Triple Take

April 1, 2014
The pre-Coles NYU Playground with the Silver Towers behind, ca. 1975

The pre-Coles NYU Playground with the Silver Towers behind, ca. 1975

In an age of cities,
there is just one village
that is known by people the world over:

Greenwich Village.

It got there by being small.
Let’s keep it that way.

                                 —Graydon Carter

 

I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the neighborhood feels that the NYU Coles Sports and Recreation Center is an eyesore.  The windowless, colorless, characterless building that spans the west side of Mercer Street from Houston to Bleecker Street is not only ugly, but the land in front of it, the dog park on the corner and the playground just north of it, whose gates have been chained shut for as long as I can remember, is sinking and is forever in need of repair.

In 2012, when the City Council approved NYU’s “2031 Plan” that sought to add 1.9 million square feet of classrooms, dormitories and office space to the two superblocks where Washington Square Village and The Silver Towers now stand, it looked as if Coles might be replaced by series of tall buildings strung together to form a “Zipper Building” that would house a dormitory, faculty residence, hotel, sports center, retail space, and classrooms.  Alarmed by the potential disruption to the neighborhood this would cause, community groups and many NYU faculty were up in arms and protested this proposed expansion, fearing damage to quality of life and the integrity of the neighborhood, not to mention the huge disturbance the construction, which would not be finished until 2031, would cause.

An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post)

An architect’s rendering of the original proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post)

There were so many questions.  Why couldn’t NYU use its already existing space more efficiently?  A large number of faculty apartments in Washington Square Village remain empty.  Why the need for more faculty housing?  Why couldn’t NYU expand out to other neighborhoods and boroughs instead of trying to cram more into an already crowded area?  Opposition groups were formed and lawsuits were filed.  Then this past January, State Supreme Court Judge Donna Mills surprised everyone by ruling that NYU must get permission from the State Legislature for parts of the school’s superblock expansion plan because it would impact strips of land being used as public parks.  This ruling essentially put the kibosh on a large portion of the expansion plan.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Sunny Side of SoHo

March 1, 2014

IMG_3632Happy winter everyone.  Going into my third week at home with some awful cold-y flu-y thing that’s been going around.  Been trying to think of something profound or at least marginally interesting to write about but nothing of note is coalescing as I stagger around in my semi-conscious Nyquil stupor.  I’ve thus decided to leave the profundity up to others for today and am bringing you some blasts from the past via other people’s loci of foci.

First up, Sean at The SoHo Alliance recently sent me a link to this oh so groovy video “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Pizzicato Five, shot almost entirely in SoHo.  Anyone care to guess when it was filmed?  It’s pre-Mercer Hotel, there are shots of the Prince Street Station post office and the flea market on Canal and Greene.  Jerry’s is still there as is the Prince Street Bar.  This video is from an era when I already thought SoHo had become something else, something akin to a shopping mall.  I had already thrown up my arms and said to myself, Oh, well!  At least now I can get dinner someplace other than Fanelli’s.  I thought SoHo had already ARRIVED.  What an innocent time that was!

Next we have a short but sweet video from video artist Jaime Davidovich entitled, “Views of SoHo 1975.”  Desolate streets with lots of trash, and a peek at the old Dean and Deluca.  Those were the days….

And last but certainly not least, we have Jim Stratton‘s “Homage a Anonymous Blocks: A Cinematic Ballet in Three Movements.”  Using still photography and video, Stratton creates an homage to the streets of SoHo ca. 1971/2.  Enjoy!

Reading SoHo: Recent Books

February 1, 2014
Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via Flavorwire.com

Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via Flavorwire.com.  From Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock.

I wanted to conjure New York as an environment of energies, sounds, sensations. Not as a backdrop, a place that could resolve into history and sociology and urbanism, but rather as an entity that could not be reduced because it had become a character, in the manner that a fully complex character in fiction isn’t reducible to cause, reasons, event.

—Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers,
in The Paris Review

While recently re-revisiting my SoHo book idea that seems forever stuck in Neverland, I was thinking about books of note have recently been written about SoHo.  There is, of course, Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of Soho (2010) by Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro, a history of the evolution of SoHo as told through the history of 80 Wooster Street and the people who lived there, as well as Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (2003) by Richard Kostelanetz, which is soon to be out in a revised edition, among other excellent books that have come out over the years (see list below).

