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 »
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.
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.
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
The Village Voice
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 email@example.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.
In a recent email regarding community opposition to NYU’s 2031 plan, Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance, announced:
In a stunning victory for our community, a State Supreme Court justice ruled that the City acted illegally in giving away parkland on Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place to NYU to be used as a construction staging-area for the university’s planned 20-year expansion program. NYU had planned to squeeze 1.9 million square feet of high-rise buildings into the two super-blocks above Houston Street. (Read more about the plan here.)
The SoHo Alliance, with the tireless and fearless Sweeney at its helm, was instrumental in this victory. As a matter of fact, Sweeney and his associates who form the all-volunteer SoHo Alliance have been working for decades to preserve SoHo’s quality of life by actively monitoring proposed development and opposing developers who attempt to overreach the boundaries of regulatory laws.
In a profile of Sweeney in the now-defunct SoHo Life magazine, he states, “The SoHo Alliance strives for 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.” Without the SoHo Alliance, our neighborhood, believe it or not, would most certainly be far more commercially developed than it is today, with bars and nightclubs on every corner late-night revelers disturbing our peace at every hour.
Alliance members serve in key leadership positions on Community Board #2, providing our neighborhood a direct voice in City government. A few of their many accomplishments this past year (click here to see more) include: Read the rest of this entry »
I recently gave a presentation about the history of the area of Manhattan that is now called SoHo at Judd Foundation for their artist/guides so that they could better contextualize Judd’s SoHo (1960’s/1970’s) as well as his building (constructed in 1870) within the larger history of New York City. I have revised and expanded the presentation as a slide show (see below). Click on any image to enlarge. Enjoy your trip down memory lane! Read the rest of this entry »
As many of you have probably already heard, Kenneth Reisdorff, known locally as Kenn from Bob and Kenn’s Broome Street Bar, passed away on February 26 at the age of 92. The Broome Street Bar is a SoHo institution, and Reisdorff was its fearless leader for 42 years. Born in Seattle in 1921, he served in the Marines and fought in World War II before studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London on the GI Bill. It was there he met Berenice “Berry” Kruger, whom he married in 1951. After traveling through Europe they came to the US and settled in downtown New York City where Reisdorff worked as a cabinet maker and his wife a model before they each opened bars in the neighborhood that would become social hubs for SoHo artists. Residorff opened the Broome Street Bar at Broome and West Broadway in 1972 and Kruger opened the eponymous Berry’s on Spring at Thompson soon thereafter. And the rest, as they say, is history….
From Kenneth Reisdorff’s obituary in The Southampton Press:
Mr. Reisdorff, who was known to most as Kenn, was a gentlemanly fixture in the neighborhood, recognizable by his custom-made cowboy hats from a hatmaker in New Mexico, turquoise jewelry, cowboy boots and friendly demeanor. He was in on the original happening of SoHo, during a time when it was still factories, just beginning to be wildly creative, and the Broome Street Bar was the epicenter of the young art crowd. Robert Mapplethorpe was a regular, along with Robert Jacks, Ken Tisa, Robert Boyles, George Kokines and many other talents who formed an exciting, entertaining and encouraging clique of artists.
There are two stories I have heard about the provenance of the Broome Street Bar. Dana Lerner writes in her 2005 article in Recount:
According to Reisdorff, the building used to be a “sleaze joint,” or a house of prostitution, in the early 40s. The windows in the back of the bar were covered and blocked off so that women could perform sex acts. Reisdorff described the women as having puffed-out hair, high heels and wearing little clothing as they walked past the windows to “market” themselves to customers. In the early days, the building was also used as an inn with rooms upstairs for nightly rentals. By the mid-1850s, the building was converted into a saloon with an adjoining dining room and it has remained a bar and restaurant ever since. Reisdorff believed the establishment to be a German restaurant in the 1920s and an Italian restaurant called The 7 Wagner Bar until he took ownership. He declined to give the name of the owner before him, because he “was not a good man” and shot and killed a customer who was sleeping with his girlfriend. However, he was not alive long after the shooting. The brother of the deceased customer gunned down the owner right outside his bar in the late sixties. After the owner was killed, the business went bankrupt.
