Archive for the ‘SoHo Institutions’ Category

Yes, The SoHo Historical Society!

May 1, 2015

So here it is—my big plan. Drumroll please….. I plan to design and build a portable historical society that can navigate the bustling urban environment of today’s SoHo while showing a glimpse of its past. and today I am kickstarting a fundraising campaign through Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform for creative projects. Kickstarter-Logo- (more…)

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. (more…)

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: (more…)

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

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  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. (more…)

All the News That’s Fit to Print, SoHo Style

February 9, 2013

SWN headThe other day, I was given a treasure trove of SoHo memory in the form of two boxes full of issues of The SoHo Weekly News from 1974 and 1975 (thanks, J and C!).  I remember seeing the paper lying around the house and probably used it for more than one paper mache project, but I cannot say that I was a regular reader.  I’m sure you older folk read it religiously for local news and listings, in the way that I read the Village Voice in the mid-1980’s when I was a young, single person looking for culture, high and low.

According to the SoHo Weekly News Online, “From October 1973 until March 1982 the SoHo Weekly News was New York City’s hippest paper and guide to what was happening in Fun City.”  (more…)

Ephemeral SoHo

January 26, 2013
Crosby Street, 1969

Crosby Street, 1969

This May, I will be traveling in Japan with my family, and while I am there, I will be having a SoHo Memory Project exhibition at my father’s gallery in his hometown of Okazaki.  I will display of photos and artifacts related to this blog and the story it tells about the SoHo experience as lived by its pioneers.  I think that the people of Okazaki, so far removed from The United States, New York, and certainly SoHo, will find the story of what my mom and dad, who disappeared 45 years ago only to reappear this year and build a house right back where they started, fascinating, if not incredible.  I will be putting together a catalog for the show that I will share with you, and I will most certainly be posting observations from the gallery in May.

The show will feature an essay by my mother about her memory of the early SoHo days that I translated and posted here a while back, and I will display related photographs printed on several media including paper, canvas, metal and wood.  I would also like to include pieces of ephemera, such as newspapers, letters, flyers.  Basically, anything that would materially illustrate what life was like back then.  I’ve posted images of some of the items I have gathered below. (more…)

Peanut Butter and Matchsticks

September 8, 2012

West Broadway between Prince & Broome Streets, 1986 (source: wikipedia)

On January 20, 1971, the City Planning Commission voted 4 to 0 to recommend to the Board of Estimate that artists be permitted to reside in the manufacturing buildings of SoHo.  On January 28, the Board of Estimate made that recommendation law.  This law was ultimately passed due to the SoHo Artists’ Association’s two-year battle with the city for the legalization of loft living in SoHo and set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas.  Then, on January 29, the question on everyone’s mind was, what is an artist?  What are the criteria to qualify as an artist?  Who will decide who is an artist and who is not?  Parameters had to be drawn around an amorphous, murky area that defied confinement.

Because the law was meant to keep fine artists in affordable spaces in SoHo and to keep others, including commercial artists who could afford market rents, out, the definition of an artist for loft law purposes had to take this into account.  First of all, unlike in the art world in general, artist certification in SoHo was not based on the quality of work, but on commitment to work, on the seriousness and duration of one’s involvement, no matter what medium.  Certification was also determined by a need for space.  According to the February 10, 1971 SoHo Newsletter, one’s status as an artist was to be determined by the following:

  1. A description of the artist’s work.
  2. A description of the artist’s need for space.
  3. A biographical sketch including data the artist feels is pertinent; education, professional training, public exhibitions or performances, reviews, or grants.
  4. Other data.  If the artist does not feel properly represented by 1, 2, or 3, above, he can: a) present documentation of his work n the form of slides, photographs or other data which will back up his commitment and space needs—but not his aesthetics, or b) ask a few members of the Committee to visit his studio or working space to discuss his situation.
  5. The names of two people who are familiar with the artist’s work and who can testify to his commitment and his need for loft space.

The Criteria Committee that judged applications consisted of 20 people, 10 artists and 10 non-artists who have been active in an arts-related organization.   The non-artists were included to prevent decisions biased toward aesthetic considerations.  There was also an appeals committee, a de-certification procedure to “defrock” applicants who were wrongly certified, and a re-certification process, where artists needed to renew their status, as attrition in their line of work was (and still is) quite high.

These criteria were carefully developed to ensure that SoHo lofts were reserved for committed artists, including those whose work was not well-known, well-liked, or well-bought.  As the film and theater director Joellen Johnson, who was very active in drawing up the guidelines for artists, stated, “If you work big in peanut butter and matchsticks, you’ll be ok.”

No system, no matter how well-intentioned, is perfect, however. My friend, a SoHo resident since 1977 and lifelong composer and musician in multiple musical genres, applied for certification when the Loft Law was passed.   In the first go-around, his application was rejected because being a rock and roll musician was considered the equivalent of being a commercial graphic artist and rock music was not considered a fine art for the purposes of the application.  So my friend resubmitted his application, this time removing all references to his gigs in rock clubs, and asked a couple of established musicians to write letters on his behalf.  He played up the fact that he composed music for dancers and played jazz, which was considered a fine art.  And, lo and behold, he was accepted and has lived in the same loft for 35 years now.

