A Work in Progress

LOFT LIVING This is the front half of our "glamorous" $125/month floor-through loft on Crosby Street with sooty windows on four sides, plastic stapled to the ceiling where it was falling down, furniture mostly found in dumpsters, and, of course, no C of O. But oh so much space!

When people I meet learn that I grew up in a SoHo loft, they always say that it must have been so fun and glamorous.  I guess it was fun riding my bike or swinging on the porch swing in our “living room,” but it was also really UNCOMFORTABLE and not really glamorous at all.  But it was also all I knew.  How could I know that other children grew up with central heating and soundproofed walls?

At the VERY beginning (and I don’t actually remember this, my mom told me about it), we had a coal burning stove for heat.  A truck would come and dump a pile of coal in front of our building and my mom and dad would shovel it into a barrel and bring it upstairs where we’d burn it and get sooty windows.  But here’s the best part—we didn’t clean the windows because we were living there illegally and my parents didn’t want anyone knowing that we were there.

After my parents got sick of schlepping coal, we got one of those gas blowers, but the heat in our loft was still erratic at best.  When it was really cold outside, I sometimes had to sleep in my winter coat even though every year we taped plastic over all the windows, including the fire escape, to keep out the drafts—not the safest thing to do but better than frostbite in your sleep, I guess.  And the windows were so flimsy that they let in all sorts of noises from the street.  No wonder I suffered from insomnia as a kid.

As the years went by, our home started taking shape.  Luckily, my father was a carpenter (as well as a painter), so whenever we could afford to add a room or upgrade our fixtures, he just did it.  No permits or permission from the landlord.  But, partly because we only had a couple of radiators in the front of the loft to heat the entire space (by then we had moved to a loft with steam heat), the walls of our rooms (except for the bathroom) did not go all the way up to the ceiling.  Eight foot walls with a twelve foot ceiling do not provide much privacy, nor do they protect you from the television blaring in the other room while you are trying to read.

Little by little, our home acquired the comforts of a home.  We got a buzzer downstairs so that we didn’t have to throw a key in a sock out the window every time we had guests.  We got an automatic elevator so that we didn’t have to yell up the shaft for someone to bring us the elevator after we bought a lot of groceries.  We got double windows put in so that we didn’t have to hear the carousers leaving Match at four AM.  We even got a new boiler so that we had (over) adequate heat in the winter (though my bedroom today still has no radiator and eight foot walls…).  But this all took about forty years to accomplish.  Our home, like those of all the SoHo old-timers who managed to stay in their homes, was and still is a work in progress.

As I mentioned earlier, for people my age, it was all we knew.  Loft living was the norm.  And it really was fun having all that space.  But what about all of you who out there moved here from other, more comfortable, places?  What was it like raising a family and making a home in a place at once so unglamorous and inhospitable and also so much fun?

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7 Responses to “A Work in Progress”

  1. Yukie Says:

    Hi Mark- Perhaps you can reiterate here some of what you said in your last comment about the SAA, AIR status, and the Dept. of Sanitation to continue the discussion?

  2. mark gabor Says:

    Maybe we can build a memory together. Much of this fits in with what Lois Atkins wrote on the 4th. I’m just expanding on parts of our history.

    I’m thinking of a series of meetings (c. 1969-70?) when a a dozen or so early Soho artists got together to form the Soho Artists’ Association (SAA) and discuss the pros & cons of our legalizing our living in the neighborhood. I seem to remember a chap named Wiegand (Bob or Ed?) and another named Carl, Maybe Jim Stratton. Maybe Don Gangemi. Maybe Joe Schlichter. Can anyone remember anyone else?

    There was heated arguing as to whether we should even admit to a public identity as “SoHo” (South of Houston) since it might create problems for most of us (non-AIR status) who preferred to live illegally and under the radar of the Police, Fire, and Sanitation departments. The other side of the debate was that SoHo, with its increasing numbers of artists, would inevitably be “exposed” to the public, as well as the NYC gov’t services — so why not volunteer our local identity and existence, and work out deals where we could get Sanitation pick-up, Police protection, and Fire Dept. protection without being harassed by the threat of unannounced inspections.

    The latter argument won out — tho I seem to recall some irate members of the group storming out of the meetings (“temperamental artists,” after all!). I was personally responsible for being the liaison with the Sanitation Dept. We worked out an arrangement for legal pick-up of residential garbage from in front of our buildings, I think twice a week. Prior to that, I recall walking my garbage to corner receptacles, preferably outside the SoHo blocks. Can anyone else remember what you did with garbage in the early days?

    There’s more that went on in these volatile SAA meetings, but I can’t think of any more details at this point. Anyone else?

    Change of subject: Does anyone remember how the space for the playgroup came about? It was a free basement area, corner of Wooster & Prince(?), donated by Charles Leslie & Fritz Lohman, building owners. We were told that we had to “fix it up” for our kids to use as a play space. And we did exactly that, using the same construction skills we used on our living lofts.
    Any more details on this?

  3. Anne Romasco Says:

    I have some playgroup photos to add to your collection. Since I’m not entirely savvy with downloading and forwarding them to you, I’ll see if I can get someone else to do so or send the hard copy to you for perusal.
    Good luck on your project. It’s a great idea!

  4. Yukie Says:

    Hello Anne- Please do send along any photos you might have to: sohomemory@gmail.com, and please also feel free anytime to share your SoHo (or Vandam Street) memories!

  5. Yukie Says:

    P.S. I have to admit that I left something out of the whole coal-burning stove story. My father CLAIMS that, before he started buying coal, he used to pick up empty fruit crates dumped on our block by an old Italian fruit merchant who would pass our building on his way back to Little Italy after perhaps a day at the market on his HORSE-DRAWN CART. It sounded too kooky to be true, so I decided not to put that part in originally, but now I’m wondering, could it be true? Were there merchants riding through SoHo on horse-drawn carts in the late-60’s (it sounds so late-19th C!)???

  6. Dov Says:

    Yeah there were cart merchants in the area, I remember when I lived on Prince there was a huge fruit cart on the back of an old truck that would show up on macdougal street just past king street. I have odd memories of the area that seem more 1940-50 than 60’s

    The Movie http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Thousand_Clowns has some great views of the city from that era though not really a downtown movie you get an idea how rapidly the old city was being flipped to what was in the 70’s

    I asked my mom once after we had moved into the loft in 70 when my friends were gonna move into their real apartments since their starter apartments were so small.

    When we moved in the loft was just big open space with the back staircase ending right in the back of the loft and a concrete slab with a toilet on it in front next to the elevator. Heat for the place was one of those giant industrial gas fan heaters in the back third of the loft that heated the whole place sorta during the winter.

    My room or I should say space since it was essentially the space between the wall we built to make a corridor for the stair case and a 12 foot movable closet (We have 20 foot ceilings) didn’t give much privacy at all. When the building had its meeting in the kitchen I got no sleep at all.
    We eventually built a small second floor for bedrooms and getting a door to my room was so amazingly luxurious.

    It was amazing back then what we could find in the street to make furniture out of like those giant wooden cable spools that could be used as a whole dining room table and the smaller ones for chairs.

    It was fun and quite an adventure growing up then, everyone was creative and it was an area filled with the raw material to be creative with in a rather unique way
    I miss dumpster diving and actually finding useful things

    • Yukie Says:

      Starter apartments! Ha ha! Amd. yes, dumpster diving is definitely not what it used to be. I’ll check out that movie. Thanks for the tip!

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