Top Ten

Here’s my top ten list of quirky things about everyday life in SoHo in the 1970’s (in no particular order):

A typical doorbell system (photo: Jaime Davidovich)

A typical doorbell system (photo: Jaime Davidovich)

1.  You did a lot of yelling.  Most people did not have doorbells, so you had to scream up to a loft to let someone know you were there (and they would then throw you a key in an old sock so you could open the door).

FREIGHT ELEVATOR (photo: pamdora.com)

FREIGHT ELEVATOR (photo: pamdora.com)

2.  You did a lot of climbing.  There was no need for Stairmasters in SoHo.  Many buildings had freight elevators, but often they were not on the ground floor when you came home, so you would end up walking up many many flights of stairs, and with fourteen-foot ceilings, that’s a lot of climbing.

Dumpster diving on Mercer Street, ca. 1977

Dumpster diving on Mercer Street, ca. 1977

3.  You did a lot of schlepping.  Since there was often no regular trash pickup, you often had to drag your trash to the nearest place that did have pickup service, and you also found yourself dragging a lot of stuff home that you found in the trash that you could use either to furnish your home or use in your artwork.

Grand Union on LaGuardia Place

Grand Union on LaGuardia Place

4.  You did a lot of walking.  There were virtually no stores in SoHo so you had to walk pretty far to get the newspaper, groceries, or supplies.  No takeout, no delivery, except for the US Postal Service, and even that was sketchy at times.

5.  Your bathroom was higher that the rest of the rooms in your house.  Because loft spaces were not originally meant for living, residents had to bring in water and sewage pipes to build a bathroom.  This meant running pipes along the floor and building a platform to cover them so that your bathroom was a foot higher than the rest of the rooms in your house.

6.  Your outerwear was not just for the outdoors.  Proper and consistent heat was certainly not a given.  Lofts were in commercial buildings where, even if it worked properly, the heat was on during business hours only and was turned off over the weekend, so one often had to wear an overcoat in the house to stay warm.

foxpolicelock7.  You knew nobody would break down your door.  Most lofts had metal doors with police locks with a knob in the center of the door that, when turned, would push metal bars outward on both sides, creating an unpickable, un-crobarable, and maybe even unblastable seal.  But nobody back then had that much worth stealing anyway.

8.  You knew when your upstairs neighbor was having a midnight snack.  The floors in most of the loft buildings are hollow, so the sound of a person walking on the floor above you is distinctly audible especially at night when there is no ambient noise to mute it.  Without wall to wall carpeting, sound carries pretty far in these buildings.  You not only knew when Jack from upstairs went to get a beer from the fridge or was taking a shower, but also when his mother called and what his taste in music was.

neighbor9.  You actually knew your neighbors.  And they say New Yorkers are anonymous.  There were so few people living in SoHo back then that you pretty much knew everyone else who lived near you, if not by name, then at least by sight.  Often, especially on weekends, the streets would be deserted, so it was a treat to run into someone you knew.

Crosby Street & Spring Street, 1978 (Photo by Thomas Struth)

Crosby Street & Spring Street, 1978 (Photo by Thomas Struth)

10.  You had to give taxi drivers directions to your house.  Not that that many people in SoHo were taking taxis back in the day, but if you found yourself in a cab, the driver most likely did not know how to find the corner of Spring and Crosby.  SoHo was a no man’s land requiring a compass for orienteering.

Does anyone have anything to add?

 This post originally appeared on May 28, 2011

23 Responses to “Top Ten”

  1. Carol Goodden Says:

    Great, and very accurate, memories. I am remembering one of Laurie Anderson’s early music pieces from her loft facing the Hudson River. There was a discarded piano left on the stairway. She filmed curtains blowing open, now and then, on her window. When the curtains opened, she could see the harbor. She used the sounds of the foghorn, along with a man clunking up the stairway, rhythmically, who would always stop and play about five notes on the piano, which included one very out-of-tune key at the end. These were the sounds she heard while in her loft, and made a music piece/video out of it. If anyone knows the name of that piece, I would love to know it again.

  2. wendy Says:

    Does anyone recall the fellow who would bellow opera early on Sunday mornings?

  3. g Says:

    This is all exactly as I remember it, except I think we put the key inside a slit tennis ball.

    What I remember is how, coming home late at night, we’d walk right down the middle of the street -which was completely empty – to stay clear of the dark doorways for safety. Although we weren’t really scared, it was more like a habit.

    • Yukie Ohta Says:

      Yes! I remember the tennis balls. We would have done that too—but nobody in our house played tennis!

    • Virge Piersol Says:

      I was mugged by a very nervous, very young man with a Saturday night special who kept screaming “Don’t scream.” I gave him my $6 and told him he’d get better returns by staying above Houston St.

  4. Carol Eckman Says:

    yes, yes to all. anyone recall the “floor load” signs, which referred to the amount of pounds per sq. foot the building was designed to support? “New Friends” school on Greene near post office, where my kids went to pre-school, because Claire Danes’ mother’s place on Crosby was shut down by the city. The older Italian women who shopped at Grand Union. They only spoke Italian even tho they’d been here for years. The muck on Crosby street– soggy cardboard and other waste. Inches deep! You can see it in the Thomas Struth photo. Zig zagging from one side of the street to another because the sidewalk was blocked by trucks at loading dock.

