In the 1960s, New York’s East Village was a hodgepodge of Lower East Side multi-ethnicity—Ukrainians, Poles, Puerto Ricans, Jews—and a burgeoning Bohemia of coffeehouses, experimental theatre and artists. Poverty and rampant drug action formed the backdrop. “The neighborhood had a beat to it that went on 24 hours,” says Charles Biada, then a young police officer at the nearby Ninth Precinct. “Somehow everyone seemed to interrelate.”
Then night fell, and the unlit streets vibrated with danger. Dealers skulked in doorways; muggings were common. But that didn’t stop musicians and their fans from trekking into scary Alphabet City, east of First Avenue, to visit a club that lured the bravest renegades in jazz. Taxi drivers avoided the area, and the nearest subway stop was blocks away; those who lacked a car walked briskly. Along the way they passed squalid tenements, a men’s homeless shelter and the clubhouse of the Hells Angels, with a row of Harley-Davidsons outside.