There are two brand spankin’ new books, however, published within the last year, that merit particular attention in case they’ve been overlooked by my fellow SoHo memoriticians.  The first is Ann Fensterstock’s Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from Soho to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond that follows the evolution of New York’s arts hubs over the past fifty years.  There is also the novel The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, about a young artist who moves to New York from Nevada and then finds her way to Italy where she becomes involved in a radical movement.  Although neither of these books focus solely on SoHo, the sections that do are quite compelling and each do their part in shaping our collective memory of SoHo in the 1970’s. Read the rest of this entry »

Writing SoHo

January 1, 2014
Cover of the December 30, 2002 issue of THE NEW YORKER by Barry Blitt

Cover of the December 30, 2002 issue of THE NEW YORKER by Barry Blitt

Happy birthday to The SoHo Memory Project!  I began writing this blog on January 1, 2011.  As we enter year four, I thought I’d take a look back and tell you all the story of how this blog began.  Once upon a time….

I became a writer quite by accident, and I would not even describe myself as a writer, at least not in any conventional way.  I don’t sit in a room typing furiously while chain-smoking (do any writers do this anymore?), I don’t make a regular income from my writing, nor is it my main occupation.  But writing is a huge part of my everyday life, and I do not know where I would be without it.

I grew up in SoHo in the 1970s when the neighborhood was a derelict area where artists lived illegally in loft buildings that housed mostly warehouses and light manufacturing.  It was completely different from the SoHo of today, but in many ways, although it was dirty and desolate, it was a much friendlier, homier place to live back then. Read the rest of this entry »

Golden Years

December 14, 2013
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know quite a few SoHo old-timers through this blog.  People write in, share their memories with me, and I include these memories in my posts.  I recently heard from Peter Reginato, an olde tyme SoHo artist who actually still lives here.  He writes so eloquently about how he got to SoHo, and how it’s changed over the years.  Here is his post—a reminiscence from someone who was here in the beginning and still remains (for now, at least), a very rare breed, indeed!
Articl about Peter in Vogue, 1966

Article about Peter in Vogue, 1966

FIRST PERSON: Peter Reginato

I was going to the San Francisco Art Institute in 1963 and was planning to move to Paris…but I started thinking about either New York or Los Angeles after I had met the painter Ronnie Landfield who was from New York and through conversations about what was happening in the New York scene, I realized that Paris was over.  A teacher of mine said you pretty much had to teach to make any money in Los Angeles.  There were about five collectors in San Francisco and after they bought a piece that was it for sales.  It was a very different art world then, still very local.

What really got me here was I met a California artist I knew of only from his work when I was still in high school in Oakland named Carlos Villa.  Carlos was living in NYC at the time, but had come back to San Francisco for the spring and summer of 1966.  We got to be friends and he said to me:  Why are you in San Francisco? Come to New York and you can stay with me for two weeks and you will find a place.

Around this same time I met the sculptor Frosty Myers, who also told me to come to NYC and that he’d put me in a Park Place Gallery show.  At the time, in 1966, I was making my version of minimalism—very high finished boxes and pyramids using day-glo paints.  I’d played around with moving to Los Angles, but I felt New York was similar to San Francisco in its “look,” plus I thought I’d never get a job teaching in L.A.  I didn’t know at the time that you were hired more on your “track record” that academics.  So I moved here packing my truck with my sculptures and paintings and found a place right away on Greene Street, where I’ve lived since September 1966. Read the rest of this entry »

Small-Time Crook

November 30, 2013
Grand Union on LaGuardia Place

Grand Union on LaGuardia Place (photo: Jaime Davidovich http://www.jaimedavidovich.com/)

Admittedly, the Grand Union on LaGuardia and Bleecker was not in SoHo, but it was such a huge part of my childhood that I feel I must write about it.  Now called Morton Williams, the Grand Union supermarket, built to serve the tenants of NYU’s Silver Towers and Washington Square Village apartment buildings, was the closest place (except for the bodega on West Broadway and Prince) to buy groceries for most SoHo residents.  A free standing-building, it is quite a behemoth for New York City standards, though no competition with the suburban hypermarkets of today.

For years and years, I would go “big shopping” there with my mother and sister.  We would fill up the shopping cart, spending (gasp!) upwards of $50.00, and have everything delivered to our loft.  It must have been not the worst way to make a living, delivering for Grand Union, because we had the same few guys bringing groceries to our house for ages.

