Getty Images

Mercer Parking Garage in the mid-1980's

I had a recurring dream (nightmare?) when I was a teenager.  I was being chased by a faceless someone.  As I turned the corner onto my block, I saw Willie standing in front of the Mercer Garage so I ran up to him and he said something like, “It’s okay.  You’re safe here.”  Since then, whenever I see the garage or Willie, who has worked there since 1983, I feel safe.

I recently spoke with Jay, the owner of the garage, and found out that his family has a long history in SoHo and on Mercer Street, WAY longer than my family.

The building at 165 Mercer Street was originally a factory but was converted to a parking garage when automobiles began to be popular.  Apparently, during prohibition, there was also some bootlegging going on in the building as well.

An FBI photo of the Mercer Parking Garage when bootleggers and cars shared space upstairs

Back in the 60’s, Jay’s father, Calman, an auto mechanic, bought the building, and he and his brother, Jay’s uncle Morris, who had worked in an embroidery workshop down the street since just after WWII in what is now the Donald Judd building, ran the garage, which used to sell Getty gasoline.  Calman would work the morning rush at the garage and then leave to work at an auto body shop on Bleecker and Lafayette (where Pinche Tacqueria is now) all day and then he would come back to the garage to work the evening rush.  He would take Saturdays off,  and then on Sundays, when the garage was closed, Jay would come in to the city from Brooklyn with his father and mother.  His father would go to the shop to work on cars he didn’t get to during the week while his mother would clean and sweep at the garage.  Jay would go across the street to the former NYU playground (see my post on the playground here) to play pickup basketball games and then in the evening the whole family would go to Chinatown for dinner.  That was their Sunday ritual.

I did not know Calman, but I have only fond memories of Morris, who passed away in 1991.  He always greeted me and my family cheerfully, and on spring and summer evenings in the 1970’s, I would sometimes sit with a friend on the bench outside his garage and practice the songs we learned in our chorus.  Morris would come out of his office applauding and give us each fifty cents for our “beautiful” singing.  Fifty cents could buy us a slice of pizza, a subway ride, or a boatload of candy, so, to us at least, it was a substantial chunk of change.

Back then, the garage’s clientele was mostly comprised of commuters coming in to SoHo to work at the factories and offices. The garage workers knew all of their customers, as they were mostly monthly parkers who would come in every weekday.  They were Monday morning quarterbacks who would talk sports and chat and there was a real camaraderie, a sense of community, at the garage.

By the early 1980’s, most of the factories closed and the clientele began changing.  There are still some monthly customers, but Jay says that there are more and more “transients” who remain anonymous.  Lunchers.  Shoppers.  Weekend partyers.  The garage is open late on Saturday nights to accommodate the dinner crowd, but they still close at 7:30 pm on weekdays, which gives them just enough time to get all the cars out and the trucks in.

Business is down due to the recession.  People are choosing to just stay home.  But Jay says he would never sell.  I’m sure he knows just how valuable his building is, that it could become the first Walmart in NYC, but he likes running a business and he plans to pass it along, just as it was passed along to him.

I find it reassuring to know that as long as I live on Mercer Street, I will always have my safe haven from my faceless pursuer.  I always woke up before I could see who he was—Sam Walton, perhaps?

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7 Responses to “Getty Images”

  1. Sean Says:

    Thanks for the post. I used to live on Mercer Street, in what is now the Mercer Hotel and, although, I never parked my car at the garage (I was shrewd enough to use commercial plates which permitted easy parking), I always noticed how nice those guys seemed. Jay and I actually greet each other.

    However, there seems to be an inconsistency in your account. You state that it was converted to a garage in the 1949s. But Prohibition ended in the 30s. If the place was used for bootlegging, and the FBI shows it was a garage at the time of Prohibition, it seems impossible that the garage conversion took place in the 40s.

    • Yukie Says:

      Good point. I’ll double-check dates with Jay next time I see him and get back to you!