  5. Daniel Himmelfarb Says:

    Good post YO On Saturday, September 7, 2013, The SoHo Memory Project wrote: > Yukie Ohta posted: “Here’s my top ten list of quirky things about everyday life in SoHo in the 1970’s (in no particular order): 1. You did a lot of yelling. Most people did not have doorbells, so you had to scream up to a loft to let someone know you were there (and” >

  6. Judy Peraino Says:

    I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. The closest I got to experiencing anything close to this was living in an apartment next to the 10th .St. bridge in Minneapolis. What a fabulous collection of memories – I could picture myself dragging the trash to a dumpster and then returning with some usable items for my home.

  7. Carol Eckman Says:

    a couple more memories: building my own mailbox and the “TL” button in the elevator, which was pushed when the old passenger elevator arrived at your floor. It allowed the elevator doors to open separately, and you opened the lock on the inner door. anyone have one of those?

  8. Deirdre Says:

    Love the picture of Grand Union. We shopped there for basics. The front window was full of cartons of cigarettes. Early on it had a downstairs that was like a Woolworth’s– full of kitchen shelf paper, sewing supplies, cheap pots, toys and the like.
    I also remember some of the men who worked in and around our building in the factories. They would watch out for me coming home from school.

  9. Michelle stuart Says:

    that bell system was 152 wooster st and belive it or not many of the same artists live there today

  10. Virge Piersol Says:

    What was the name of the African-American guy who drove from upstate every day to do plumbing in the city? He would do an artist’s loft conversion from men’s and lady’s bathrooms to one bath + shower/tub, then the hookups and installation of water heater and kitchen sink unit, all for about $1500. Then you had a few beers together at Fanelli’s, watching old Mike take some guy into the back room to give him “the talk” about his rising tab.

  11. Michelle R Says:

    Rene is the best artist.

  12. Jody Sunshine Says:

    My loft was in the flower district on West 28th st. – c 1962
    There were so few legal certificates given out (AIR Floor 2, for example) – Artist in residence, for fire dept in case of fire,) that my own one was typed on thin paper and said “she says she is an artist and needs a big space to work in”. Jody Sunshine

  13. Miranda B. Norris Says:

    c. early 1980s…Being regularly told Crosby St. wasn’t in SoHo. Gotti owned the ‘hood — remember that caddy with the stupid Godfather horn? Don Normal lived on our ground floor for a minute. Painted it silver and lay out moon bathing in a black robe. Arturo taking off the wrong way down Crosby at midnight in his red Ferrari and working on the famous bull outside during the day. Best view of downtown from the roofs. Skating in the house. Friends with swings inside, loft beds like tree houses, a grand piano. Idling trucks being loaded the whole length of Spring St. The smell of acrylic paint drying in the studio. Few outlets, giant commercial power cords for everything. The cat walking on top of the walls, looking down at us. Having to run full tilt to make it to the phone in time. Spring St. Market, and the old, original Whole Foods, next to the old, original Dean & Deluca. Phoenix Garden in Chinatown on Sunday nights, jam packed with the art world. Saw De Kooning there once…

  14. Mary McIntyre Says:

    This is good. So many memories. 53 Crosby Street. Fantastic big parties, neighbors, artists, musicians, dancers, and even some uptown people. Foodie friends who were real pros coming early and cooking, in fact there was a before party, party of helpers, elevator people, greeters, music set up, etc. I did very little. And, my daughter, Miranda asked her friends to come so it was two parties. I miss those good times. I do not miss the co-op board meetings, the Chinese brothel that moved in a couple of doors down, the prostitutes on Lexington. When walking home I would hold my keys in my fist just in case I had to fight someone.

  15. Cindy Piersol Says:

    I loved that reminder of the visceral act of slogging through the paper pulp on the streets. I’ll just try for an interesting memory now and put in some more later. OK- I wanted to relate to the sounds someone else mentioned. Being up front in my loft I was aware that the city itself had a hum, then there was the sound of the radiators knocking. Occasionally I would hear children going by down there six flights below and they would be playing little whistles. Probably they were coming from the Italian street festival. Early on, I’m talking late 60’s and early 70’s, there was an eery loneliness, paradoxical in the midst of gotham, a quality I took to be the very essence of inspiration.

    • Mary McIntyre Says:

      Yes, so good. Remember walking up six flights of stairs that were in need of repair to go to a “party” someone told you about, or more likely a performance art event and it would be packed with artist and art people from uptown. Hardly anyone was famous. That came later. They are famous now. Oh, and there was a lot of smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap wine.

  16. ladyerica Says:

    Putting the key in the sock to throw down to the person visiting. Worrying about someone coming into your house through the fire escape because it was too hot to keep the windows closed in the summer time. Watching the limos arrive in random places where either Deborah Harry was rehearsing with her band or some mafia boss was having a secret party at Pontis (technically Tribeca but same deal).

    Being old enough to operate the freight elevator (with adult supervision of course) – and then learning how to time the puling of the steel rope so that you got the elevator to stop really close to your own floor.

    And, of course most of the time just climbing stairs.

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