My mother says I was about seven years old when she started sending me to Grand Union with my sister on our own.  Seven!  Children’s Services would be called if you did that now.  She would send us there to get, among other things, ten tubes of Crest Regular toothpaste, ten packs of cookies, and a ten packs of cigarettes (a.k.a. a carton).  My father used the toothpaste to polish the lacquer furniture he made (ancient Japanese secret), he served the cookies to his workers at tea time, and he smoked the cigarettes.  What must have they been thinking at checkout when two very little Japanese girls showed up, on a regular basis, to buy this strange assortment of groceries?  I guess they figured we’d need all of that toothpaste after eating all those cookies and smoking all those cigarettes!

tiger's milkThe first (and only) time I ever stole anything was at Grand Union.  A Tiger’s Milk Bar.  A strange thing for a kid to want, but whatever.  It happened almost by accident.  I picked one up and planned to ask my mother if she would buy it for me.  I wandered around the store for a while and got caught up looking at the Happy Days books, novelizations of the popular television series.  I realized that I needed to put down the Tiger’s Milk bar to turn the pages.  With nowhere else to put it, I stuck it in my pocket and then realized that I could just walk out with it, which is exactly what I did.  After I got it home, I felt so bad about having taken it that I never did it again.  Easy lesson learned, thanks to The Fonz.

I suppose Grand Union was your average supermarket in its day.  The National Enquirer up front and a deli counter in the back.  I still call it Grand Union, though you can’t get much there for fifty dollars these days.  They went upscale with the ‘hood, and now they carry imported pistachios and pre-washed salad in a box (both of which I admit I buy on occasion).  I hear that NYU plans to tear it down to build another apartment building.  If that happens, where, pray tell, will a seven-year-old be able to score a pack of smokes?

This post first appeared on July 30, 2011

SoHo Circus

November 16, 2013
Dubé Juggling at 520 Broadway #3.  Photo Brian Dubé via gothamist.com

Dubé Juggling at 520 Broadway #3. Photo Brian Dubé via gothamist.com

Dubé Juggling is moving.  The problem is, they don’t know where, yet.

Brian Dubé opened Dubé Juggling, a store, showroom, online outlet, warehouse, and manufacturer of all things juggling, in 1975 after dropping out of NYU.  His store on Broadway just south of Spring is the go-to place for the juggling world, including the likes of Cirque du Soleil, Penn and Teller, David Blaine, Ringling Brothers Circus, The Big Apple Circus, Philippe Petit, among many, many others. Read the rest of this entry »

FYI: Dr. Videovich

November 9, 2013
davidovich_drv79The work of multidisciplinary artist and friend of the SoHo Memory Project Jaime Davidovich will be exhibited at Churner and Churner through December 21.  Davidovich was a founding member of Cable SoHo (1976) and founder and president of the Artists’ Television Network (1978-1984).  Take advantage of this opportunity to see “Dr. Videovich, specialist in curing television addiction,” in action!

Jaime Davidovich: Museum of Television Culture

November 07, 2013 – December 21, 2013
opening reception: Thursday, November 7, 6-8pm

Churner and Churner
205 10th Avenue (between 22nd/23rd Streets)
New York, NY 10011

Churner and Churner is pleased to present “Museum of Television Culture,” an exhibition of single-channel video and installation work by Argentine-American conceptual artist and television-art pioneer Jaime Davidovich. The exhibition focuses on the uneasy interrelationship of mass media, electronic art practice, and traditional institutional exhibition; specifically, the overlooked historic role of cable programming experiments in early video art.

Jaime Davidovich is the creator of legendary downtown Manhattan cable television program The Live! Show (1979-1984).  Billed as “the variety show of the avant-garde,” The Live! Show was an eclectic half-hour of live, interactive artistic entertainment inspired by the Dada performance club Cabaret Voltaire and the anarchic humor of American television comedian Ernie Kovacs. The program featured interviews and performance work by visiting artists, including Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Tony Oursler, and Michael Smith, along with musical performances, ersatz commercials, and viewer participation via live call-in segments. Presiding over the show’s disparate collaborative elements was Davidovich’s own satirical character, “Dr. Videovich, specialist in curing television addiction,” whom the New York Times’ television critic John J. O’Connor described as “a persona somewhere between Bela Lugosi and Andy Kaufman.”

