Water towers are a common sight in New York, especially in SoHo. Wherever you are, if you look up, chances are you’ll see at least one, if not a small forest of them dotting the skyline. They are certainly a mainstay of SoHo’s architectural landscape. Although I grew up seeing them every day, I never really knew if or how they worked. Do all of those wooden containers still hold water? And if so, how does the water get in, and then out again? Read the rest of this entry »
“The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”
“I don’t feel like there’s any hope in ever going against the tide. I believe you have to get on your surfboard and ride it.
I write this while abroad in Costa Rica, where I am far removed from New York and SoHo. When I return, any perspective I might have will vanish, obliterated by the frenetic energy and constant buzzing that is the backdrop of my hometown. It is only when I am away that I can sense its absence and that I can reflect upon my usual normal.
My friend Lito, a Swiss-Frenchman by birth, bought some land and moved here over thirty years ago. He is accustomed to the lulling rhythms of “la pura vida,” the pure life, Costa Rica’s proud motto. When I arrived here, Lito asked me, “So how’s New York?” to which I answered, “It’s terrible! I feel as if they’ve taken it away from me! I’m so angry!” I was taken aback by my response. I did not know where those words came from. Who are “they” and what is “it”? And what am I angry about?
We native New Yorkers are a tough and proud breed. Whether we still live there or jumped ship for the quietude of any place that’s not New York, we all wear our New Yorkness as a badge of honor. Just as we all have our own SoHo stories, we have larger New York narratives in which they are ensconced. One cannot exist without the other. My New York story is an extension of my SoHo story.
SoHo was a wonderful and wondrous place to grow up. As children we were free to explore the neighborhood, jumping from loading dock to loading dock, and the city, riding in the front car of subways to watch the stations go by, getting a certain thrill when the CC train stopped inexplicably between stations and the lights went out, leaving us momentarily in complete darkness because the graffiti covered windows let in no light from the tracks.
I’ve always thought that I WAS living the pura vida. What could be more pura than New York? Where else in the world could such a diverse group of people live so closely packed together and make it more or less work, and thrive no less. Wherever in the world I go, when people find out I am from New York, they are in awe, as if I were a chosen one. I feel so cool. It would be smug, if I didn’t recognize that being a native New Yorker, and a SoHo native to boot, is not in any way a personal accomplishment, but merely a lucky circumstance not of my own making.
Images of SoHo appear on a daily basis in the media. Paparazzi shots of celebrities making their way down SoHo streets. Fashion shoots of supermodels preening on SoHo streets. Portraits of luxury lofts for sale. Major motion pictures set in SoHo then and now. Commercials for products with SoHo as their backdrops.
As I was doing research for this post, 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? One thing is for sure, it is 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!
Berenice Abbott shot this mini-Hooverville on Mercer and Houston in 1935, during the Great Depression before SoHo was SoHo.
Thomas Struth caught the essence of 1970’s SoHo streets in this 1978 photo of the corner of Crosby Street and Spring Street looking north toward Prince. I had already moved out by the time this was taken.
This Chanel ad, shot in front of my building on Mercer Street, appeared in Vogue, among other major fashion magazines, in the early 1990’s. I always wondered why the paparazzi were photographing her from behind. Note the photoshop job on the garage sign in the background.
And speaking of paparazzi, countless photos taken in front of the Mercer Hotel, where photographers camp out around the clock, have appeared everywhere. Here, Christina Aguilera takes her dog out for a walk.
In this December 6, 2012 photo from Just Jared: A grinning Taylor Swift and Harry Styles leave a party at Crosby Hotel together.
This is a photo of me and my sister in ca. 1973 standing in almost the same spot at Taylor and Harry, back when it would have been absurd to even think about building a hotel in SoHo.
This is the back of the album jacket of Joni Mitchell’s 1968 Song to a Seagull. The photo was taken on my block, outside 169 Mercer Street looking south.
