Steven Heller | Essays

The Fountain of East Village Youth and Birthplace of the Egg Cream Is Gone

Carl T. Gossett/The New York Times

It is well known that, contrary to the name, there is neither egg nor cream in an egg cream. The addictive carbonated, sweet chocolate soda fountain beverage, with its lip tickling froth, was doubtless better without the inclusion of a raw egg anyway. Some say that egg and cream were, in fact, original ingredients. Others disagree, but once adopted by the mom and pop candy stores and soda fountains in the poorer parts of the Bronx, like Sheridan Avenue near the Grand Concourse, where my grandparents lived, an egg cream was basically a squirt of chocolate syrup, a shot of cold milk and a spray of chilled seltzer (two cents plain). A better drink for the money was not to be found.

As a kid knowing I would be treated to an egg cream while waiting for a carton of hand-scooped coffee ice cream was all the encouragement I needed to trek all the way up to the Bronx on every third Sunday to visit my grandparents — for that, and because on their fiftieth wedding anniversary the family chipped in to buy them a color TV on which we’d all watch “Bonanza.”

However, as delicious as this particular Bronx egg cream was, it could never in a million light years beat the truly best egg cream in New York City’s five boroughs — yes, including Brooklyn — which was stirred to perfection by the counterman at Gem’s Spa (later known as Gem Spa), a narrow corner candy store and soda fountain — the crème de la crème, as it were, of soda joints on the Lower East Side (or what my generation renamed The East Village).

By chance I passed by old Gem Spa a few weeks before the Covid-19 detention began, thinking to myself, “if it weren’t for my lactose intolerance, I should have one for the road.” I was late for dinner at a swank restaurant, so I decided to wait until my next trip to the neighborhood. Never put off for tomorrow, etc...

Four months later, a friend in London sent me a Daily Mail online link informing me that the economic fallout of Covid-19 and trebling of rent had ended Gem Spa’s 80 year reign as an East Village icon.

“For decades starting in the 1950s, the East Village was the stomping ground for writers, artists, musicians, poets, hippies, and punks. One of its epicenters was Gem Spa on the corner of St. Marks Place and Second Ave,” stated the Daily Mail, and along with many of the freaks who frequented the Electric Circus, Fillmore East, Anderson Theater, Orpheum (which is still there), and later CBGBs (a few blocks southwest), I was one of the stompers. Sometimes just hanging around waiting for friends; other times slurping a soda until the doors opened at the rock music ballrooms. Usually I just walked by after the weekly two-day paste-up marathon at the East Village Other, which was two blocks down the avenue on the second floor of the Fillmore building. Oh yeah, Gem’s Spa even sold a couple of copies of my first DIY magazine, Borrowed Time.

While recently lamenting the inevitability of my seventieth birthday in three weeks from now, and reading about the sad demise of yet another lost landmark of my youth, I noticed one of the photographs in the Daily Mail story featured a group of familiar hangers-on. In fact, photographed during one of those aprés mise-en-page walks on my way home to nearby Stuy Town. The online pic was coincidentally snapped by NY Times photog Carl T. Gossett just seconds before I came into the frame. I had accidently found the following (or preceding) shot on the roll in the Times photo files fifteen years earlier. I am the one with the black hair and dark peacoat. My slice of history preserved.

But let’s return to my paean. Gem’s Spa had been the lynchpin of St. Marks / East Village, the former Yiddish Theater district and Polish / Ukrainian neighborhood comprised of railroad flat tenements, that in the late 50s was on the periphery of the Beat part of town and in the early 60s became the capitol of Pop Art and other avant garde manifestations, including the La Mama theater and Claes Oldenburg’s “The Store” on East 2nd Street. “Allen Ginsberg incorporated Gem Spa into his work,” states the Daily Mail, “Lou Reed intoned a song about its egg cream and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat immortalized the shop in a piece of art. The New York Dolls famously used an image of the store on the back of an album cover; Patti Smith went there with Robert Mapplethorpe.” Milton Glaser and Leo Lionni lived on St. Marks Place, just yards across second avenue from Gem’s Spa and lord knows who and how many other sixties culture heroes, anti-heroes, and “slum goddesses” drank from this soda fountain of youth.

Untitled (Gem Spa) by Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982

When I read about the end (only weeks after National Egg Cream Day), I bought some chocolate syrup, almond milk and club soda, mixed them together hoping to bring my egg cream taste buds back to life. No luck! Gem’s Spa made the best. Why? Maybe it was the syrup (Gem’s Spa had its own secret recipe while most fountains in NYC use Fox’s U-Bet). Maybe it was the water. It was called Gem SPA after all and was to egg cream what Sant' Eustachio Il Caffè in Rome is to coffee — all about the water. Or maybe because many of the customers were perpetually high — and anything sweet tasted even sweeter. What’s more it made the defining claim on its awning, and whose to argue with an awning.

Whatever the secret sauce (and I know for certain it was not an egg), Gem’s Spa was the neighborhood’s gem the like of which we won’t see again — not unless it becomes a subsidiary of some multinational corn starch conglomerate. As Lou Reed wrote: ‘You stir it up into a heady fro, tasted just like silk. You scream, I steam, we all want egg cream’

Posted in: Artifact, Arts + Culture

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