Among other strategies for soliciting viewer participation, Dr. Videovich addressed his audience directly with a home shopping segment, the “Video Shop,” where he advertised his collection of “Videokitsch,” a mix of store-bought novelties and self-designed limited edition objects depicting television sets in the form of savings banks, cookie jars, planters an wind-up toys. These items, along with episodes of The Live! Show, will be on display at Churner and Churner.

“Museum of Television Culture” demonstrates that, despite the program’s absurdist tone, The Live! Show had a serious ideological agenda. It was an explicit effort to eliminate the curatorial mediation of museums and galleries by presenting works directly to the public at home through the new medium of cable television. In this way, The Live! Show was far ahead of its time, anticipating the ubiquity of interactive media and unfettered content distribution in the digital age. By staging elements of mass-communication in the institutional context of the gallery – a site Davidovich’s original work was intended to sidestep through this direct-to-the-public mode of presentation – Davidovich’s concept comes full circle, in a renewed investigation of the role of ephemeral electronic works in the art world.

An illustrated catalog with essays by Ian Wallace and Leah Churner will accompany the exhibition.

GALLERY HOURS

Tuesday – Saturday, 11 am – 6 pm, and by appointment

CONTACT

http://churnerandchurner.com/

(212) 675-2750
info@churnerandchurner.com

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Jaime Davidovich is a multidisciplinary artist whose work encompasses painting, photography, video art, television art, installation, and media activism. Best known as a pioneering advocate for artist-run, local cable television programming, Davidovich was a founding member of Cable SoHo (1976) and founder and president of the Artists’ Television Network (1978-1984). Davidovich was born in Buenos Aires in 1936 and moved to New York in 1963. He was educated at the National College of Buenos Aires, the University of Uruguay, and the School of Visual Arts, New York.

Davidovich is the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s 2013-14 Creating A Living Legacy (CALL) Artist. He is also the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Fellowships, for the years 1978, 1984, and 1990; and two grant awards from the Creative Artists Public Service Program, New York State Council on the Arts, for 1975 and 1982. In 2010 he was honored with a retrospective exhibition at ARTIUM, Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporaneo in Spain. Other solo exhibitions include Cabinet, Brooklyn, New York; MAMBA: Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires; Vanguardia, Bilbao, Spain; and the American Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria, New York. Davidovich has participated in a wide range of group exhibitions, at institutions such as J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; 2007 Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Long Beach Museum of Art, California; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Davidovich lives and works in New York.

Patience and Fortitude (and Resilience and Attitude )

November 2, 2013

I was looking through old issues of The SoHo Weekly News recently and came across a column by Jim Stratton that I thought beautifully summed up what it took to be a loft owner in SoHo in 1975.

SWN head

Keeping Aloft

By Jim Stratton

Right now it is covered with packing cases or sewing machines or rag bales, but it has real potential.  You think the floors are good—at least if you scratch through the century of grunge you find a layer of what appears to be wood underneath.  And the enthusiastic person with the list particulars says it will all be easy.  Sign here, and leave your cash with the lawyer.

Learning the difference between real potential and realty reality is a long, slow process.  Renovating a squat warehouse into a liveable cooperative is a grand adventure which can be every bit as exciting as Mission Impossible…if you are ready for it.  Being ready means that the adventurer must be prepared to watch all those dreams self-destruct at any moment, and be set to resurrect them again from the ashes.

Nearly every cooperative of my acquaintance has had some gantlet to run on its way to stability.  In one, a fire (uninsured) destroyed the plumbing before anyone got to flush.  In another, a recalcitrant and not too-cooperative cooperator keeps taking the builder to court.  A third felt the wrath of a former tenant in the building and faced legions of inspectors…building, plumbing, electrical, elevator, fire, even the Board of Health sent their finest.  There is no way to gauge in advance the nature of the calamity that will befall, but setting your mind to expect it and meet it is an unadvertised but necessary part of your commitment if you get into a co-op.

Renovations at 498 Broome Street, ca. 1963

Renovations at 498 Broome Street, ca. 1963 (photo: Dorothy Koppelman)

Different buildings have met different challenges according to their own strategies.  Six years ago, my own homestead was rankled by a difficult situation: the rag merchants who had sold us the building refused to move out.  A codicil on our purchase contract generously gave them “reasonable” time to evacuate their bales, but because they were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy they couldn’t find space anywhere that suited their pocketbooks.  So they stayed on…and on…and on.

Rolling 500-pound ragbales around soon became tedious.  Erecting walls between the bundles quickly paled as an art form.  Something had to be done.