Growing up on Mercer Street, I owned and often played Billy Joel’s 1983 An Innocent Man. Looking at the jacket photo, I had no idea that he was sitting on my block, on the steps of 142 Mercer Street at Prince, at what is now the Prada Store.
I was clued in to this video by Alex at Flaming Pablum, who describes it as “an ancient, pre-Hip Hop Beastie Boys video wherein the fledgling foursome (back when future Luscious Jackson member Kate Schellenbach was still in their ranks) and their youthfully punky pals are depicted frolicking with juvenile abandon amid what looks likethe then-grimy, industrial streets of SoHo.” Much of this video was shot on Crosby near Spring, where the parking lot used to be.
Sean at The SoHo Alliance recently sent me a link to this trés trés groovy video “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Pizzicato Five, shot almost entirely in SoHo, a good portion of it on my block. Anyone care to guess when it was filmed? It’s pre-Mercer Hotel, there are shots of the Prince Street Station post office and Jerry’s is still there as is the Prince Street Bar.
Although I never saw the film, I remember when they were shooting State of Grace with Sean Penn, Gary Oldman and friends, which came out in 1990. They must have done twenty takes of this scene until they got it just right. They also shot a scene inside Fanelli’s, where these trigger-happy guys are headed.
Here’s a heavily-CGI-ed shot of our block from I Am Legend, the 2007 film starring Will Smith as one of a handful of survivors in a post-apocalyptic New York City.
And who can forget Ghost, the 1990 romantic thriller starring Partick Swayze and Demi Moore. In this scene, Swayze’s character is shot right in front of my old house at 97 Crosby Street during an attempted robbery.
This cast photo from Ghost was taken on my current block on Mercer Street, in front of the (now) Prada Store, where Billy Joel shot his album cover yeas before.
Here, Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie as Andy Warhol stroll down Crosby Street across the street from my old loft in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat. Someone recently told me that Basquiat lived in our building at 97 Crosby about 10 years after we moved out.
My mom, my sister, and me standing on the same black in front of our building on Crosby Street, ca. 1975.
Here, the real-life Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol pose for a picture on my block on Mercer Street. The Marc Jacobs store next door to my house used to be the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, where Basquiat and Warhol once had a joint show.
A version of this post first appeared on this blog on September 1, 2014
As we all know, SoHo proper has absolutely NO open space, not to mention green space. We once had a few parking lots, but those have all be developed, so we must venture across Broadway or West Broadway or Houston Street to get a glimpse of the sky.
In the past, I’ve written about public spaces near SoHo that residents visit and cherish for lack of their own. First, in 2011 I wrote about Bobby Bolles Park, now called Sunflower Park, the small triangle of land at West Broadway and Watts Street where Bobby Bolles placed his welded sculptures until they were removed by the Parks Department. Then, I wrote about Thompson Playground (now called Vesuvio) in 2012, where all of us SoHo kids learned how to swim. In 2013, I wrote about The Elizabeth Street Garden, an all-volunteer-run greenspace on Elizabeth between Prince and Spring in NoLiTa that hosts various events for families.
I have now come to my fourth in this series of celebrations of the few open air oases in our corner of this urban jungle: The LaGuardia Corner Gardens (LGC).
In 1974, on a vacant lot at the southwest corner of LaGuardia Place & West 3d Street dubbed “The Corner Garden,” a loosely formed group of Village residents began to garden on small plots, one of whom was my best friend’s mother, Ingrid. Ingrid used to bring us to help her plant and weed, and I probably wouldn’t remember it so well if my first bicycle had not been stolen from just outside the garden’s gate while I was picking strawberries. It’s currently strawberry season, so this must have happened around this time of year in about 1975. But this story is not about me and my ex-bike, it’s about our neighborhood’s scarce and valuable green space!
In the summer of 1980, the garden’s land was sold for development. The Corner Garden, as it was known, ended with the arrival of a bulldozer, and was replaced by the apartment building where that stationery store is today.
