Alphabet City is a neighborhood in the East Village of Manhattan. It is bounded by Houston Street to the south, 14th Street to the north, and extends roughly from Avenue A to the East River. It is the only section of the city with single letter street names. The history of this area is varied and storied, but it is mainly known for being part of many arts and activist movements. The ‘50s saw it become home to the Beatniks, the ‘60s hippies, yippies, and other countercultralists. The ‘70s transformed it with rapid gentrification, and the ‘80s and ‘90s saw a period of divestment leading to the state in which Rent finds it. Artists Walter Robinson and Carlo McCormick described the area as “a unique blend of poverty, punk rock, drugs, arson, Hell’s Angels, winos, prostitutes and dilapidated housing that adds up to an adventurous avant-garde setting of considerable cachet.”
This mix of communities, which included a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural tapestry, gave birth to artistic movements like the Neo-Expressionists, The Nuyorican Poets, and the Neo-Conceptionalists. These movements, while artistic, were fueled by personal politics and resistance to oppressive systems — especially ones which ostracized the poor, the ill, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities. Writer Naomi Tonooka describes it:
“Its politics was liberal and volatile; the neighborhood gave rise to ‘the most aggressive anti-gentrification and anti-homeless resistance, the most concentrated squatters’ movement of the period, as well as a significant part of the AIDS and ACT UP activism responsible for the most imaginative city-wide protests of the decade.’”
The neighborhood’s representation in Rent was met with mixed reviews. One journalist from the Village Voice wrote “[a]s a self-identified representative of the sort of struggling, East Village- dwelling artist the show portrays, I assure my peers and neighbors that Rent does not sell us out.” However, The New York Times reviewer said, “I live around the corner from the real thing, and what I see and hear on the streets has an edge that the earnest practitioners of Rent can’t quite summon.”
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