Once There Was a Village by Yuri Kapralov

oncetherewasavillage-508x800Yuri’s neighbor, Jimmy, had a small part in the movie Superfly as a junkie (in his own apartment, because part of the movie was filmed at their East 11th street building.) The piano sculpture on the wall is one of many that the author created, using the constant flow of junk from the constantly emptying apartments.  Today the author, and the neighborhood’s Slavic community, are mostly forgotten. This book is pretty much forgotten too, and I’m not even sure how I heard of it. It was written in 1974, reissued only once back in 1998, and my research shows that Kapralov died in 2005, a lifelong hard drinker. A true “starving artist,” he made his living tending bar and doing odd jobs. Well-known only in local circles, he had several marriages, a daughter who was murdered in San Francisco in the 1980’s, and wrote some forgotten novels and story collections. Other than that, not much remains.

Now, a little about the book. Kapralov writes about all the poor, disgusting, and hopeless people that lived in the East Village of New York City from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. He captures the dirty, greasy, and grimy essence of the area which seems to change in stages. First comes the period up into the 1960’s, when the area was working class, and a multiracial one at that, lots of Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Eastern Europeans, and poor Jews. Next comes the mid 1960’s, when the hippies, whom he disliked immensely, descended on the area, along with heroin. Finally comes the 1970’s, when the building were abandoned and burned, the junkies had died, and just about everyone and everything else had died too.

As for Yuri Kapralov, he was born in Russian Carpathia in the 1930’s, survived WWII, came to the USA as a “displaced person” in 1949, wandered the Northeast, ended up in the East Village in the 1950’s. The area had a large population of Slavs who came here after the war, and most of them had surrendered to the Americans to avoid being persecuted by the Soviets. They stayed in Manhattan until the late 60’s, by which time most of them went to Greenpoint, in Brooklyn, or to New Jersey. The book describes most of the neighborhood’s Slavic residents as being desperately poor, and the only ones who stayed were the ones who couldn’t escape no matter what. At least they had their own church, school, mutual support network, but Kapralov’s writing doesn’t make anything positive. The Poles and Ukrainians are all old, tired, sorry, defeated, and depleted. They drink too much, and while they don’t get into fights, their kids end up leaving or ending up on heroin.

The author seems to accept the dirty aspects of the neighborhood, the junkies, the trash, and the crime. He disliked the hippies immensely, however, even more than the junkies, because he thought they were exploiting a poor enclave when they had the money to do better. As for the trash, he relishes it, because he got to make sculptures out of the old pianos that were thrown out. But he writes heavily on the summer riots, despising both the bottle throwing kids and the police, whom he considers bullies and cowards. “The garbage man can’t refuse to enter a bad neighborhood, nor can the fireman refuse to enter the burning building” he writes, “yet the police will call for backup rather than charge into danger.” You might say that these are all symptoms of the neighborhood’s hopelessness, where everyone involved is guilty in some way.

I would not absolve Kapralov of wrongdoing, however, because he did manage to waste his money on alcohol, and he could’ve moved away if he’d tried. Maybe he liked having the freedom to lose? I doubt he made enough money to support his kids, and seeing as how this book is mostly forgotten, it wasn’t like his accomplishments had a lasting impact. I will, however, give merit to this book, because it tells me a lot about the East Village that I wasn’t aware of before. It dwells heavily on the history of the Slavic residents, few traces of them remaining other than a Ukrainian museum, a few Ukrainian restaurants, and a curio shop on 14th street which has since closed.