Leonard Abrams Credit: screengrab, from Zoom for podcast

For about a decade from 1979 to 1987, Leonard Abrams was the editor, publisher and driving force behind the East Village Eye, a spectacular magazine that published 72 issues from an incredible array of contributors about arts, culture and politics that were firmly rooted in the neighborhood scene, and that paid serious attention to both punk and hip-hop when such attention was scarce. 

Later, he opened Hotel Amazon, a space in a former school on the Lower East Side that held parties featuring the likes of Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and De La Soul.

For much of the past decade, Abrams had worked to find a home for the magazine he’d started at the age of 24 — even as copies of its “disposable art” often sold for well upwards of $100 online. Earlier this week, as he’d celebrating the news that the New York Public Library would host the archives, Abrams unexpectedly died, as reported by EV Grieve.

As Abrams described the origins of his magazine to THE CITY’s Katie Honan and Harry Siegel on the FAQ NYC podcast in February: 

I first moved to the East Village in 1976. I was a bicycle messenger, hung out with a lot of bicycle messengers. It was the tail end of the hippie scene. There were bands starting to play and CBGB — I saw Television: ‘Oh, that’s a good band.’ I said to myself, ‘Hey, that’s punk rock.’ I hadn’t heard the term, but it’s what it was. But then I moved out West for a little while. When I came back, it was ‘78, in Brooklyn. I moved right to the Lower East Side, right on New Year’s Day, 1979. 

Now, a scene is really great if you’re doing a publication, a periodical, like I was doing — pop culture, avant pop, kind of underground stuff —a scene is great. You want a scene, you want movement. Because you want people to be excited about something. And it was exciting, and I was excited. So that was it. I knew that was going to work.

A centerfold from the East Village Eye Credit: c/o the East Village Eye. Portraits by Johnny Halley

Then, Abrams discussed the scene that drew him in and that his magazine drew others toward:

A lot of people doing a lot of things, new things, exciting things. The hippie times in the East Village and all around the US were very exciting, too. A lot of rebellion. There was the war, the Vietnam War, and people were up in arms and people were dropping out of that society they didn’t believe in because of the war, also, because of the bulge of Baby Boomers. A critical mass of kids were all up in arms. That was great. 

That kind of petered out when the war wound down. The scene in the East Village got harder with drugs, there was crime, there was murder. And a lot of people then were like, ‘back to the country.’ That was a whole scene, that was a thing that was going on. So it got very quiet in the East Village. 

And then came all this new stuff and these people who were fed up with the nothingness that they were experiencing. And then of course, the whole thing about — the vacancy rate was so high, all these people leaving the city, not just the hippies of course but the middle class and the white middle class particularly. They built Co-Op city that ruined the Bronx and sucked up all the middle-class people and the rest went to hell, and a lot of the abandonment in the Lower East Side, too. 

But if you were a writer or an artist or a musician and you couldn’t, you didn’t want to worry a lot about rent, you moved to the East Village, the Lower East Side. It took me two days a month — as a bicycle messenger! — to pay my share of the rent on my apartment. So you can see we had plenty of time to ourselves and that’s what creative people need. It was like, boom, all this just started happening. Very exciting…

You had a lot of people in the middle class of America, in the greatest sense — a lot of people who were contemplating, ‘what’s my life, what’s my existence about?’ Now, they say people are re-evaluating because of the recent plague, the recent COVID. But anyway, this careerism, this enforced careerism that we’ve been experiencing in New York City and so many other places, where you have to look at survival issues all the time—it wasn’t really like that. In fact, it was kind of a release from that.…

it was just easy to survive, plain and simple. And then you go down the Lower East Side, it’s very easy to survive—except you might get killed. But probably not. So that was good enough for a lot of people who wanted to do something meaningful with their lives. And they were able to…

Now that New York City is the most expensive city on Earth — ha! — it’s insane. It’s dehumanizing. It’s a plague. It is a plague in and of itself. I mean people still get to do things. They live in very small places. They live in basements, they live in holes in the wall, they share. They still go out, they go to clubs, they do all kinds of creative things [but] there’s an overlay of tension because of survival issues. 

That’s all from the first few minutes of the conversation with Leonard. Listen to the whole thing here