I am a born and bred New Yorker.
Growing up in the City, I have had the extraordinary privilege of being immersed in the contemporary urban world and exposed to its explosive diversity and rich culture. As a little kid, my mom would regularly take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Ave where we’d roam from the Temple of Dendur in the Egyptian wing to the Costume Institute downstairs—my personal favorite. After these excursions, we would stroll back to our apartment on the Upper West Side through Central Park, always sure to pass the Alice in Wonderland sculpture on East 75th Street. Climbing on the bronze cast Mad Hatter as a youngster, I had no idea it was the very same statue that Patti Lee Smith slept by on the first night she spent in New York in the summer of 1967.
Around the same time that my mom and I were adventuring along Museum Mile, she introduced me to Patti Smith’s music. I’d sit on the kitchen counter watching my mom make dinner and we’d listen to her poetic-punk genius which, at the time, I had little appreciation for. Nonetheless, the sounds and aesthetics of Smith and her rock and roll era compatriots were an important part of my childhood. My best friend in grade school had a CBGB OMFUG shirt, and I remember us making up a song about it using the funny string of letters that was absolute gibberish to us (it really stands for the downtown club called Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers). Walking around New York as a kid, I also probably spotted at least ten canvas tote bags from the Strand Bookstore a day. The image of that red oval logo with its big white block letters is forever burned in my mind.
And boy, I’ll never forget my first trip to St. Mark’s. I was a high school freshman, and my friends and I were going to get our noses pierced without our parents’ permission. We took the subway to Astor Place and walked down a few avenues into the first tattoo and piercing shop we saw. We each walked out with slightly swollen but glittering noses, our new jewels a marker of our freedom. We were just kids, but no one questioned our age. I felt so punk rock.
PATTI SMITH “PUNK POET LAUREATE” AND BOOKPACKER EXTRAORDINAIRE
New York is all at once the sophistication of 5th Ave and the Met, the wholesomeness of Central Park, and the subcultures of CBGB, the Strand and St. Mark’s Place. Before my time, each of these iconic New York City destinations were the stomping grounds of Patti Smith and the motley crew that occupied downtown Manhattan in the 70s.
In her memoir, Just Kids, Smith chronicles her experience moving to New York where she discovered both herself and her creative potential. She tells of her fateful encounter with Robert Mapplethorpe—her once lover and lifelong friend—alongside whom she navigated the worlds of art, rock and roll, sexuality and, eventually, fame. As much as the book is a story of the trials and tribulations of two aspiring artists, it is also a most honorable ode to New York City in the 60s and 70s.
However, Smith was not as lucky as I to have grown up exploring the endless possibilities of the City. Rather, her early years were spent in southern New Jersey where she assuaged her boredom through reading, reading, and more reading. Smith read everything from sci-fi novels to Little Women, and poetry by the likes of Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. She was always a fierce believer in the magical powers of literature to transport readers. During her youth, Smith dreamed of nothing more than breaking out of her regimented life and becoming an artist. It was through novels that Smith plotted her escape to New York and Paris, dreaming of liberation from her dreary Jersey hometown.
From a young age, Patti Smith intrinsically understood the essence of bookpacking and, as an adult, she became a true bookpacker. In 1973, Rimbaud brought her to Charleville, France where she followed in the master poet’s footsteps. In Rimbaud’s musings Smith sought creative inspiration and spiritual guidance. She enhanced her travels through reading, using text to help her tap into the cultures of the faraway places she fascinated herself with as a child.
In turn, Smith’s lifelong enchantment with literature comes through in her own writing. In her spellbinding memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith harnesses the spirit of her youth and captures the character and characters of New York City that had such a profound impact on shaping her as an artist.
After reading Just Kids, I can’t help but think that it must be Smith’s own experiences with bookpacking that allowed her to write such a stunning ‘novel of place’. I can confidently say that no other New York novel I have ever read has conveyed the energy and culture of my home city so compellingly. And yes, I know that Just Kids is a memoir not a novel, but it reads just as dramatically as one. It is equal parts love story between Smith and Mapplethorpe and love poem dedicated to New York.
The fact that Just Kids is a memoir actually gives it a leg up in coloring reality. It is a beautiful retelling of the past, of the real people and places that molded Smith’s life. Her poetic style of documentary storytelling paints a dynamic portrait of New York, illustrating the vibrant arts scene of the era and drawing the lifeblood of the city. To me, Just Kids feels more quintessentially New York than the Statue of Liberty.
MAPPING OUT PATTI SMITH’S NEW YORK
As New Yorker, I found myself especially captivated by Just Kids. I felt like a privileged reader, as if Patti and I were sharing a special connection because I could truly imagine myself in each of the places she and Robert frequented.
