The SoHo Historical Society?

April 2, 2015
Loft For Sale - Copy for an advertisement, date unknown.  Sounds like a nice place.  And I think it was on West Broadway!

Loft For Sale – Copy for an advertisement, date unknown. Sounds like a nice place. And I think it was on West Broadway!

Ever wonder why SoHo doesn’t have a historical society or neighborhood association? I am forever grateful that we have the SoHo Alliance and SoHo Partnership. But I mean more like a place that preserves the cultural history of SoHo, what real loft living was like, what it was like to grow up in a loft not knowing that other children had doormen and elevators and carpeting, what it was like to raise a family while living illegally. Stuff like that.

Mike, Jane's husband, inspecting the installation of the first wall in the loft. (image: Cass Collins)

image: Cass Collins

Well, I have. I obviously think it’s an interesting story— I’ve been writing about it for the past 4+ years. And this blog will probably be around for years to come, even if I stop writing it today. But I think we need something more. Although there are archives throughout the world that collect the personal papers of significant artists and individuals who were SoHo pioneers, SoHo itself has no physical space dedicated to preserving its history as a neighborhood, nor is there any library or museum that tells its story.
sohotitleI’ve decided to do something about this lack. I will design an exhibition, for starters. This way, I’ll be able to see if others feel the same way I do. It will be an exhibition that chronicles the evolution of SoHo from rural farmland to high-end retail hub, charting its cycles of development and thus placing current day SoHo in the context of New York City’s history. I’ll focus on the 1970’s of course. The dirty golden years.

Rapkin Report: 1960's — “The South Houston Industrial Area” (also known as “The Rapkin Report”), maintained that while the number of businesses in the area had declined over the years, the old buildings still housed small industries that employed many low-income and minority workers and were also a still-viable tax revenue source for the city. (image: Thomas Struth 1978 via MOMA)

Rapkin Report: 1960’s —
“The South Houston Industrial Area” (also known as “The Rapkin Report”), maintained that while the number of businesses in the area had declined over the years, the old buildings still housed small industries that employed many low-income and minority workers and were also a still-viable tax revenue source for the city. (image: Thomas Struth 1978 via MOMA)

I am hoping that this exhibition is just the first step in finding a permanent home for The SoHo Memory Project. It will depend on how this first phase goes. I want it to be engaging to all people, to those familiar with SoHo’s history and to those who are visiting for the first time. I also want it to be a multi-media multi-sensory extravaganza, because an interesting story deserves an interesting retelling.

Map of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (image: Vanshnookenraggen/Flickr)

Map of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (image: Vanshnookenraggen/Flickr)

I think that knowing the story of our neighborhood and its significance in the larger history of New York City will enrich the experiences of SoHo residents and visitors alike and will influence how they interact with the people, streets, and idea of SoHo. People who come to SoHo these days have no idea whatsoever how SoHo became the shopping mall that it is today. If they knew, they might treat our neighborhood with a bit more respect. Is that wishful thinking?

bake sale june 1976Please stay tuned next month when I will reveal my BIG PLAN. It will be a lot of work, and will be asking you all for a little help, but I promise it will be worth it!!!

Girls and Boys on Film

February 28, 2015

I just looked over my past few posts, and boy oh boy are they serious!  So I thought today we could do something fun.  I’ve uploaded a bunch of photos of SoHo kids (and some grownups) and I thought you all could write in either:

1) identifying the people and/or  location in the photo

2) sharing what memories the photo evokes about old SoHo

These are photos that readers have sent in over the years, and they are not in any special order.  Please leave comments via the comments window at the bottom of this post, and don’t forget to include the photo number so that we know which photo you are describing.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

PS Please feel free to send me more snapshots at sohomemory@gmail.com and I will post them here!

 

1971-05-Lembeck-Crista-01-lo

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2011.01.001 gangemi, jo-pp

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2011.04.019 OHTA 2-pp

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2011.04.024 sheba 1-pp

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30801_1298256216345_1228574764_30670683_4033616_n

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20130408_115642

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Read the rest of this entry »

The SoHo Memory Project Goes on The Line

February 17, 2015

logo_theline_small-343399d9e012f9840403744ed6171138medium_ED_CH_v1.72_SOHOHISTORY_YukieOhta  Last month, I was interviewed by The Line about The SoHo Memory Project. Read the article, and check out all of the great things happening at The Line and at their loft on Greene Street, The Apartment!

The SoHo Memory Project:
A Conversation with Yukie Ohta

Back to the Future on Mercer Street

January 31, 2015
The SoHo weekly News, November 1973.  See the end of this post for highlights from this issue.