      When did you live in the Mercer Hotel building? I was trying to remember when and for how long the building was empty. Do you remember the history of the building? I remember that all of the community opposition to the hotel delayed its construction, but I was pretty young then, so I do not remember much.

    • Yukie Says:

      I spoke with Jay about the date discrepancy, and he said that the building was converted to a parking garage some time after cars became popular, he assumes around 1940, but it could have been earlier.

      • Sean Says:

        The Tunnel Garage, on Thompson and Broome, was built in 1922. According to wikipedia, “by the 1920s, the price of a Model T had fallen to $290 (equivalent to $3,289 today) because of increasing efficiencies of assembly line technique and volume.’
        So cars were quite common by the 20s.

        Prohibition lasted from 1919-1933. FBI photos show that it was a garage during Prohibition, thus pre-1933.

        From the Dept of Buildings website:
        NUMBER TYPE FILE DATE
        ALT 1095-08 ALTERATION 00/00/1908
        ALT 1357-25 ALTERATION 00/00/1925
        ALT 1499-63 ALTERATION 00/00/1963

        ALT = Alteration Permit granted

        So, it seems that it became a garage in 1925. It was built in 1870, btw, designed by noted architect of SoHo Cast-Iron buildings, Henry Fernbach.

      • Yukie Says:

        Thanks, Sean. You are a veritable font of knowledge and wisdom!

  2. Sean Says:

    I lived there from 1977 to 1981, at which time there was a rent strike and we were paid by the landlord to move out.
    Then it remained empty for over ten years.

    Originally it was bought from the old landlord in 1980 by one of the Futtermans, who are big in real estate. Then Andre Balazs and some investors bought it for a hotel. Not sure why it took so long to convert it, once the Special Permit was granted (around 1990).

    A Special Permit from City Planning Commission was needed because they wanted the lobby on the ground floor, and hotel lobbies are not permitted on the ground floor under SoHo zoning.
    But that administrative process only delayed it maybe six months.

    So, although there was some opposition by the SoHo Alliance to the permit in 1990, why it remained vacant and derelict for about five or six years had nothing to do with that opposition.

    At the same time, there was opposition to other hotels going up, including the SoHo Grand (circa 1995) and one on a West Bdwy/Wooster parking lot(circa 1990), which encountered stiffer community opposition.
    The West Bdwy/Wooster project was stalled for so long( I think there also were some Building Code issues) that a hotel there was never built. Instead an apartment building went up, after a change in the zoning in 2005 permitted the construction of new residential buildings on empty lots in SoHo/NoHo.

    The Mercer Hotel building (99 Prince/147 Mercer) was originally built by John Jacob Astor for his fur company. By 1977, it was a mix of artists, artist-types, and some factories.

    The legendary progenitor of House music and “disco” located there from NoHo in 1976 or so, called The Loft. It was a private party for the DJ’s many friends and their friends that set the stage later for disco, House music, raves, and all their accoutrements like mirrored balls, velvet ropes, and wild free-for-alls.
    It was located on the ground floor and basement and opened on Saturdays from midnight Saturday to noon Sunday.

    The SoHo Artists Association (the predecessor of the SoHo Alliance) opposed its opening, but its use was permitted at the time.
    So, in 1976, SoHo’s zoning was tweaked to require Special Permits from CPC in order to open a dancing venue. That is one reason why SoHo never became like the Meat Market.

    Other after-hour events or, as some later called them, “discos”, flourished in SoHo/NoHo in the early to late 70s, many catering to a gay or minority clientele of color. These included the famous Paradise Garage, Infinity, Flamingo, The Gallery, and the Firehouse, a venue on lower Wooster, where the Gay Activist Alliance met and organized, as well as sponsoring parties and dances.

    You probably could do a post on the importance of SoHo in the creation of evolution of disco, nightclubbing, and House music, something not too many guide books focus on.

  3. Yukie Says:

    Thanks, again, Sean for all of this fantastic background information!

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