Ever resourceful and resilient, in the spring of 1981, several of the gardeners, led by Cheryl Small, Norma Turrill, Susan Kocki, Gean Mathwig, David Blake, Sandy Klabunde, and others, formed LaGuardia Corner Gardens, Inc., as a 501(3)(c) non-profit corporation. The gardeners negotiated with NYC’s GreenThumb program and Community Board 2 to move the garden to barren land a block south, on city property adjacent to a supermarket, where it is today.
After many Community Board meetings and hearings, and over some opposition but with the overwhelming support of the majority of local residents, the garden obtained approval to develop the space as a garden. The gardeners spread the dirt and removed the rubble, plots were assigned, a wood shed was built to house the tools, and the planting began. In April 1985 an underground connection to the water supply was installed, making the garden self-sufficient.
Since then, LGC has been a cherished community hub where neighbors get together and enjoy a bit of nature and serenity in our otherwise uber-urban neck of the woods. The future of the garden is at present unknown. LaGuardia Corner Gardens is on land owned by the New York City Department of Transportation. LCG’s members have sought to transfer the site to the Parks Department in order to protect the garden from development. Both Community Board 2 and our NYC Council Member support the transfer, but NYU has blocked the transfer.
NYU owns the one-story supermarket adjacent to the garden, as well as the superblock comprising the Silver Towers. NYU has offered the supermarket site to the City for a public school. If the City decides not to build a school there, NYU will build on the site. A taller, bulkier building would block the sun needed to grow flowers — assuming the plants can be rescued during the multi-year construction.
Whatever the future brings, LGC at present is a beautiful, award-winning community garden, a place of natural beauty that is open to the public where visitors find an oasis of calm in urban surroundings. During the growing season visitors enjoy a dazzling display of daffodils, tulips, irises, peonies, roses, and other perennials, as well as shrubs and fruit trees. In the spring members conduct programs for local school-children. Garden events include seasonal celebrations, events for children, and a variety of musical offerings. And best of al, it’s for all to enjoy, open daily with free admission, though donations are always welcome. So the next time you’re passing by, please do stop in and smell the roses—or daffodils, or tulips, or irises, or peonies…
511 LaGuardia Place (bet. Bleecker & Houston Streets). Google Map
April – May: 10 am – 6 pm
June – August: 10 am – 8 pm
Sept. & Oct: 10 am – 6 pm
(Possibly closed when it rains)
Click here to donate online.
SoHo is currently zoned as a manufacturing district that basically allows for light manufacturing, wholesale business and commercial use only, with the exception of certified artists, who are allowed to live in commercial buildings, if they can prove that they need the space to produce their work.
In 1969, the Department of City Planning conducted a survey that resulted in rezoning of the SoHo area, which was then zoned strictly for manufacturing use. In 1971, the Board of Estimates made it legal for certified artists to live in joint living and work quarters (JLWQ) in the newly-zoned SoHo area.
This zoning law that governs the use of buildings still stands today and requires every SoHo household to include at least one certified artist. But what, exactly, is an artist? According to the city, an artist will be granted certification if he or she demonstrates a serious, long-term commitment to an artistic medium and demonstrates a need for space to make art. Aesthetic considerations and the number of shows an artist has had (or not had) are supposedly not taken into account.
There is one exception to the artists-only rule. New buildings constructed on vacant lots are exempt and therefore anyone can legally live in these buildings. Otherwise, buyers who are not certified artists sometimes sign what is called a “SoHo Letter,” a waiver that acknowledges that they are aware that they do not have proper certification and they will not hold the building liable if the city finds that they are living in their homes illegally. As the JLWQ zoning law is rarely enforced, potential residents have little chance of eviction and therefore generally sign the waiver.
In 1987, the city granted amnesty to all SoHo residents, regardless of whether or not they were certified. Since then, many artists and non-artists have moved in and out of the neighborhood. Nobody knows how many artists, certified and non-certified, live and work in SoHo today, and it is probably impossible to find out. There have been several past attempts dating back to 1970 to get an accurate count, but any survey is immediately flawed by the fact that people living in SoHo illegally, whether it is because they are artists that have neglected to become certified or because the are not artists and therefore cannot apply for certification, would not respond in fear of being evicted.
