Amidst the luxury boutique shopping up and down the landmarked Ladies Mile Historic District on Fifth Avenue, the frenzied haggling over at the Chelsea Flea Market on West 25th Street and the foaming-at-the-mouth gallery-goers headed west for a Sunday spent gaping at the newest, most sensationalist life-portraiture by some unknown schmo in LIC, you’d never guess that the forty or so blocks between 26th Street, 14th Street, Eighth Avenue and Union Square were a hotbed of Communist activity! Who would’ve thought that Gay Chelsea, Art Chelsea, Fabulous Chelsea, Big Box Store Chelsea is all sitting on land formerly and currently occupied by those Red Menaces? Not this intrepid, God-fearing American. So it was with a mixture of awe, wonder, trepidation and downright New York skepticism that we took a ninety-minute walking tour of Communist Chelsea this past weekend.
The tour was sponsored by the Common-Room Art Gallery in the Lower Lower East Side (Grand and East Broadway). Our guide was a smart, sharp young Russian photographer, Yevgeniy Fiks, and we were strolling the streets to admire buildings Mr. Fiks has photographed (on view at Common Room through this Friday). We started at 235 West 23rd Street, immediately across from the Chelsea Hotel. This unassuming, staid structure just so happens to be the headquarters of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). Although they’ve only been in this building since the 1970s, CPUSA owns the whole building, as well as the Utrecht Art Shop on the ground floor (though the materials are not cheap). Although they used to occupy the entire building, they’ve been downsized since the 70s and now operate on only three floors. There are forty full-timers in the office, and in fine Marxist-Leninist stance, all the employees receive the same salary.
The history of Communism in NYC is rooted in the immigrant poor, who very much wanted to rise above their station, along with all the rest of their destitute brethren. They had also come from the collective shtetls and ghettos (the original) in the old worlds of Poland, Russia, Lithuania and the Baltic States, to mention only a few. For these people to come to America and witness the discrepancy of Haves and Have-Nots? CPUSA hardly had to advertise for volunteers.
Right across from 235 West 23rd is the famous Hotel Chelsea — one-time home to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, Thomas Wolfe, Bob Dylan, Eugene O’Neil, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and, let’s not forget, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Miss Flynn was a radical labor leader who was the first female chairwoman of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) between 1961 and1964, as well as a founding member of the ACLU in 1920. She lived in the Hotel Chelsea for a short period in the late 30s while writing a column for the CPUSA journal The Daily Worker.
Among the other points of interest the heavily-accented Mr. Fiks pointed out to the fifteen interested individuals on tour (some of whom, we thought, seemed to know a little too much about the inner machinations of the CPUSA. . .) was 23 West 26th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the former HQ of CPUSA during the 50s and 60s, which meant this was the hotbed of activity during the McCarthy witch hunts, the ascent of the Soviet Bloc (particularly Hungary and Czechoslovakia), as well as the civil rights movements of the 60s — all making this the go-to spot for young revolutionaries. Now the building is privately owned. We also scoped out 200 Fifth Avenue, home of the League of Women Shoppers, an innocuously named group that acted as a front for the CPUSA in the 40s. In reality, the League investigated unsafe working conditions for women, and organized consumers to support unions and their rights as human beings. 225 Fifth Avenue was home to the publisher B. W. Huebsch, who produced Marxist lit in the 10s and 20s. The magnificent building nearby on the corner of Fifth and 14th was the operating base for the Young Pioneers of America, a group that recognized the importance of educating immigrant youth in Communist dialectics, — as well as American history and the all-important English language.
Last stop on the tour was the ever-important Union Square Park — home to beatboxers, breakdancers, portraitists and some of the most important union rallies this city has ever seen. Union Square hosted annual May Day Rallies for dozens of years, from the late 1800s up to WWII,. The largest and most tumultuous was in 1930, when 30,000 protestors were broken up by 300 cops when the rallying troops wanted to march down to City Hall. To think: this bucolic, peaceful urban center was the site of mass protests and head-crunching cops. Come to think of it, it still is — been to any Critical Mass rides lately?
(originally published on 3/4/8 on www.thelmagazine.com)