I recently heard from John Freeman, now living in Kansas, who has additions to Reisdorff’s version of the bar’s origin story:
What is now called the Broome Street Bar was actually started by John Freeman and Kenn Reisdorff and was named “Kenn and John’s.” Prior to that it was called “Tony’s Bar” and served the surrounding Italian neighborhood. Tony was killed by a gunshot through the front window of his bar. Freeman saw an opportunity and pitched the idea for an artist’s bar to Reisdorff.
Kenn and John’s initial concept for the bar was a quiet watering hole for the new and rapidly expanding artist’s community then flourishing in what had recently become known as SOHO. They wanted an interesting selection of imported beer and ale on tap, newspapers from around the world, chess, checkers and a good old fashioned burger. That idea lasted until the day of the bar’s grand opening when hundreds of people, young and old, Italian’s from the Brooklyn AND lower Manhattan families, artists and tradesmen managed to consume 20 kegs of Andecker beer. The mail bags of most of the postmen from 10013 laid outside on the sidewalk under the bar’s windows until late into the night that day. No mail was delivered, there was a party at Kenn and John’s.
From then on interesting and colorful people of all persuasions packed the little space like sardines stuffed in a can. Neither Freeman nor Reisdorff had any business savy and Kenn’s brother Bob volunteered to lend a hand in that regard. That quickly led to a falling out between John and Kenn and in less than six months Freeman was bought out of the business.
These accounts combined complete the colorful history of the Broome Street Bar. Housed in what might be the oldest building in SoHo dating from 1825 with shutters and slanted roofs, it is certainly one of the quaintest-looking buildings in the neighborhood. It is also one of the only places that still remains from “old” SoHo, before the artists and galleries moved away and were replaced by boutiques and restaurants (and million dollar lofts). There are rumors floating around that the bar will close at the end of the year, and with it would go all traces of its rich history.
One old timer remembers:
In the ’70′s, Kenn and Bob’s was such a friendly place, my little daughter could go there and “wait for me” to meet her after work before we went home across the street. We could leave our keys there for friends to pick up. We could say, “Would you hang on to this back pack, book, sweater, or whatever had been left behind at our house until so and so comes by?” “Can I use the phone?” As a single working mom, making those swaps, having a safe meeting place and a place to run into friends for a beer while the kids colored, was such a boon in that hectic life of logistics before cell phones. We were truly a neighborhood then and Kenn and Bob’s was a pivot point.
And another has this story:
One early on when the cafe was limited to the short half, I was having my breakfast in the back room, the one under the big skylight. All of a sudden the quiet was sundered by a tremendous explosion. Today we would think a bomb had exploded. Everyone – I included – dove for the floor. When the dust settled, it became apparent that a large potted plant had fallen down through the skylight from a rear window sill high above. The smashed pot and its plant landed upright on a table where the painter Art Guerra sat. He alone had not moved – and continued to read his paper – even though he was covered head to toe with shards of broken glass.
He goes on to say:
I used to go in there before the Reisdorf’s took over. As I recall, before that it was a run-down joint called (somebody’s) Clam Bar. Sometime in 1972 it suddenly closed, after which there was a sign in its window declaring, “Closed Due to Illness.” The “illness” was a serious one, since the previous owner had been killed, reputedly (as I was told) because he had gambling debts that he somehow “forgot” to make good on.
It would be wonderful to hear from others about their memories of Reisdorff and The Broome Street Bar. Although I did not know him personally, stories about him make him larger than life in my imagination, a kindly cowboy saloon keeper from the wild wild West Broadway that was SoHo in the 1970’s.
In an age of cities,
there is just one village
that is known by people the world over:
It got there by being small.
Let’s keep it that way.
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.
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.
Happy 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!
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 »
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 »
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!
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 »