There's no buzzer. You get in old-school style. A key is dropped from a window, strapped to a Nerf football. Inside the door, a sign warns: "Unauthorized visitors will be beaten to a bloody pulp!!!" Welcome to 7 1/2 Second Avenue, also known as 9 Second Avenue, also known as the other half of Germania Flats, one of the 19th-century buildings that will come down alongside Mars Bar this summer.
I have come here to visit with Frank Allen and Tina Zhang, residents of 7 1/2 and instructors at the Wu Tang Physical Culture Association, a martial arts studio on the third floor for the past 32 years. Their studio is a museum filled with artifacts, the school's books and videos, the walls covered with fight photos, statues, medals won in competition.
History breathes here. But, as Frank says to me, "Nobody cares about history anymore. They just tear it all down and put up a glass box."
Frank recalls when he first arrived here in the 1970s. After the Church of All Nations moved out, the city rushed in to smash and brick up the windows of #9, calling it "abandoned." But it wasn't abandoned. CUANDO was here. Frank and his friends went in and removed the cinder blocks from the windows. He got a sublease from CUANDO and opened Wu Tang.
"We made up the address 7 1/2 to distinguish ourselves from CUANDO at #9," Frank explains. "We were underground in those days. We'd advertise in a local tattoo society magazine and never give our address." To find Wu Tang, you had to know someone who knew someone.
Without romanticizing the past, Frank recalls a rougher East Village, a place where people electrified their security gates by zip-cording them to wall sockets and covered their window sills with broken glass and glue. A place where people had street smarts, unlike today. "No one has street smarts anymore. I'd like to write a story about a geriatric mugger squad that takes advantage of all these young kids."
They have no attention span, either, he explains, thanks to advertising and "the instant gratification society." With a lower attention span comes "the byproduct of no one having a long-range plan for cities. What helps to reprogram that thinking is to study something you can't learn quickly. Internal martial arts does that."
But the skills learned at Wu Tang cannot stop the rapid change to come.
"This is my home," says Frank. "I've spent half my life here. I'm going to miss this place terribly. It's been the most important place in my life, but the city changes. It really hit me in the face -- I've been teaching about change for 30 years. Now I've got to live it."
In two years, after the new building goes up, Frank and Tina will be able to buy an apartment here for next to nothing -- Frank says the developer has been "a decent guy" about it all -- but they don't know if the maintenance will be affordable, and they will lose their school. It's moving to 217 Centre Street at a much higher rent. And it won't be the quite same. For one, Frank won't be able to paper the new bathroom with a wild collage of ancient news clippings, photos, and jokes.
But it's the spirit of this place they will really miss. Says Tina, "This place is the heart" of their enterprise, a global school with thousands of students around the world. The students, she says, "Feel like they've lost their home, too."
It's a home filled with powerful energy. Says Tina, "The energy here has been built up positively from 32 years of Chinese martial arts. I wish when the building is gone, the energy goes down into the earth, so it's still here when we move back in."
As I leave Frank and Tina, and head back down the rickety staircase, past apartment doors with "Sheriff's Legal Possession" notices taped on them, I ask myself the question I always ask in these situations: How can this keep happening to the city? How can every shred of originality be wiped away? And I recall, amid the photos and posters on the walls of Wu Tang, a quote from Gertrude Stein:
"There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."