In recent years, some have questioned whether JLWQ is relevant anymore. Even in the early days, there were non-artists who managed to get certified and legitimate artists who were rejected. As time went on, many non-artists found ways to obtain certification under false pretenses.
In 2012, The SoHo/NoHo Action Committee announced that it would raise funds to hire an independent team from Baruch College’s Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute to do a survey of SoHo. This team planned to confirm how many of the city-certified artists whose addresses were in SoHo were still living at their registered addresses. This committee advocates for the JLWQ zoning law to be revised to allow anyone, not just artists, to live in SoHo. They feel that the law is hindering their real estate valuation and that very few artists still live in SoHo, making the law obsolete. No survey by SoHo/NoHo Action Committee has been conducted to date, however.
Just recently, Councilwoman Margaret Chin proposed legislation to require owners of JLQW units to provide notice when a JLQW unit becomes vacant. It remains to be seen what will come of this proposal.
Through my own personal experiences since beginning this project in 2011, I have met many many artists who still live in SoHo, many more that I thought existed. These artists live in the shadows of the bright and shiny boutiques and designer lofts, obscured but present. They tend to live quietly in their old-school lofts that have not changed since they moved in 45 years ago and watched their maintenance costs skyrocket due to the pricey demands of their new neighbors. Marble lobbies, roof decks, and other amenities are paid for by all coop members, even those who do not wish for such “improvements” and cannot afford them.
Regardless of exactly how many artists live in SoHo today, many SoHo old timers are in favor of keeping JLWQ zoning in place as a means of slowing down real estate development, although not all. I have heard that some people have trouble getting financing to purchase a loft due to zoning restrictions and some hoping to sell their lofts have to do so at a lower price because some buyers with deep pockets are scared off by it.
For many long-time SoHo residents, most of whom are artists and some of whom are non-artists grandfathered by the 1987 amnesty, however, the law is seen as a safeguard against being pushed out by escalating costs. At one time, they were the ones who were living in SoHo illegally, when nobody else wanted to live there. Now, they are the only ones who are legal residents. They see this protection as a birthright of sorts, dating back to the days when they were giving birth to a nascent SoHo.
I am so very pleased to announce the publication of The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980, by SMP friend Aaron Shkuda. I’ve know Aaron since he was doing research for his dissertation (also on SoHo) a few years back. He is now a professor at Princeton and has written this fascinating book about how residents transformed the industrial neighborhood that is now called SoHo into an artist district, creating the conditions under which it evolved into an upper-income, gentrified area.
In The Lofts of SoHo, Aaron Shkuda studies the transition of the district from industrial space to artists’ enclave to affluent residential area, focusing on the legacy of urban renewal in and around SoHo and the growth of artist-led redevelopment. Shkuda explores conflicts between residents and property owners and analyzes the city’s embrace of the once-illegal loft conversion as an urban development strategy. As Shkuda explains, artists eventually lost control of SoHo’s development, but over several decades they nonetheless forced scholars, policymakers, and the general public to take them seriously as critical actors in the twentieth-century American city.