Smith locates readers precisely in each of the neighborhoods she describes. In doing so, she conjures the spirit of the various New York haunts she passed through on her journey to becoming the poet and performer she is today. She names every subway stop, every street corner, every store; every scroungy diner and every gaudy lounge. As I read, I began to draw a mental map of the City, eagerly tracing Patti and Robert as they zigzagged from Brooklyn to downtown Manhattan to Coney Island and back.
Smith uses all five senses to describe her first impressions of the City. Upon arriving, she sees New York’s monumental skyscrapers and notes how she “felt the flux of its history,” and was “greeted by the sounds of bongos and acoustic guitars, protest singers, political arguments, activists leafleting, older chess players challenged by the young.” Patti Smith’s New York tasted like stale donuts and burnt coffee, and smelled like streets and subways stained by piss.
I guess in a lot of ways not much has changed.
Yet, at the same time I know that the New York I know is different than the one Patti and Robert knew. In my years living in New York I’ve witnessed my fair share of madness, but I definitely wouldn’t describe the city today “aggressively seedy”. Through bookpacking Just Kids, I was able to compare and contrast New York City then and now. As I followed Patti across New York, I felt closer to the city’s prolific history than ever. While the hippie psychedelic vibes of the 60s and rock and roll rhythms of the 70s may have petered out over the years, Just Kids is a testament to the fact that, at the end of the day, it is the people that make a place. The streets of New York today may look different on the outside, but deep down the grit of its people has not changed. New York will always be home to the most diverse, ambitious and rebellious troupe.
THE HOTEL CHELSEA
I get off the 1 train at the 23rd Street station and walk towards 8th Ave. Here I am, looking up at the candy striped awning of the Hotel Chelsea. I cross the street to get a better view. The building’s facade is covered in scaffolding, but beneath it I can see the red brick and vertical sign that was once a beacon of light for beatniks and bohemians seeking sanctuary in New York City. I try to picture how grand it must have looked in 1968, on the day Patti and Robert arrived. I imagine their first encounter in the hotel lobby with Harry Smith, composer of the great Anthology of American Folk Music. Later during their stay, they would cross paths with everyone from Allen Ginsberg and Jimi Hendrix to Salvador Dalí and Grace Slick. So this is where the starving artists came to feed off of each other’s energy (they otherwise went hungry).
It’s hard to believe that this crumbling building used to be the central social hub of the New York arts scene. In Just Kids, Smith eloquently describes the Chelsea Hotel as “a dollhouse in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe.” It is the focal point of a good chunk of the memoir, a strange and eccentric planet that Smith and Mapplethorpe’s world orbited around during some of the most pivotal years of their young lives. Back in the day, the Chelsea was a like an ant farm for artists, musicians and writers; a summer camp where the generation’s most creative minds mingled, played and had nightly sleepover parties. Smith stresses the camaraderie and kinship between residents, how they each taught one and other important lessons that helped them survive in the unpredictable city. But with the hotel flanked with metal bars and laced with construction net, it is harder now to feel that powerful sense of community.
Around the Chelsea today, there’s not much: an urgent care, a gym, a deli, a bank and a handful stores. In typical New Yorker fashion, pedestrians are briskly brushing past each other as they walk by me, barely looking up. I wonder how the scene might have appeared decades ago without the blur of iPhone screens and garish ads all along the sidewalk. This block no longer seems like a destination, just another street people walk down as they move from A to B. Where is the noise, the pizzazz and the “shabby elegance” that Smith describes?
Even though I can’t enter the Chelsea to see for myself the history embedded within its walls, Smith’s visual language makes the decadence and decay of the retro hotel tangible. As I try to bring the now vacant Chelsea back to life in my mind, it seems to me that the allure of New York throughout the 60s and 70s rested in the ragtag and ragbag qualities the Hotel Chelsea embodied. New York at the time was where people came who had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The City then was messier, sleazier, wilder, and funkier. It was these features that made New York so irresistible to artists like Patti and Robert.
New York may still be polluted with the smell of sewage and the sounds of street musicians, but it has indeed lost some of its edge. In contrast to the New York Patti describes, the city I know feels tame and safe. This is not to say that the City today is entirely sterile or void of drama. It’s just that in the 70s poverty was poorer, danger was more dangerous and sex was, well, more sexy. Just Kids is the perfect snapshot of the zeitgeist of this era of grit, grime and glamour. To capture this visceral image, Smith pinpoints influential historical moments from the LSD craze to MLK’s assassination, the birth of Woodstock, the Kent State shootings, the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic and everything in between. Through each, she demonstrates how different social and political events impacted the culture of the City and the temperament of its inhabitants. She seamlessly weaves together place, people and time to evoke the mood of New York during these chaotic years.
THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE
The Patti Smith tour of New York continues. Before moving on from the Chelsea Hotel, I decide to grab a donut at Donut Plant next door—a tribute to Smith’s own favorite snack. When the cashier tells me my “house-made vanilla bean and jam” donut will be $4.00, I chuckle to myself knowing that in 1967 fifty cents bought Patti and Robert both a full breakfast with coffee, toast, jam, and eggs. One of my favorite lines in Just Kids is when Patti explains how difficult it was for her and Robert to decide how to spend what little money they had, “a toss-up between grilled cheese sandwiches and art supplies. Sometimes, unable to distinguish between the greater hunger.” If that doesn’t capture the essence of the starving artist, I don’t know what does.
I’m walking downtown now to explore what Smith refers to in Just Kids as “the Bermuda Triangle”: Max’s Kansas City, Brownie’s and the Factory. Max’s was a bar and lounge, Brownie’s a health food restaurant, and the Factory was Andy Warhol’s studio where he worked by day and partied by night. As I walk between these three hangouts, I pass my doctor’s office on East 21st between Broadway and Park Ave and my good friend’s apartment building, conveniently located across the street from Max’s old corner on 18th and Park. I’ve never really thought of this area of New York as being all that thrilling before. Maybe it’s because where Max’s once stood, there is now a just CVS below high-rise condos.
Back in the day though, Max’s was the place to see and be seen. That Andy Warhol and his inner circle once spent their nights where I’m standing feels pretty amazing. Frequenting Max’s was a right of passage for anyone who wanted to be anyone at the time. Patti and Robert first came to Max’s as nobodies. They barely had enough money to eat there, but nonetheless they dressed up every night to mix with New York’s subterranean kings and queens—drag queens absolutely included. It was young Robert Mapplethorpe’s dream to make his way to the round table in the back of the lounge. By association with Max’s past royalty, aspiring artists like Mapplethorpe (aspiring at the time, at least) hoped to snag their claim to fame. As Smith says, “The back room was the haven for those desiring the keys to Andy’s second silver kingdom.” Their routine trips to Max’s were an important part of Robert’s social ascent.
FROM GUTTER TO GLAMOUR
After a long day on my feet, I’m ready to get on the subway and go home. Before going underground I pass 33 Union Square, the building that Warhol’s Factory was located in for a period in the 70s. It has now been replaced by a fancy restaurant, and there is a Puma store and a McDonald’s next door—not really the hip radical scene one would imagine from reading Just Kids.
The subway station at Union Square is packed as usual, but I don’t mind. I’ve always felt that the subway is an ecosystem of its own, the action below the action. In the tunnels you can observe the creatures of New York doing any number of things, or simply get lost in your own thoughts. On the platform I find myself daydreaming about Patti and Robert's antics, and have to run through the doors to catch the train.
The train jerks forward and I’m on my way back to the Upper West Side. Even with all the construction going on right now the subway is fast; it has to be to match the pace of the city. In New York, you can get anywhere in no time. On her first trip to Coney Island, Smith commented, “just the idea that you could go to the ocean via subway was so magical.” The mobility of the City is both material and abstract, physical and social. You can go from Brooklyn to the Bronx in the blink of an eye, and just as easily you can be down-and-out one day and on top of the world the next.
The perpetual motion of New York is what makes it so full of possibility and opportunity. New York is the ideal place to fulfill one’s dreams, and Just Kids is a glimpse into the minds of two of downtown Manhattan’s greatest dreamers. The memoir is a prelude to Patti and Robert’s fame, the tale of how two kids made their way from the bottom to the top of the social ladder. They started sleeping on the streets ended up respectively in the most esteemed museums and galleries around the world and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not to mention, Smith won the National Book Award for Just Kids. And, despite the overindulgent name drops, I understand why. Just Kids gave me nostalgia for a time before I was even born.
Maybe I'm just a romantic, but I still believe in Patti Smith’s New York. To this day New York is an electric city, charged by its creative history and cultural legacy. The City may be safer and cleaner, but it is nonetheless full of stimulation and restlessness. There are so many things to do and so many people to encounter that you never know where the day is going to take you. It’s a chaotic mix of hope and despair, of highs and lows. It’s a diverse landscape where you can simultaneously walk among the elite and successful and the destitute and depraved. The dapper businessman rides the same subway to work in the morning that the homeless man slept in the night before. As Smith and Mapplethorpe's story exhibits so well, New York is the city where beauty can be born out of filth, where dreams can become reality.