French writer and historian Chantal Thomas moved to New York at the age of 30 in 1976. She lived in the East Village, a bohemian, immigrant neighborhood where everyone wanted to be a poet, and discovered what it truly meant to be free. She recounts this defining experience in East Village Blues.
France-Amérique: What do you remember most about New York when you moved there in 1976?
Chantal Thomas: The thing that struck me most when I arrived was Washington Square Park. It was one of the first places I discovered and I was spellbound. There was a palpable freedom, music, drugs, alcohol, a multitude of orators, poets reading, shouting, or intoning their texts in the spirit of Allen Ginsberg reciting Howl on a summer’s day in 1966. All around me there were young people dancing or writing with typewriters on their knees. Life was just a little wild, risky, filled with emotions, everyone looking for the unexpected. The intensity naturally grew when night fell — as did the danger. I had lived in Paris in an attic room on the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg every day. It was probably the contrast with the French gardens, the signs telling visitors to keep off the grass, and the closing times that made me even more sensitive to the open, chaotic, rebellious aspect of Washington Square Park in 1976. Of course, today almost everything is forbidden. I then made my way east and found Tompkins Square Park, where wandering around was not an option… I had a feeling of understanding and complicity with the particular energy of New York and all the marginalities of existence that it allowed. This period sparked a desire for writing, encounters, and parties that I already had within me, but which found a way to come true.
What was the biggest difference with Paris at the time?
The contrast was violent, as Paris at the time — as it is today — was a capital that continued to draw in tourists, whereas New York was not on the vacation circuit. In fact, there were hardly any postcards sold in the city. I had spent several years following the teachings of Roland Barthes, I had a passion for the sophistications of the French language, and I took great pleasure in mastering them. It was overwhelming to find myself immersed in a language I did not understand and that I was unable to speak correctly. I think that is also why my first experiences in New York have remained etched into my memory. Like a coming-of-age novel written at breakneck speed.
While your book is not nostalgic, you describe a neighborhood that has profoundly changed. Has the East Village lost its soul?
Yes, the East Village has lost its soul, even though I still find it to be charming. That is why I wanted to write East Village Blues, and why my text is paired with Allen S. Weiss’s photos of graffiti on walls of buildings set to be renovated or demolished, taken between 2015 and 2017. This artwork is a cry for help, a shout before the disappearance of a neighborhood and the fragile, adventurous way of living that went with it.
East Village Blues, by Chantal Thomas, Le Seuil, 2019. 208 pages, 21 euros.
Article published in the December 2019 issue of France-Amérique