The SoHo weekly News, November 1973. See the end of this post for highlights from this issue.

So here I am one month into cataloging The SoHo Memory Archive, and I have begun with the easiest collection first—a box of The SoHo Weekly News that contains issues beginning with Volume One, Number 1, dated October 11, 1973 (the very first issue!), through the September 16, 1976 issue, with lots of gaps in between. Every issue I picked up contained something post-worthy. When I came across the November 29, 1973 issue, however, the headline seemed especially relevant to SoHo of today.

The headline reads “City Closing SoHo’s Historic Fire Station.” The brief article states that Engine Company 13 and Ladder Company 20 are moving out of the historic 155-157 Mercer Street building to a more modern building on Lafayette (where they and their Dalmatian named “20” still reside today) and that the building was to be returned to the real estate department of New York after 120 years of continuous use. The article goes on to say that the land was originally purchased in two pieces for a total of $3,900.

Drawing of the oringinal Firemen's Hall (source: MCNY via NYT)

Drawing of the original Firemen’s Hall (source: MCNY via NYT)

Firemen’s Hall, as the building was originally called, is an 1855 building that has been stripped over the years of most of its features and details.  In the early 19th century, fire fighting was done by an assortment of rival volunteer groups with no centralized director.  This hall was built as a headquarters for two of these groups—a move toward cooperation amongst competitors.  The upper floors housed a library, meeting room and reading room.  In 1865 the volunteer system was replaced by a professional fire department and in 1885 a new headquarters was built on 67 Street, leaving Firemen’s Hall to become a regular firehouse. Read the rest of this entry »

Another year older…

January 1, 2015
IMG_5370

A “Keep SoHo Low” t-shirt from the SoHo Alliance

And am I any wiser? Yes, in fact I think I am. I have gathered quite a bit of wisdom after writing this blog for four years. I’ve done oodles of research along the way, as well as much reading, writing, lecturing, and chatting with old timers, and in the process I found that I now belong to a coterie of like-minded historians and memory keepers who realize the importance of preserving the past to inform the future—all you guys. So what’s ahead for year five of The SoHo Memory Project? In 2015, I put my money where my mouth is (though there will actually be no currency exchanged) and go beyond the parameters of this blog to create the SoHo Memory Archive that I’ve been writing about this past year (see my post Archivism as Activism).

SoHo Festival Flyer - to recruit SoHo artists to participate in the May 1970 (? or thereabouts) festival

SoHo Festival Flyer – to recruit SoHo artists to participate in the May 1970 (? or thereabouts) festival

In 2014, I reached out to my coterie with amazing results. Those who were there at the ground zero of SoHo, who wisely saved their files, reports, jottings, clippings, photos, and even t-shirts knowing somehow that these were the records of a significant moment in time that was much larger than themselves yet in which they played an integral part, have entrusted me to assemble these parts into a coherent whole.

The SoHo Memory Archive is a collection of materials relating to development and preservation in SoHo from the 1960s through the 1980s and the present.  I will spend the next year cataloging this collection of “evidence,” and I hope, by the following year, the collection will be usable to anyone who wants to learn from our collective past. Throughout this process, I will share items of significance that I come across.

I have barely just begun sifting through this treasure trove. These are only a few of what looks like thousands of items that are awaiting processing and archiving (click on links to view documents):

A 1972 letter from Ivan Karp to August Heckscher, Administrator of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs regarding the possible renaming of the portion of West Broadway that runs through SoHo. (Read my post “Meet Me on the Corner of Pollock and De Kooning” about renaming West Broadway “Jackson Pollock Way”)

A 1971 agenda for the Greenwich Village Charrette on June 4-6, 1971 to discuss the formation of an alternative public school on Hudson Street that became P.S.3. (Read my post “The Teachers Were Nice, They Checked Us For Lice (But Mostly They Gave Us Very Good Advice)”about P.S.3.

A 1969 statement by Ernesto Martinez of the Board of Estimate on behalf of the Committee To Kill the Expressway (not to be confused with the group Artists Against the expressway) describing the motivations of the powerful minority that is in favor of the project.  (Read my post “The Master Builder” about the Lower Manhattan Expressway.)

So, if this is the kind of intrigue that floats your boat, stay tuned for more adventures in archiving!!!!

 

 

 

 

SoHo as Muse: The SoHo Shift

November 29, 2014
SoHo Editorial3

Public Interaction: Isabel modeled the Soho dress for a fashion editorial photoshoot the group named “Bag Lady”. She caused quite a scene in the big, attention grabbing garment, both disrupting and intriguing the crowds of Saturday afternoon shoppers.