What was done was sandblasting.  We hired a crew and they started on the top floor.  As the fallout began sifting through ancient floorboards into the folds of the rags, those bales magically found new places to go.  Fifth floor, fourth floor, and right out the door ahead of a jet stream, of sand.

The remedy suited the problem and it worked.  If it had not, I have no doubt that I would still be climbing over a batch of orlon to make coffee.

PIONEERING IN THE URBAN WILDERNESS a book about loft living by Jim Stratton

PIONEERING IN THE URBAN WILDERNESS a book about loft living by Jim Stratton

Nearly all cooperative disasters can be reduced to one absolute.  Money.  Replacing a plumbing stack takes money, going to court takes money, meeting sometimes-obsolete city requirements takes money.  My own corollary to Parkinson’s Law is the cost of renovation expands to spend all money available, whether it is earmarked for renovation or not.

This appears to be true whatever the level of the original bank account.  In one co-op where the owners bought their floors for $3,000 apiece and no one in the building had much more than the down payment, work is progressing in spite of poverty.  The co-opers are all just barely scraping by.  In another, where raw space was $25,000 and the purchasers thought they were easily able to afford it, one add-on cost after another sapped their individual bank balances to a uniform cipher.  They too are just scraping by…though admittedly in fancier style.

Adversity, like it or not, is usually a part of the cooperative adventure.  It can be expected, welcomed and even relished if you set your mind to it.  Setbacks are frequent and pain is a certainty.  Auden might have been renovating a loft when he wrote:

They will come all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine.  In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance.

Building together, living together, learning together can broaden you and make you grow.  Or it can depress you and make you sour.  The difference is your own resilience and attitude.  If you look forward to fashionable convenience, you’re likely to find it somewhere else.

There can be beauty in a leaky roof and a bruised thumb, but unless it is in the eye of the beholder, the beholder shouldn’t renovate a loft.

This column appeared Thursday, January 9, 1975, in The SoHo Weekly News.  Click on image to enlarge:

stratton Keeping Aloft

jim-pic002Jim Stratton — raised in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, graduated Oberlin College, spent the next half-century living in New York City. Wife: actor/writer/photographer Cass Collins, with four children: Jeff (structural engineer), Jeremy (jazz bassist), Conor (filmmaker), and Callison (singer-songwriter).

An on-camera news reporter (United Press Newsfilm, UPITN) for a dozen years, spent two Army years in New Orleans where he joined in opening the still-wonderful Maple Leaf bar while writing, in New York City, the column “Keeping Aloft” in the now-iconic SoHo Weekly News. Former co-owner of Puffy’s Tavern and continuing co-owner and General Manager of Grassroots Tavern, he also writes a column, “The City Charrette,” for the Tribeca Trib. A founder of the Downtown Independent Democrats, Lower Manhattan’s political reform club,  he was for 18 years a Democratic District Leader and member of the Democratic New York County Executive Committee. A former chair of Community Board #1 in Lower Manhattan and past president of the SoHo Alliance and P.S. 234 Parents Association. Author of the 1977 book “Pioneering in the Urban Wilderness,” a historical, personal, and informational tour de force on the artist-loft movement of which he was a part.

And he did all this without much intending to.

Saving a SoHo Oasis

October 19, 2013
The Elizabeth Street Garden (Elizabeth Street between Prince and Spring)

The Elizabeth Street Garden (Elizabeth Street between Prince and Spring)

No wonder I don’t like walking on grass.  SoHo is definitely not known for its green space.  Can you think of any?  There WAS the open dirt field that is now Coles.  That had potential to be green, but is long gone.  And there are a couple of weeds growing in Thompson Street Playground, but nothing much to speak of.  I was reared on concrete and cobblestones, and It is thus no surprise that as an adult I much prefer the feel of asphalt under my feet to freshly mown lawn.  So very sad.

In 1991, after I was already an adult and the damage already done, the Elizabeth Street Gallery leased an empty lot from the City, cleaned it up, and planted the beautiful garden that is there today on Elizabeth between Prince and Spring.  It is truly and oasis in an otherwise greenless neighborhood.  And now the garden might be in danger of closing.

The following is information from The Elizabeth Street Garden, whose mission is to preserve the Garden as public green, open space.  They are having a Harvest Festival on October 20 (tomorrow) from 12-4 where you can find out more about how to support the Garden.  Hope to see you all there!!! Read the rest of this entry »


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