Until the Loft Law was made permanent two years ago, however, my friend, like many others in his situation, was living in a kind of limbo  because there was a chance that, once expired, the Loft Law might not be renewed.   As a result, he and other long-time SoHo residents living under the Law never felt that they could invest much into their lofts because they could possibly lose them at any time.  Once the law was made permanent, they were able to breathe a sign of relief and finally begin settling in (after 33 years!).

Even in the beginning, there were non-artists who slipped in through the cracks and legitimate artists who were rejected, and as time went on, things began to get more and more loosey goosey until the present day, when the Loft Law is still in effect, but there are only a few hundred artists remaining in SoHo, at best.  Every non-artist who moves into SoHo could still be told to move out unless he or she can prove artistic legitimacy, but the probability of that aspect of the law being enforced is close to nil.  And what IS an artist these days anyway?  An investment banker could also describe himself as a financial expressionist, a book editor could say she is a literary choreographer, and a rock guitarist could claim to be a musician.  What has this world come to?

The SAA: Trash Talkin’ and Beat Walkin’

July 14, 2012

A flyer for a meeting of the SoHo Artists Association (click to enlarge)

Before 1971, SoHo artists, almost all of whom also lived in their work spaces, were living here illegally.  For a while, no one seemed to notice or care, the city pretty much looked the other way, but when non-artists looking for investment opportunities began noticing the profit potential of such spaces, artists, who, until then, chose to remain anonymous and hidden, came together to form the SoHo Tenants’ Association and then incorporated as The SoHo Artists Association (SAA), initially in order to legalize loft dwellings and fight to keep SoHo an affordable place for artists to work.  Without the community organization and activism of residents, SoHo most certainly would not have evolved as it did.  It would most likely have been taken over by either real estate developers looking to make a quick buck or the city looking to build new housing projects, or both. Luckily, the SAA and other groups willing to put in time and labor stepped up and fought for what they felt was rightly theirs.

On January 20, 1971, the City Planning Commission voted 4 to 0 to recommend to the Board of Estimate that artists be permitted to reside in the manufacturing buildings of SoHo.  On January 28, the Board of Estimate made that recommendation law.  This law was ultimately passed due to the SAA’s two-year battle with the city for the legalization of loft living in SoHo and set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas. (more…)

The Teachers Were Nice, They Checked Us For Lice (But Mostly They Gave Us Very Good Advice)

January 28, 2012

P.S.3 at 3:00 ca. 1979

My daughter will turn four this year, which means that she will be entering Pre-K (that’s pre-kindergarten).  Back when I was a kid, we didn’t have pre-K.  We just went to playgroup and then when we were old enough, we went to P.S.3.  I don’t think we even officially lived in the zone for P.S.3, but that’s where all of the SoHo Playgroup kids went when we turned 5, and school overcrowding and variances were never an issue.

My P.S.3 yearbook picture

Back in the 70’s, children who lived in SoHo and Greenwich Village were usually sent to one of two schools, P.S.41 or P.S.3.  P.S. 41 was known as an academically strong school that offered a traditional curriculum based on reading and math.  P.S.3, in comparison, was known to be a less academically rigorous school with a liberal curriculum that emphasized an arts-based open classroom.  P.S.41 and P.S.3 were often seen as “rivals,” although rivals in what, I did not know.

So it was a surprise to me to find out that P.S.41, in a way, begat P.S.3, back during the teachers’ strike in 1968.  According to Charles R. Simpson in his book SoHo: The Artist in the City:

A group of P.S.41 parents, a faction within the P.T.A. living in Greenwich Village, opposed the strike.  The dissidents broke the locks on P.S.3, a surplus school scheduled for demolition, demanded that it be reopened, and chose a staff from among substitute teachers.  The Board of Education, taken aback but interested in creating pressure to end the strike, paid the staff.  While the strike lasted, the parents got a taste of running a school; and when the strike ended, they demanded that P.S.3 be retained as an annex of P.S.41 in which experimental education could be carried out.  (212)

For the first few years, the parents had control over the school.  They decided, by a council of three teachers, three community members, and twelve parents, how the school was to be structured and which teachers would be hired.  The council was chaired by the school’s head teacher, who I presume was John Melser, a teacher from new Zealand who taught in the tradition of A.S. Neill, an advocate for personal freedom for children.

Jeremy's comical depiction of John, drawn at age 10

By the time I got there in 1974, the Board of Education had taken back control of the school, but it still retained the basic structure put in place by its founders.  John was now the principal (we called everyone, including the principal, by their first names).  The classroom had mixed grades, mostly either K,1,2 or 3,4,5, but there was one that was K-5 (taught by Fredlyn, I think), which allowed for different rates of progress and encouraged the younger students to learn from the older ones, who were in turn encouraged to guide the younger students.  There was also heavy parent involvement in the school. Many of the parents were artists who would come in to the classroom to lead art activities.  My mother came in and taught the class how to do origami.  Another parent, an actress, came in to lead improvisation exercises.  I even remember learning a little Italian.