The following is an excerpt from chapter 4 of The Lofts of SoHo:
Artist Organizations, Political Advocacy, and the Creation of a Residential SoHo
In February 1961, SoHo artists faced another threat that almost ended their nascent colony. This peril was not an economic downturn, the prospect of a highway, or even the early stages of gentrification. Instead, the culprits were some of the most mundane elements of urban governance: zoning ordinances and building codes. These types of regulations are meant to protect residents, and it was the issue of resident safety that caused an acute crisis in the SoHo artist community. In late 1960 and early 1961, a series of fires broke out in industrial lofts below Houston Street, leading to the deaths of four people, including three firefighters. Though none of the fires occurred in lofts where artists lived, these blazes led the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Department of Buildings to launch a series of inspections of SoHo structures.1
Although both agencies initially reacted to a series of code violations in industrial buildings, they soon made a surprising discovery: artists living il- legally in these structures. The New York Herald-Tribune reported that city officials found at least 128 illegal apartments in the area containing “beatniks, complete with beards” living with “mattresses on the floor and works on Zen Buddhism,” along with vermin and cockroaches. In turn, Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Thomas J. Hartnett wondered how anyone could stand living in this section of Manhattan, asking, “How do they get their milk delivered?”2
This “discovery” of SoHo residents reveals an important element of the neighborhood’s early history: that the very idea of living in a loft was completely novel. Whereas lofts are now ubiquitous in urban areas worldwide, hardly any people considered living in former industrial space before the 1960s. Similarly, few observers saw artists as people with the power to trans- form neighborhoods or develop real estate, as demonstrated by the Herald-Tribune’s use of the word beatniks, the derogatory term for bohemians of that era, to describe SoHo residents; in that writer’s view, they did not even rise to the level of artist. As mentioned in the previous chapter, local building and zoning laws made no allowance for people who wanted to live in industrial buildings. As a result, when they encountered loft residents for the first time, city officials did not celebrate the possible rebirth of a struggling industrial area at the hands of artists. Instead, they threatened them with eviction.
In response to the specter of eviction, artists organized themselves politically, forming lobbying organizations and using public demonstrations and boycotts to advocate for their housing needs. SoHo artists threw the entire weight of the New York art world behind their cause. Well-known artists such as Willem de Kooning and Isamu Noguchi, as well as curators and gallery owners, spoke out in favor of loft residents. Through their advocacy, SoHo residents worked to redefine the role of the artist in society in the minds of local leaders. They argued that affordable housing for up-and-coming art- ists was crucial to New York’s future because artists were the backbone of its cultural economy, as well as the people who gave the city its reputation as the world’s leading creative and artistic center.
In making these arguments, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of the debate about how to redevelop cities at a time of urban crisis. By finding value and beauty in outdated industrial structures, they also reclaimed prop- erties viewed as obsolete eyesores by urban renewal advocates. By pioneering new uses for lofts, SoHo residents created powerful arguments against slum clearance, particularly in industrial and commercial areas.
SoHo artists also shifted the terms of the ongoing debates over neighbor- hood preservation and rehabilitation. Although meeting the housing needs of lower-income populations in central cities had long been a preoccupa- tion of policy makers, artists looked to demonstrate that they were a unique group—relatively poor people with distinct housing needs but who also had the power to drive the city’s economy and give it its unique identity. They urged city leaders to help bolster one of the few things that New York still had going for it—its reputation for the arts—by allowing artists to live in the manner that best suited them: in converted industrial lofts with room to live and work affordably.
Though they fought to change zoning laws, rather than against slum clear- ance, artists developed powerful arguments that pushed the debate over the future of urban neighborhoods beyond the renewal/community defense paradigm that had dominated discourse up to that point. Unlike antirenewal protesters, who mainly focused on preserving their neighborhoods, SoHo artists posited a new future for their community. They argued that their efforts would revitalize an area shaped by deindustrialization and urban re- newal. At the same time, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of a debate over the future of their neighborhood. To SoHo artists, urban culture could do for SoHo what other urban development schemes could not: create a vi- brant neighborhood that helped drive the city’s economy and identity. Much like the backers of projects such as Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, SoHo artists were staking out a place for culture in the city. The same New York artistic culture that could help the United States compete with the Soviet Union for cultural dominance globally could also help breathe life into moribund in- dustrial neighborhoods.3
In the end, artist groups in SoHo achieved goals that were both modest and significant. Their advocacy led to changes in two regulations that allowed only a limited number of artists to live legally in a loft. Yet these laws were the first to make it legal for anyone to live in such a structure and the first to give government sanction to anyone, artist or otherwise, to live in any former industrial space. Moreover, these policies indicated that more New Yorkers were starting to support an argument made by SoHo activists: that artists had a unique power to reinvigorate neighborhoods long ago left for dead. Thanks to artist advocacy, policy makers began to connect artist housing and urban vitality, a link that would become the foundation of theories of creative place making and the creative class several decades later. Through their actions and words, SoHo artists made the case that art could be a force for urban change.
