A filmmaker is on a quest to unearth the history of Ludlow Street with an upcoming documentary series titled High on Ludlow Street. What follows is an interview with Charles Libin, who talks about the so-called “Ludlow’s Gift,” memories on the block, the challenges of making the film, and the current state of his beloved street. Readers are encouraged to submit stories of their experiences.
Bowery Boogie: What inspired you to tackle the dynamic story of Ludlow Street?
Charles Libin: When COVID hit and we had a months-long lockdown in New York, our film community hunkered down and stayed home. I’m a cinematographer, and for the first time, I wasn’t prepping a job, shooting a job, or enduring the anguish of knowing when the next job was coming. With my friends going through the same thing, we shared a melancholic comfort. The empty streets evoked memories of my youth in the 1970s; I grew up on West 100th Street.
At the start of the lockdown, I switched to scanning negatives and slides of old photographs. It got me thinking about those days – my children are now the age I was when I lived on Ludlow Street. I lived on the top floor of 176 Ludlow from 1980 to 1990. After a terrible fire in the building, I renovated the apartment next door. (Behind on rent, I often did renovations for my landlords Mark and Elliot.) A mysterious and attractive woman moved into this adjacent apartment in 1985. We met the day of Hurricane Gloria, we fell in love, combined our apartments, ran away, and our son was born in 1989.
It’s funny to think back, that if not for that fire, I never would have met my wife.
There is a strong love and pride shared by those who live or have lived on the LES. Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, Dominicans, Chinese, so many ethnicities call it home – that’s what makes it special. Much of the neighborhood and family vibe is gone, but still exists in the pockets if you look closely.
I then began researching the history of Ludlow Street, connecting with old friends and interviewing those I knew first. Our discussions ended with their suggestion “Hey – you should talk to such and such…” Before I knew it, I was in contact with Dominican families in the Bodega I frequented, musicians rehearsing in the sub- floors, former gang members, drug dealers, artists, shopkeepers, even families who lived in my apartment building in the 1960s.
When I first landed in Ludlow in 1980 there was only one place to eat on the street – The Sombrero (The hat) – that was it. Musician Zeena Parkins shared: “When I first moved to Ludlow it was dark at night and there was nothing open, there were no bars. The only business was basically drug business, drug lines and transactions. It was dark and it was scary. I remember many night taxi drivers didn’t get off at Ludlow, they dropped me off at Katz. I’d have a few bags on my shoulders and my minstrel’s harp, and basically run from Katz’s to my door.
Ulli Rimkus, co-founder of the COLAB Artist collective, opened max fish in the front of my building in 1989. She brought a nice atmosphere to the block. Max Fish was an oasis, with his ragtag tribe of misfits; Alleged gallery was opened by Aaron Rose who had worked at Ricky’s on 1st Avenue; Shakespeare in the parking lot descending on Ludlow and Broome was a journey.
Carlo McCormick said it best: “Ludlow Street was just another Lower East Side gutter of low-rise dreams that just happened to have a phenomenal demographic of artists, musicians, filmmakers, of designers, writers and hoodlums.”
BB: What initially attracted you to the Lower East Side and what pushed you out?
CL: I was living in a loft on Broadway and I was tired of sharing with others. I decided that I wanted to live alone wherever it took me. I heard of these two landlords on Ludlow (Mark and Elliot) who had cheap apartments, no questions asked. Back then, there was no credit check, just a handshake, a month’s rent, and a deposit. I loved it, the salsa on the radio, the domino games in the street. I interviewed filmmaker Jeff Priess who expressed it perfectly: “The whole Dominican scene was wonderful. It was the heavenly aspect. Each family just had their door open, children were running around and cooking. It was super charming. And then there was the drug thing which was super dark.
It was around the birth of our son in 1989 that the situation worsened. There had been shootings; a gang was trying to grab the dealers a few doors down and there were a few attempted hits at the drive-thru. I’ve seen adorable kids become gangbangers. Crack hit and the streets went crazy. A friend in our building quickly got hooked and it was difficult to witness her descent. “Operation Pressure Point” was a revolving door circus with dealers bailed out by their bosses and back on the streets days later. Many parents have died of AIDS, overdosed or been incarcerated. Most children growing up were raised by grandparents. Our landlords made a deal with us and we moved to Brooklyn.
BB: Crazy but true stories to share?
We have discovered an anonymous letter written in 1900 to the Eldridge Street Precinct complaining of “a saloon at 138 Ludlow Street which is a meeting place for gamblers, crooks and disorderly women who lure men and rob them. A few days ago I walked into this place, was lured upstairs and had $12 stolen from me. In 1983, Mary Adams opened her first boutique The Dress with Amy Downs in this storefront. Funny, Mary, Amy, and many women in the neighborhood, including artist Ellen Berkenblit, sewed their fashion designs on old Singer machines in the same apartments that sweatshops used to make clothes for generations earlier.
I interviewed Myk Jay, a former member of the Broome Street Boys gang, who described his “hangout” 75 years old later: “The building at 95 Ludlow had a basement, quite a large basement, and we turned it into a clubhouse. When we were paying the owner about $100 a month, we would give him what was called a “goodie bag”, a few joints, some pills, maybe a bag of dope or coke. We had it hooked up there with a fridge, stove, bathroom, you know, we had everything we needed. I was nine and the guys I hung out with were 16, 17, 20.
Incidentally, Myk later became close to a financial company with offices in WTC Tower 2. He missed his train and arrived downtown on September 11 to see the two towers rammed. Many of his colleagues perished.
BB: What challenges did you encounter when setting up this project?
The main challenge is to reach the former tenants who would now be between 75 and 90 years old. We’ve found a few, but we’re looking for more. We have an amazing team of research sleuths who sift through census records and old news clippings. The stories will be told with the words of those who were there or those of the descendants who tell the family traditions. I’m not going to have “talking heads” in the Ken Burns tradition.
The gift of Ludlow Street is the wealth of creative people who have lived there. They provide a Pandora’s box of photography, SX-70, Super-8, 16mm, video, family snapshots, artwork depicting themselves, friends and Ludlow characters, and scene footage from Street. We will also build a scale model of several Ludlow blocks.