At the core of P.S.3’s educational philosophy was an emphasis on individualism.  This, I am guessing, resulted in less cliquey-ness and more “kookiness” than in other schools.  But, all in all, I think I got as good an academic education as anyone else, with a strong sense of self and a penchant to think outside the box thrown in as a bonus (AND free breakfast—raisin bran with wheat germ).

My sister's class picture from 1977-78

I get the sense that over the years P.S.3 has become a bit more mainstream in terms of its approach to education but that it still holds its core character from back in the John Melser days.  I have only fond memories of John and my teachers (Lila, Edith, Annette, and Ruth) and am grateful for the strike that started it all.  Unfortunately, I do not have high hopes that my daughter will have the same privilege as I did of attending P.S.3.  As the school zones are drawn at present, the back of our building abuts the wrong side of the P.S.3 zone, and with the severe overcrowding of downtown schools, legacy or not, I cannot count on a variance.  We will not likely be starting a dynasty.  Alas, if only my name were Carrington.

P.S.  Here are the words to the P.S.3 graduation song, as I remember it, written by Lucy, sung to the tune of Sloop Jon B by The Beach Boys (please feel free to correct, amend, etc.!):

The first per son I ever drew
I said it looked a lot like you
And then we decided we would be best friends
I taught you to write
You taught me to fight
You called me up for the homework
Almost every night.

I’m graduating from P.S.3
I wonder how my life’s gonna be
It’s hard to leave so many memories behind
The friends that I’ve known
The ways that I’ve grown
P.S.3’s been a kind of a home.

I remember when I couldn’t spell
There were times I couldn’t wait for the bell
But then I learned how to read and write and sing
The teachers were nice
They checked us for lice
But mostly they gave us
Very good advice.

Repeat Chorus

(Was there another verse after this?)

If You Don’t Build It, They Will Still Come

December 10, 2011

Charles L. Low with drawings and models of his proposed sports complex (photo: The New York Times)

Did you know that the second biggest development project never to happen in old SoHo, after LOMEX, was a proposed sports complex?  In 1972, the real estate developer Charles L. Low asked the City for a variance to build a 21-story public sports center at 311 West Broadway, just north of Canal Street.  The complex was to have 15 tennis courts, four ice skating rinks, a 6,000 square foot gym with running track, six squash courts, two handball courts, a 25-meter Olympic swimming pool, a whirlpool, sauna and exercise rooms, lockers and dressing rooms, lounges, health food bars, pro shops, a nursery, and self-service parking for 225 cars.  The complex was to mainly cater to the Wall Street crowd and other white-collar types who worked downtown.  In 1972?  In SoHo?

Needless to say, this plan caused some controversy.  And, as you can guess, the complex was never built.  But for a while, when the plan was still a possibility, it caused a huge divide in the SoHo community and its environs.

Many but not all artists who lived in SoHo were against the plan.  The most vocal opponent was the SoHo Artists’ Association, who argued that the complex would spoil the character of the neighborhood, that it would be an eyesore in a neighborhood that was made up of low-rise, 18th century buildings.  They also argued that the complex would bring in more people and automobiles to the neighborhood than it could support and it would also lead to higher rents in an area whose rents had already doubled in recent years due to escalating property values.

On the opposing side, community members, most of whom lived just west of West Broadway, most of whom were Italian-American, and most of whom were not artists but laborers and merchants, supported the plan, arguing that the complex would raise the profile of the neighborhood, bring much needed jobs to the area, and would provide a place for residents, especially children, to exercise (the students in the nearby Catholic school were promised free access to the facilities).  In addition, NYU supported the plan, as the complex would improve the quality of life of their faculty members who lived nearby.

Both sides had compelling arguments.  It was a bit of a surprise, though, when the complex was defeated.  As Donald Tricarico explains in his book, The Italians of Greenwich Village: The Social Structure and Transformation of an Ethnic Community:

The SAA was persuasive.  The planning board adopted its position and advised against the complex.  Italians were quite angry and taken off guard by the artists’ assertiveness in the matter.  The community broker felt that the sports center was “none of their business.”  He also felt betrayed.  He insisted that “if it wasn’t for the Italians, there wouldn’t be a SoHo.” (p. 130)

In hindsight, I suppose I am happy that the complex was never built.  One less aesthetically questionable behemoth building to look at.  Yet, all of the things that the SAA said would happen to the neighborhood if the complex was built happened anyway.  And pretty soon thereafter.  On the very same plot where the complex was supposed to be, we now have the SoHo Mews, a sprawling luxury condo complex where the likes of Oscar de la Renta own property, and across the street is the majestic SoHo Grand Hotel.  And neither the Mews nor the Grand serve the youth of the neighborhood (though I don’t 100% believe that the sports complex would have in the end, either—lesson learned from the whole Coles experience).  To the west of the Grand, we have the even more majestic Trump SoHo Hotel.  If the names “Trump” and “SoHo” can be found proudly emblazoned on a marquis, I think we can safely say that we have crossed the Rubicon.


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