Reprinted with permission from The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980by Aaron Shkuda, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Aaron Shkuda is Project Manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism & the Humanities, and holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago.
This book is available from The University of Chicago Press and at local bookstores including McNally Jackson at 52 Prince Street, and through Amazon.com.
To read another excerpt from this book please visit The Gotham Center blog.
I recently had the privilege of visiting the home and studio of Ben Schonzeit. It turns out the we have been neighbors on Mercer Street going on 40 years and we had never met. Ben, a pioneer of the Photorealist movement, is well-known for his gripping, hyper-realistic depictions of subjects in vivid color. He is also a prolific collage artist and I also discovered, to my delight, that he is a fellow mail artist! His talents are many, but the purpose of my visit was to view his photograph collection, specifically his photos of old SoHo. We spent a nice couple of hours looking at his vast collection of images from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The following are a select few of the many fantastic SoHo scenes he captured, now long gone, but never forgotten. All captions by Ben Schonzeit.
Back in October 2015, The SoHo Memory Project held a day of recording with StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate the lives of everyday Americans by listening to their stories. Six pairs of SoHo old timers came by to share stories at the StoryBooth recording studio down in Foley Square, and their 40-minute conversations were recorded by StoryCorps staff.
Each conversation is unique and tells a fascinating story. The stories as a group tell the larger story of SoHo as it developed from an industrial area to a thriving artists community to a retail center. Below are excerpts from the conversations recorded by StoryCorps, which will be preserved and archived in the American Folklife Center at The Library of Congress.
I hope you enjoy these remembrances, and I hope you will be inspired to listen to more conversations about SoHo and to share your own story through our ongoing oral history project in partnership with The New York Public Library.
Guy Story, longtime SoHo resident and musician, speaks with his wife, Kerry Donahue, about leaving Mississippi to come to New York City:
Shael Shapiro, architect and co-author with his wife, Roz Bernstein, of Illegal Living, explains how loft living first came about in SoHo:
Shael recalls buying a loft from George Maciunas and doing construction at 80 Wooster Street:
Filmmaker and journalist Jim Stratton speaks to his daughter, Callison, about the formation of the SoHo Artists Association and how the name SoHo came to be:
Jim remembers renovating his loft space:
Artist Joyce Kozloff tells neighbor and long-time friend, Elizabeth Weatherford, how living in SoHo has affected her work:
Joyce and Elizabeth discuss gentrification and SoHo as role model for other artists districts:
Sean Sweeney, Executive Director of the SoHo Alliance, tells Yukie Ohta about SoHo’s fight with Donald Trump:
Artists Thornton Willis and wife Vered Lieb remember moving into their loft:
Thornton and Vered on the charm of SoHo then and now:
All excerpts produced by The SoHo Memory Project with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. http://www.storycorps.org
The tagline for this blog is “shaping our collective memory one post at a time.” Which is to say that, although we have been remembering SoHo’s past together, these remembrances have been (with a few exceptions) through my own posts, via my voice.
I am therefore pleased to present a new perspective today, a real treat! The following is an excerpt from Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams, an impressionistic memoir-in-progress/archival scrapbook by Sharon Watts of her art student years in NYC, 1971-1974. Here, we follow Watts on her remembered meanderings around SoHo, Chinatown, Little Italy, and The World Trade Center. These vivid descriptions of the downtown New York art scene of the early-1970’s, as seen through the eyes of a young transplant from Pennsylvania, are illustrated with pieces of ephemera from her scrapbook and offer us a backward glance at a New York long gone but not forgotten.
Please feel free to share your own memories of coming to SoHo for the first time, whenever that was, in the comments box below. I would love to hear from you and to add your story to this growing collection!
From Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams by Sharon Watts:
Periodically during that summer of 1972, visitors showed up on our Bleecker Street doorstep. Into town trooped our just-past-the-cusp hippie generation, armed with backpacks and incense, en route to Transcendental Meditation seminars in a nondescript hotel on West 44th Street, or Woodstock-spawned outdoor music festivals, further upstate. High school friends would come and flop for a few days, and out of the confines of our provincial background we explored who we were now and where we were heading. Turntables wore thin the Chicago Transit Authority’s hit single, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, befitting our metaphysical musings over cheap Almaden rosé and tokes of weed. It was as close to a communal lifestyle as I was prepared to get.
SoHo was definitely on the itinerary for our impromptu walkabouts, a convenient way to experience the fact that we were not in the ’burbs of Central PA anymore. Cheap, often illegal housing and vast, open floor space with uninterrupted natural light lured artists to the waning industrial neighborhood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The new moniker stood for “south of Houston,” a street that I had quickly learned not to pronounce like a tourist. Other than Fanelli’s Bar, a former speakeasy lined with boxing photos from the 1920s yellowed from time and cigar smoke, there were few businesses to serve the fledgling community. And so, Food was born: a cafeteria-style healthy-wholesome restaurant on the corner of Prince and Wooster that was managed and owned by neighborhood artists. Brewer’s yeast, carob powder, buckwheat groats, and lentil loaf entered the lexicon of the New Age culture, as well as our Bleecker Street pantry. I might have sat obliviously slurping split pea soup shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Close, the photorealist portrait artist, or some future famous Minimalist, but I was unfamiliar with the current art scene’s protagonists. No one was recognizable except to each other, and everyone had long hair and was democratically covered with splatters of paint.
Below Houston Street, you never knew what you’d encounter that you had never seen before.
A letter to a high school friend:
6 May 1972
I hit the downtown art galleries today–went in one & immediately got offered a joint. In another some old man with whiskers on his nose came up, hugged & kissed me, & squeezed my cheek asking how I got so beautiful without using “cosmetics.” What a farce–I felt like the fattest, ugliest blob alive. You’ll have to come and see the galleries, they’re a 10 min. walk away & some of them are really weird. Like walking down West Broadway I see an inflated red volkswagon “parked” in front of the O.K. Harris gallery. Inside there was a Mack truck, a sports car, & a tractor–all inflated but made out of weird, bumpy mushy plastic with flat tires. I just wanted to run & jump on them.
In another gallery, Duane Hanson’s life-size hyperrealistic sculptures of the average American, overweight and touristy-garish, forgettable in real life, unforgettable here in resin, fiberglass, and fabric.
Or under a tilted floorboard: a man hidden, prone, masturbating while people walked above, the footsteps fueling his fantasies which he broadcast over a speaker. Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, and I was part of it. Of course, I didn’t really get it conceptually in any way, shape or form, and have no memory of what seedy thought I might have spawned. I was darting around the surface of the New York art world, not yet sure where I wanted to alight or what I wanted to absorb in depth.
Acconci, Hanson, and so many others were staking claim on that fertile patch of real estate in lower Manhattan, pushing boundaries in the minds of critics and the public alike. Photorealist John Baeder’s diner paintings charmed me; the seeds of nostalgia were already embedded, and the subject matter connected me to my roots. Growing up, we always drove by a tiny chrome eatery in Lemoyne, just before crossing the bridge into Harrisburg on the way to church. But I wasn’t drawn to any one specific artist or trend. The idea that it all was perking and popping and bubbling onto the stovetop of a city grid just a few blocks away was exciting enough. I felt like a cultural scout, first discovering it on my own, then being a tour guide for my friends.
After the gallery trawl, we’d walk the short distance further east and south to Chinatown, its pagoda-topped telephone booth on Canal Street a surefire Instamatic photo op. Averting my eyes from the roast ducks hanging in restaurant windows, I instead focused on exotic trinkets spilling out of storefronts and onto the sidewalk. President Nixon had just visited China a few months earlier, opening up trade for the first time since the People’s Republic was formed in 1949. Soon the phrase “Made in China” would take on a whole new meaning.