 

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from Cameron Durham at Parsons the New School for Design, telling me about a SoHo related project he completed with his Integrative Studio and Seminar class. The studio portion of the class is taught by Stacy Selier, exploring a range of visual, analytical and making skills while working on projects that draw upon collaboration and cross disciplinary investigation. The focus of this course is not only on the “how” of making things, but also the “why.” How is it that we make sense of our ideas, the information we collect, and our hunches and theories? And what can this inquiry tell us about why we make decisions as creative thinkers? The seminar portion of the class is taught by Andrea Marpillero-Colomina and explores the urban transformation and shift in New York City through analytical classroom discussions and writing projects.

Cameron told me that they used The SoHo Memory Project as a source of information when they were doing background research for their SoHo shift design.  The finished “product” is quite interesting, melding history and fashion into a design for a shift.  I would like to share it with you, as it presents a visual interpretation of SoHo from the point of view of designers who were all born after the transformation of SoHo from a community of artists to a retail hub—blank slates in a way, in that they never experienced SoHo as anything but the home of Kanye and Nine West. Read the rest of this entry »

High, Low, and Underfoot: SoHo Street Art

November 1, 2014
Francoise Schein's “Subway Map Floating on a NY Sidewalk” on Greene Street between Prince and Spring

Francoise Schein’s “Subway Map Floating on a NY Sidewalk” on Greene Street between Prince and Spring

I recently had coffee with Sascha Mombartz and Anastasija Ochetertina of Art Walk NYC (http://artwalknyc.com/). Art Walk is the brainchild of Sascha, an art historian who makes it his business to explore the city’s vast art and architectural treasures and unravel the stories behind them. Through his research into the history of SoHo in the 1970s, he uncovered many works of art that are hidden in plain sight, and it is these pieces that are incorporated in his SoHo Art Walk that includes stops at the Bust of Sylvette at the Silver Towers and Frosty Myers’ “The Wall” at the corner of Houston and Broadway. His walk also incorporates works that are underfoot, encouraging us all to look down as well as up. There is a stop at Francoise Schein’s “Subway Map Floating on a NY Sidewalk” on Greene Street and Ken Rock’s sidewalk art at the corner of Broadway and Prince. The subway map piece was clearly a sanctioned project, as it was funded and commissioned by Tony Goldman of Goldman Properties. The sidewalk art was clearly not. In a 2006 New York Times article about his work, Ken Rock, who arrived in New York in 1980, is quoted as saying:

“The street lamps were shot out, broken, all the graffiti everywhere.” He decided the corner needed life, it needed art. He asked no one’s permission. Although the sidewalk carving took only about five hours, the process took two years, 1983 and 1984, as Mr. Hiratsuka chiseled away in the dead of night until a police car rolled up and scared him away. “I got chicken, so scared,” he said. “I can’t go back, can’t carve anymore. But two months later, I was ready again.”

Ken Rock's sidewalk art at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street.

Ken Rock’s sidewalk art at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street.

I never knew the story behind the chiseled sidewalk that I trod upon almost daily until Sascha told me about it. The story got me thinking about other examples of street art in NYC and whether they would fall into the Francoise Schein category of sanctioned public art or in the category of Ken Rock’s guerrilla art, and where the line that separates them falls. Read the rest of this entry »

SoHo Walks of Fame Part II: Cinematic SoHo

October 1, 2014

 

An Unmarried Woman (1978) directed by Paul Mazursky

An Unmarried Woman (1978) directed by Paul Mazursky

While doing research for last moth’s post, SoHo Walks of Fame, about SoHo in the media, I came across several films that were shot in SoHo through the years.  Some were mentioned last week, but since then I’ve poked around looking for clips so you can see our neighborhood in action.  Here is a rundown of what I found.

There have been scores of films shot on location in New York City, but not too many that depict life in SoHo, especially pre-gentrification.  Only one film that takes place in the 1970’s that is shot, at least in part, in SoHo comes to mind (although I’m sure there are others), Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), in which a newly divorced Upper East Side woman finds romance and freedom with a downtown artist. Read the rest of this entry »

SoHo Walks of Fame

September 1, 2014
Mercer Street, November 2, 2012 after Hurricane Sandy

I took this photo outside my house on November 2, 2012 after Hurricane Sandy

After my way-too-serious post last month about “archivism as activism,” this month I decided to write about a more lighthearted subject—SoHo in the media.  As I was doing my research, something interesting occurred to me.  Many of the films I found were shot either on Crosby Street between Prince and Spring, or on Mercer Street between Houston and Prince.  Come to think of it, these two blocks, the first where I lived until I was five years old, and the other to which we moved in 1974 and where I still live today, have appeared countless times not only on film, but in print as well.  After some poking around, I came up with an inventory of media where these two blocks have appeared.  What makes them so appealing to photographers and film makers?  Or is it that every block in SoHo appears repeatedly in the media so I could have picked any two blocks at random?  These are not the most pressing questions of the day, to say the least.  But there are too many pressing questions being asked already these days.  You don’t need me asking any more.  So, I’m guessing it’s not MY presence on these two streets that have made them alluring to visual artists over the years.  Then what is it?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Let me know if you have any ideas! Read the rest of this entry »

