Howl! Festival: Looking for a Happy Fix in Tompkins Square Park

Photos: Chris O. Cook.

It’s Allen Ginsberg’s birthday weekend and today Tompkins Square Park was buzzing with art, dance, music, and, um, bouncy castles and face-painting. Yes: it’s Howl! Festival.

Howl! Festival, Bob HolmanChris O. Cook Bob Holman, a festival organizer.

Bob Perl, an organizer of the annual happening, told The Local it was created as a nod to the neighborhood’s abounding influence. “The idea was that the East Village mindset is not just tied to here,” he said. “It’s had effects in places like Kyoto. There are creatives who come out of here and they become part of the diaspora and there are some that remain here, but this is a great place for us to all gather, and an opportunity for everyone to come out at least for a few days a year to create the scene that was so potent and vital down here.”

Indeed, the festival drew many former East Villagers, including Susan Martin, who came back from her current home in New Mexico to serve as Howl!’s publicist. She was keen to emphasize that the festival raises money for Howl! H.E.L.P., created to provide emergency assistance to local artists. “Up until the time of Howl!, if you were a drag queen and you got sick, and you didn’t have health insurance, good luck,” she said.

Howl! Festival TerryChris O. Cook Terry Galmitz at work.

There were plenty of present-day East Villagers in and around the park, as well. On Avenue A, where dozens of artists were at work, Terry Galmitz, who created many of the murals that graced the bygone Mars Bar, created a black and silver panorama of Art Around the Park. In the drawing, an onlooker observed, “Yup… East Village still rocks.” Mr. Galmitz said he sold many of Ginsberg’s books when he worked at a bookstore in the ‘60s. “But I never read them,” he admitted. “I just sold them.”

No matter: the festivities went beyond the legacy of Ginsberg from a critical perspective, said Ezair Beausoleil, who has done street paintings at Howl! Festival alongside her mom every year since she was three (she’s now 19). She described Howl! as “an excuse to come be artistic, when normally you don’t have time.”

Like many festival-goers, Ms. Beausoleil hadn’t been born when “Howl” was written. Bob Holman, the owner of the Bowery Poetry Club and an organizer of the festival, said he wasn’t phased by the young crowd. “It’s noon and people are listening to poetry,” he delighted. Of Ginsberg, his onetime associate, Mr. Holman said, “He was just part of the neighborhood. I guess that’s what it is – it’s a neighborhood event. All opinions welcome.”

Howl! Festival artistEzair Beausoleil Ezair Beausoleil on Avenue A.

And there were opinions to spare. As a metallic-painted dance troupe moved languorously to a recording by Philip Glass, a man yelled out from the crowd, “This music would’ve put Ginsberg to sleep!”, apparently unaware that Ginsberg recorded an album with Mr. Glass, who still lives in the East Village. Minutes later, a man (perhaps the same one) walked off, saying to no one in particular, “Ginsberg would be embarrassed to be associated with a yuppie festival. It’s like Lawrence Welk over there!”

Mr. Perl admitted that the festival had seen some changes over the past two decades. “A lot of different attitudes have occurred. Sometimes the police were hostile, the neighborhood was much more radicalized. But now along with gentrification comes a degree of calmness and sanity and ease. And yet there’s always a few wilds, or crazies, who come to paint and make a spectacle on Avenue A.”

Maybe it was one of those crazies who stole a plastic Santa Claus from an installation on Avenue A, titled “Moloch” after Ginsberg’s famous line in “Howl.” The two-foot Santa decoration was swiped while the installation’s creator, Lauren Bailow, a 25-year-old Bushwick-based artist, was making a drink run. It was Ms. Bailow’s first showing in New York. “I even gave people candy!” she lamented.

The festival continues tomorrow. For the lineup, visit the Howl! Website. And if you stop into the park, visit The Local’s table.