We would stop for a cheap meal in a noodle shop on one of the crooked streets (but eat with forks, as none of us could maneuver chopsticks), then cross Canal Street again and polish it off with pastry and cappuccino at Ferrara or Cafe Roma on Mulberry Street. Some more meandering, on to Fanelli’s or its hip younger sister, the Spring Street Bar (where I might run into my favorite teacher, Kes Zapkus), then back to home base.
The New York neighborhoods I discovered were distinctive and separate patches of a quilt. The Lower East Side was historically Jewish, with its discount goods, crumbling synagogues, and Streit’s matzoh factory. Hispanic threads were embroidered in, and bodegas coexisted with bagel and bialy shops, Spanish commingling with any remaining Yiddish wafting from tenements and onto the streets. Chinatown was virtually all contained (though straining at the seams) below Canal Street and east of Mott, with Little Italy to the north, nestled cozily under red, white and green tinsel street bowers. Benign-looking social clubs harbored the kind of family business that I had only just witnessed on the big screen in The Godfather. I would work up the nerve to steal a peek inside, seeing only a few old Italian men sitting around a card table. Still, it was hard to shake the image of that horse head in the bed. Just that April, the mobster Crazy Joe Gallo was shot five times in Umberto’s Clam Bar while dining with his family, then stumbled to the street and died. Of course I had to walk over to the scene of the crime a few days later, not sure if I would see dried blood and a chalk outline, or if I even wanted to.
Part of the connecting stretch between these colorful, ethnic blocks and Greenwich Village was Lafayette Street, empty and desolate on weekends, its sooty windows showcasing mysterious tool and die industry machines, quietly at rest. On the East River, the South Street seaport was not yet a tourist destination, and barely changed in two hundred years.
Only to the far south was there any evidence of the future, a double exclamation point to the city’s evolution from the days of Dutch commerce. The World Trade Center was nearly finished, looming mirage-like, our own Oz. One afternoon I decided to walk down West Broadway from Houston Street, until I was standing just below the towers. Along the way, quiet brick-surfaced side streets crowded my peripheral vision with ghosts of factory workers hurrying to punch the clock, and massive buildings, once proud dowagers of the industrial age, loitered as shadows of their former selves. Dumpsters were attached in front like aprons, overflowing with fabric scraps from sweatshops, and perched high above were water towers–tiaras from another time. It was the eeriest, emptiest walk I could remember, with the end always a bit further away than it seemed, just out of reach. Iconic: but of what? I didn’t know, in 1972.
Step by step I stitched myself into the fabric of this quilt I now called home.
On January 1, 2011, I started writing this blog without a clue about where it would lead. I began almost grudgingly, thinking that someone ought to be preserving SoHo’s important and endlessly interesting history, but not me. Five years later, I am very happy that I took the plunge, as this project has only reinforced my conviction that preservation in all of its forms is not only important, but essential to how we situate ourselves in the present and how we envision our future.
2015 was a very busy year for The SoHo Memory Project. After a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign and a fabulous article by Kyle Spencer in The New York Times, my project expanded in leaps and bounds, keeping me busy with exciting new developments. Here’s an overview of what’s to come and nja recap of highlights from the past few months.
Many thanks to all of you for your continued support in input!
The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society
It’s finally finished and ready to hit the streets! Thanks to a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities, The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society will be popping up at SoHo Arts Network (SAN) member organizations throughout 2016 beginning with four dates at Judd Foundation in January and February. The Judd sessions require a reservation, and we are currently fully booked, but the mobile museum will be at The Drawing Center two weekends in February and March, open to all:
Saturday, February 20, 12-4pm
Sunday, February 21, 12-4 pm
Saturday, March 5, 12-4pm
Sunday, March 6, 12-4pm