoras Binikos courtesy of Art and Spirit at [Tony Powe’s] Second Floor on Clinton Street.

How have you seen the neighborhood change?

You are kidding, right? (Do you) like some place? It will be gone in two years. There used to be a real difference between uptown and downtown. People used to come to New York to be part of it all, to reinvent themselves in the face of New York’s magnetic energy. Now they think they are fine just as they are and want New York to be like the suburbs where they’re from.

What do you miss from the old LES?

The intact bohemia that had a lineage, made up of all ages and backgrounds. People chose to live here because of the shared countercultural values that were prized and valued; art, iconoclasm and resistance and opposition to the middle-class values of status, not rocking the boat and fitting in, and they measured their growth and success by standards outside of the mainstream.

Is there a new arrival you love?

I love Gaia Café because Gaia, the chef owner, actually stands for the kind of values the LES has always represented. She has a real political and social conscience actualized through both her excellent food and non-elitist prices, proving that the LES still attracts highly creative individualists who seek to become part of the community and to serve it.

What drives you crazy about the neighborhood?

The princess plague and frat boy invasion most nights of the week and the people who think the virtue of renting an overpriced apartment here makes them cool, without having any respect or even awareness of the living history both past and present that gives the EV/LES that reputation. They resent those values because they mistake being cool with being elitist.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on the LES?

Hard question! Three yuppie hipster girls getting angry when I asked them to stop yakking on their cellphones while we got pedicures in a 15 x 20 salon on East Houston Street, who responded, “This is a public place.” And I replied, “No, this is a semi-public place, I have to PAY to be here and don’t want my peace of mind badgered by your inane conversations.”

This definitely competes in my mind with the guy who shot up heroin at a red light on Houston and Ave A  and then nodded out when the light turned green. The latter is preferable.

Who’s the best neighborhood character you’ve met and why?

The EV/LES was made up of characters. Peter Missing of Missing Foundation in the 1980s  used to stencil an upside-down martini glass with three strikes on it and the words “Party’s Over,” and other anti-gentfication, anti-police brutality, anti-corporation, pro-environmental slogans. Obviously he was a prophet and a visionary.

Tell us your best LES memory.

1982: The artist Jack Smith invited drag superstar playwright Jackie Curtis for a wedding shower at his house on 1st Ave. We rang the buzzer and Jackie stepped back to look up at Jack’s 7th story windows and Jack emptied a kitty litter box on her head. That was Jack’s idea of a wedding shower!

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  1. fabulous go Penny Arcade! one of my weird memories of LES was the homeless guy in 1988 who collected discarded trousers, and wore about 5 pair at once, and pushed a shopping cart while talking loudly to the air in the lowest human speaking voice I have ever heard!

  2. Penny, what a great antidote to the cancerous neutering of the LES. You can hear the spirit of the Pineros, the Reverend Pedros, the Diane Burnses, Winchester Chimes, Sekou Sundiatas, Cenens, Butch Morisses and untold other departed bedrocks of the nabe in her voice.

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