Leonard Abrams, 68, Chronicler of 1980s East Village Art Boom, Dies

Leonard Abrams, the founder of the East Village Eye, a community newspaper dripping with attitude that captured in newsprint the do-it-yourself post-punk ethos that ignited the explosion of groundbreaking art, music and fashion in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s, died on March 31 in New Jersey. He was 68.

The cause was a heart attack at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike on his way home from a business trip, said Arthur Fournier, a close friend and longtime colleague.

The Eye, a monthly publication that Mr. Abrams published and edited from 1979 to 1987,scarcely made a dent above 14th Street in Manhattan — to many the traditional dividing line of “downtown.” But to those who lived a short stroll from Tompkins Square Park, it functioned as a house organ for the graffiti artists, New Wave (and No Wave) bands and maverick fashion designers who came together in the 1980s to create one of New York’s storied cultural flowerings.

“There were performances, there was art, there was rock ‘n’ roll, and people were just showing up and meeting each other,” Mr. Abrams recalled in a 2005 interview with the website Gothamist. “These people who would work together, party together, have sex or maybe be at each other’s throats were all just getting together and forming the East Village scene.”

In an era of affordable railroad apartments and storefront gallery spaces, the Eye chronicled the doings and musings of era-defining stars like Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger, musicians like Iggy Pop and the Beastie Boys, and fashion designers like Patricia Field and Betsey Johnson. The punk savant Richard Hell cataloged his thoughts on music and bohemian culture in a column called “Slum Journal.” Glenn O’Brien, a former editor of Interview magazine, opined on the New York sports landscape.

Despite its downtown focus, the Eye also cast a glance uptown and beyond to chronicle the world of hip-hop as it hurtled toward the mainstream. It ran early feature articles about Afrika Bambaataa, Run-DMC and the graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy.

Indeed, Mr. Abrams and others associated with the Eye long claimed that it was the first publication to print a comprehensive definition of hip-hop, with a parenthetical in a January 1982 interview with Mr. Bambaataa by the writer Michael Holman that summarized the term as “the all-inclusive tag for the rapping, breaking, graffiti-writing, crew-fashion-wearing street subculture.”

In 1987, Mr. Abrams emerged from his editor’s desk to oversee an influential regular hip-hop party on the Lower East Side called Hotel Amazon, featuring performances by up-and-coming acts like De La Soul, Queen Latifah and A Tribe Called Quest, as well as more established acts like Public Enemy.

“Dude did a lot to make NYC move and think,” Chuck D, the frontman of Public Enemy, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. In 2008, Chuck D narrated “Quilimbo Country,” a documentary written and directed by Mr. Abrams about the continuing struggles of villages in Brazil that had been founded by fugitive slaves.

The Eye, which lured a national and even international readership, functioned to both feed and deflate the swelling mythology surrounding the scene. “If all the hype and nonsense theories I’ve heard about the East Village were one big throat,” the celebrated artist (and occasional Eye contributor) David Wojnarowicz said in a 1984 interview with the newspaper, “I’d volunteer to strangle it.”

The first issue of the East Village Eye, published in the spring of 1979, featured the musician James White on the front page.Credit…via Gallery 98

Mr. Abrams was born on Dec. 19, 1954, in Brooklyn, the youngest of four children of Nathan Abrams, a furrier who later became a securities trader, and Adèle (Fleischman) Abrams, a bank executive.

In 1976, after studying literature at Fordham University, Mr. Abrams got a job as a bicycle messenger and moved to the East Village, a gritty neighborhood still filled with bargain apartments. “It took me two days a month — as a bicycle messenger — to pay my share of the rent on my apartment,” he said in a recent interview on the podcast “FAQ NYC.”

He moved to Colorado for a while, but he returned to New York on New Year’s Day 1979 and discovered a creative outpouring that seemed to beg for its own publication. Before long, the Eye was chronicling the misfits and geniuses — often one and the same — who were making the neighborhood a creative cauldron.

“In the Eye, you could read about iconoclastic performers like Diamanda Galás or Kembra Pfahler, funky boutiques like Manic Panic and Patricia Field, or quirky clubs and spaces like King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut and 8 BC,” Michael Musto, the longtime Village Voice columnist and downtown fixture, recalled in an email.

But Mr. Abrams was no cheerleader. Under his watch, the Eye chronicled the ravages of crack cocaine, the devastation of AIDS and the rising tide of gentrification, all of which would ultimately help splinter the scene.

The Eye peaked in influence in the early 1980s, Mr. Musto said, filling a relative gap between the ’70s heyday of the Soho Weekly News, which shuttered in 1982, and the rise of the original Details magazine, which started that same year and covered the same general turf, but with a glossier approach.

Within five years, however, Mr. Abrams had folded the paper, wearied by the grind, the soaring real estate values that were pushing out the hungry young artists, and the lack of revenue for the paper, which even in good times only had enough money to pay a few staff members, Mr. Fournier said.

Mr. Abrams is survived by his brother, Lawrence; his sisters, Debbie King and Bethany Haye; and his partner, Angela Sloan.

Following the demise of the Eye, Mr. Abrams poured his energies into his club, his documentary and, in later years, a business importing religious products from Mexico. For decades, the legacy of the Eye was largely kept alive in the yellowing copies that Mr. Abrams kept in a storage locker in Queens. That changed in November, when the New York Public Library added those 72 issues to its archive, the culmination of a long campaign by Mr. Abrams and Mr. Fournier.

In an article in The New Yorker in February about the library’s acquisition, Mr. Abrams, unassuming in most circumstances, allowed himself a rare moment of self-approbation.

“I had a nose for news,” he said, “and the news I had a nose for was 10 years ahead.”

Related Articles

Back to top button