Archivism as Activism: The Preservation of SoHo

August 1, 2014

 

 SoHo Newsletter

SoHo Newsletter

Keeping Watch, last month’s post on The SoHo Alliance and their mission to maintain, in the words of director Sean Sweeney, “controlled and appropriate development – a balance between residential and retail, seeking a quality-of-life that benefits everyone who visits, lives or works in SoHo” was inspired by another, equally laudable organization, The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), that is, according to its mission statement, “a leader in protecting the sense of place and human scale that define the Village’s unique community.”  In fact, GVSHP advocates on behalf of not only Greenwich Village proper, but the East Village and NoHo as well.  The work of these two organizations thus helps ensure that our historic roots are preserved and that the residents of these communities are protected.

The Village Voice - April 9, 1964 issue about artists rallying for loft rights, back when you had to pay (10 cents!) for the paper.

The Village Voice – April 9, 1964 issue about artists rallying for loft rights, back when you had to pay (10 cents!) for the paper.

This past June I attended an event hosted by GVSHP, where host and long-time Village resident Calvin Trillin presented its annual Village Awards to local individuals and businesses that had contributed in some way to the preservation of Greenwich Village and its environs.  Among the award recipients were LaMaMa in the East Village, Unopressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books on Carmine Street, and Kathy Donaldson, an activist who has spent the last forty years working to preserve the heritage of her neighborhood.  Board members also reviewed GVSHP’s work during 2013-2014 to protect architectural heritage and cultural history.

I found this event inspiring for a number of reasons.  I was impressed by the awardees’ passionate dedication to the GVSHP’s mission and with the breadth and depth of GVSHP’s reach in its communities.  But most of all, I was inspired to find a way that I could do something to help preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of SoHo.

Well, I have this blog.  That’s a start.  But what else could I do?  I have lived long enough to know that I am not an activist, at least not one on the front lines.  I don’t have that kind of fire in me (but thank goodness some of my neighbors do!).  No, I am a bookish librarian who can best serve as memory keeper—my superpower is archivism, not activism.

A flyer from the SoHo Artists Association

A flyer from the SoHo Artists Association

So here’s what I propose to do: create an archive of materials relating to development and preservation in SoHo from the 1960s through the 1980s and the present.  Although are many primary source documents related to the art and artists that grew out of SoHo in NYC library collections, not much has been done to document development and preservation during this very important time and place in New York City history.  GVSHP already maintains such an archive, and I feel that it is very important that we create one for SoHo, so that future generations can learn from, and be inspired by, those who came before them.

It is my intention to collect archival documents from people who were crucial to the development, and consequently to the preservation, of the neighborhood where I was born and raised and still live, before these documents are lost forever.  To this end, I will work in consultation with The New York Preservation Archive Project (NYPAP), who will provide support and contacts.  They will also help find a permanent home for the archive, as they have forged relationships with local institutions such as the New-York Historical Society, which is actively acquiring materials related to preservation history.  NYPAP also works with GVSHP to preserve its archival materials.

Through this blog and from growing up in SoHo during its formative years as an artists community, I have many contacts with SoHo old timers.  I have already written to some of them and have been offered files from:

The SoHo Artists Association (read my post on SAA  here)

The SoHo Alliance (read my post on the Alliance here)

The Loft Law and Loft Board (read my post about artist certification here)

The Fight Against the Lower Manhattan Expressway (read my post about LOMEX here)

I also have (or will have) relevant back issues of:

The SoHo Weekly News

SoHo Newsletter

Art Rite

The Village Voice

AIR Sign

AIR Sign

I think the above list already constitutes a strong archive that represents the history and preservation of old SoHo.  But if you, or anyone you know, has anything to add to this growing archive, please contact me at sohomemory@gmail.com.  To fully document what SoHo was and, to some extent, still is, it is very important that the archive be as comprehensive as possible.  This archive will ensure that future generations will know about SoHo as it was, a neighborhood made up of a wide variety of people, families, businesses, and civic groups who built a community unlike any other in the world, one worth preserving in this ever changing city.

 

 

 

 

 


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