1980s SoHo: The View from my Fire Escape

The poster for the Warhol-Basquiat show at Tony Shafrazzi, 1985

After watching Jaime Davidovich’s evocative short film of 1970’s SoHo streets from last week’s post, I realized that the grainy, muted style in which it was shot captures the look and feel of what I see in my mind’s eye.  My memories of SoHo in the 70’s are not shot in digital video, or even 35 mm, but rather in shaky super-8.  But as my reminiscences of childhood advance into adolescence, at some point, my memories of SoHo loose their drab, almost monochrome quality and take on the vibrant colors of the land of Oz.

I don’t remember exactly when the transition takes place, but around the time when the 1970’s morphed into the 1980’s, when disco faded into new wave, when long hair went vertical to become high hair.  Comme des Garcons opened.  Then Agnes B.  Sundried tomatoes made their first appearance and maybe pesto.  Raoul’s opened a butcher shop complete with an Inspector Clouseau-accented Frenchman behind the counter and Lanciani on Prince sold fancy French cakes by the slice.  Benjamin Electrical Engineering Works, whose sign I had read countless times from my bedroom window, closed its doors and  Tony Shafrazi became our next door neighbor.  Et voila!  The vibrant color and unbridled enthusiasm of the 1980’s had arrived.

What a time to be a teenager!  Living in SoHo became a badge of honor, an indication of coolness and not weirdness.  Friends flocked to my loft after school, eager to see my closet full of black clothes and to ride in my manually operated freight elevator.  We would sit on my fire escape and spot the hair of Andy Warhol and Jim Jarmusch, instantly recognizable by their fluffy white ‘dos, making their way down the block to see Keith Haring’s show next door.  We would sneak downstairs and weave our way though a forest of pegged pants to steal a glass of wine.  Nobody ever noticed us, nor did they seem to notice the art.  With their backs to the walls, they were there to see each other in all of their neon-accessorized glory.

The facade of the Marc Jacobs store, formerly the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, on May 8, 2012. New New SoHo references Old New SoHo.

By 1985, when the Shafrazi Gallery mounted its Warhol-Basquiat show, advertised by those now infamous posters of the artists in boxing gloves ready to “fight” each other on canvas, the SoHo of my childhood was gone forever.  I might have mourned if I knew that a sea change had occurred.  I was quite unaware that we had entered a new phase in our neighborhood’s history, that anyone would look back at this time and place where money and all of its accouterments flowed freely and say “Those were the days!”  My friends and I just thought it was fun to gawk from the peanut gallery, looking down from the fire escape hoping to catch a flash of light as it reflected off all those shiny happy people.

I have not focused much on Postdiluvian SoHo here, but I think it deserves a closer look.  In the coming weeks and months, I would like to look back at what happened to our community after the flood of galleries, boutiques, and restaurants brought us into the limelight, for better or worse.  Please share your memories of this time in the comments section below, or write to me at sohomemory@gmail.com.

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13 Responses to “1980s SoHo: The View from my Fire Escape”

  1. Carol Goodden Says:

    This very good writing mentions Tony Shafrazi, among others of notable report. Remember tony Shafrazi – not for his gallery, but for his antics, his alleged (and I believe admitted) defacing of Picasso’s Guernica? Here are some of the news articles:
    http://artanonymous.blogspot.com/2011/07/art-of-knowing-when-not-to-do-something.html

  2. cassvcollins Says:

    In 1978, I came back to SoHo, having spent several years in Boston. When I left in 1971, the streets were empty on weekends, Giorgio DeLuca (of Dean & DeLuca) was our co-op’s elevator operator and Raoul’s was still a little mom & pop Italian restaurant (can anyone remember the name?) that my mother and step-father frequented. Fanelli’s was the cool bar where I could go and read the SoHo Weekly News and see the familiar faces of the tradesmen who were busy renovating lofts. The only sign of gentrification was SoHo Wines & Liquors on West Broadway where the knowledgeable but nerdy owner could recommend a good bottle of Cotes du Rhone at a fair price.
    When I returned, I was surprised to see people on the sidewalks on Saturday mornings- people who stayed all weekend, it seemed. Parking was harder to come by now as the bridge and tunnel crowd discovered our trendy neighborhood. But there was good and free entertainment (important for a young working woman) in the form of gallery shows on West Broadway and at the Paula Cooper gallery, on my very own Wooster Street. Allan Shields, who with Ellie Klein had a loft on Leonard Street in the early 70’s that my brother and I sublet for a time, was showing his work at Paula Cooper then. They were huge, sewn colorful canvases that filled the cavernous gallery space. My mother had given Allan his first sewing machine – a gift from the Singer Sewing Machine Company, a client of hers at J. Walter Thompson Co. I first saw Jennifer Bartlett’s work at Paula Cooper. And David Hockney’s pool canvases. Old SoHo had become new SoHo, but there was no telling what the next SoHo would become. An inner-city shopping mall where art is indistinguishable from commerce.
    Thanks for stirring up these memories, Yukie.

    • Aristides Pappidas Says:

      The restaurant was Luizzi’s where you might remember Mr. Luizzi’s near-outrage if you reminded him of the missing butter that should be accompanying the excellent bread. One quickly learned that the olive oil in the bottles already on the tables was not just to be used for salads! And more: The clam sauce always used fresh clams in the recipe.

  3. Aristides Pappidas Says:

    P.S. My wife Jane just reminded me that a major no-no at Luizzi’s was asking for grated cheese once your clam sauce spaghetti dish was presented. Mr. Luizzi would become agitated at this as he refused your request!

  4. mary jo diangelo Says:

    The thing about Soho in the 70s was that you could live there on little money. I was a broke kid living in Soho, and I’ve never loved anyplace as much as I loved that neighborhood. New York and its streets were full of energy. Behind the loft door, it was quiet and there was space to think and write or paint or whatever you were trying to do. I am glad I experienced Soho in the 70s.

  5. Lenny Luizzi Says:

    My name is Lenny Luizzi, my Dad had relatives in Soho. Can someone give the address of where Luizzi’s was?

  6. Chris Robin Says:

    From Cass’ first comment above I gather that Luizzi’s restaurant became Raoul’s in the late 1970’s, so, Luizzi’s was located at 180 Prince Street, where Raoul’s currently still serves.

  7. maryjo Says:

    East Little Italy was east of SoHo (Mott St) and West Little Italy was west of SoHo (Thompson St).. Luizzis was one of the restaurants in West Little Italy. A husband and wife ran it. SoHo was full of factories once, so Italians who worked in the factories probably lived in one of the Little Italys. Factories closed, artists moved in.

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