Keeping Watch: The SoHo Alliance and the Preservation of SoHo

July 1, 2014
An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post)

NYU 2031–An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post) The SoHo Alliance and other community groups lobbied against NYU’s expansion plan.

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.)

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

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 »

Back to the Future: A History of SoHo from the 1700′s through the Present

June 1, 2014
Collect Pond: 1700’s — The Collect Pond was a fresh water pond that served as the main water supply for the city, located just south of the intersection of present day Broadway and Canal Street.  In the early 1700’s, the area was used for recreation, but by the late-1700's, the pond became very polluted with industrial waste. (image: Wikimedia Commons, Archibald Robertson)

Collect Pond: 1700’s — The Collect Pond was a fresh water pond that served as the main water supply for the city, located just south of the intersection of present day Broadway and Canal Street. In the early 1700’s, the area was used for recreation, but by the late-1700′s, the pond became very polluted with industrial waste. (image: Wikimedia Commons, Archibald Robertson)

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 »

Behind the Bar

May 1, 2014
The facade ofthe Broome Street Bar, date unknown (photo: NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission)

The facade of the Broome Street Bar, date unknown (photo: NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission)

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….

Kenn Reisdorff (image: The Villager)

Kenn Reisdorff (image: Tequila Minsky)

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.

Broome Street Bar

Broome Street Bar

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.

 

The Broome Street Bar, print by Chaim Koppelman

The Broome Street Bar, print by Chaim Koppelman

The Broome Street Bar, print by Dorothy Koppelman

The Broome Street Bar, print by Dorothy Koppelman

 

 

 

 

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 »


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