Archive for the ‘Everyday Life in SoHo’ Category

The Three Rs: Reminiscences, Reflections, and Ruminations

August 5, 2017

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s tag SAMO on a wall.

Happy summer everyone! Thanks to all of you who have filled out a “SoHo Profile” over the  years (those of you who have not yet filled one out, click on the “Your SoHo Profile” link to the right).  It’s been great to read your memories of old SoHo.  I thought I’d share some of them here anonymously.  Although I have received a wide variety of responses to each of the questions, I feel that I can somehow relate to all of them because my memories of SoHo, like yours, are so varied, bitter and sweet, dark and light, foul and fond. At the end of this post, I’ve included links to recent pieces on SoHo and old New York!

 

Playing on the platform in front of our building on Mercer Street

What do you miss most about SoHo in the 1970’s?

Feeling of discovery.

I still love the old buildings, the urban landscape. I’m sad it’s so commercialized. I loved the remoteness, the outlaw feeling. I remember going home from the bar at night, walking down the empty center of the street instead of the sidewalk, because it was safer.

The edgy, avante garde feel.

The deserted streets, the cobble stones, I remember the 18 wheelers.

The desolate feeling.  Soho was a neighborhood then. The Italians on Thompson Street. The kids all met at the park.

All the galleries and how remote it was from the rest of Manhattan.

508 Broadway, Saul Feifer Hats and Caps. (image: Ben Schonzeit)

Its spontaneity, the creative use of space, the community of artists, the vacant lots that we’d hang out in, too many things to list.

Art Galleries and the way everyone was involved in making art.

The quiet of the streets, the look of almost desolation on the weekends.  The feeling that we could go anywhere and do anything and explore any corner of the neighborhood as young children like you might expect in a quiet town in the suburbs.

The vast emptiness and community.  The light, the rents, knowing almost everyone, the creativity, the architecture, the empty cardboard fabric spindles put out as garbage that my brother and I would sword fight with.  Dean and DeLuca being a cheese shop.

Cheap space and privacy with a sense of ‘small town’ community.

Bleecker Street Cinema, the lack of chain stores, the feeling that this was real NYC, the Greek Restaurant on Bleecker, the fact that is was really a small town in a big city.

I miss how it was a real neighborhood and not just the pretentious commercial district it has become.

Tight knit community, space to walk and breathe.

(more…)

SoHo Swan Song

July 1, 2017

Today’s guest post is by my (former) neighbor Michael Gentile, who recently moved out of SoHo after being in, out, and around the neighborhood for the last 30 years. He expresses the sentiments of a growing number of long-time residents who lament the fact that SoHo has transformed to a point of being unrecognizable to them. I wrote about my own coming to terms with this fact a while back in my post “Where is New York?”  Here, Gentile weaves the neighborhood’s long history into his observations of present day in this swan song to the neighborhood he once called home.

Soho’s Not So Grand

A NYC neighborhood in flux

Soho’s current sugar high is a real buzzkill. This neighborhood, New York City’s birthplace of hyper-gentrification, originally called “Hell’s Hundred Acres,” houses the most breathtaking, fully restored 19th-century cast-iron building facades in the world. Fortunately, the successful efforts of architectural historic preservation and community boards have saved many buildings. However, Soho’s history has become diminished and lost with the results of the neighborhood’s ever-changing crossover, which gives comfort to the crowds seeking out sameness, but at a cost.

The enthusiastic transition to megastore retail, restaurants, hotels, and condominiums has claimed victims. Former loft residents, factory workers, artists, and political radicals vanished, and were not included in the neighborhood’s future.

A walk through Soho today is difficult. It’s an atmosphere of vulgarity: wayward tourists, distraught models, fist-bumping high-fivers, girly gigglers, techno design geeks, backward-cap bros, and vacuous throngs from all over, filling the streets.

Is creativity still at work in Soho? Sort of. On the steps of Prada, lifestyle and image are crafted. Supreme hoodie kids on Adderall snap iPhone selfies while sipping $17 hemp smoothies. At the Mercer Hotel across the street, anxious Twitter users wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fleeing Kardashian. On the sidewalks, fashion wannabe Snapchatters hurriedly clip-clop to double-parked, glossy-black, Suburban Uber-Lyfts. Flag-raised tour guide groups shuffle along, overflowing into the streets. Soho’s a playground for the wealthy, who look poor and shop rich.

Dystopian nightmare or growing pains? Depends on who’s talking. Soho’s present state could be perceived as a negative development in New York culture.

Business leaders, city planners, and politicians always get worked up over the idea of development. Real estate developers’ rote answers offer little comfort to the continuing gentrification problems, high rents, and empty storefronts. It’s disingenuous, hand-feeding the public a generic shopping experience structured at a marketing meeting by executives wanting to up their game. What’s the point? Money.

The daily crime scares some away. The setting is perfect. Picture any typical over-priced, high-end boutique. Enter a motley European couple—exit a pair of pricey Manolo Blahnik heels. The thieves blend into a sea of humanity.

When a grand larceny occurs, sometimes an ad-hoc protocol follows: the store empties, the staff blocks the sidewalk, the shop is put on lockdown, bummed-out employees light up and smoke. Everyone looks down, tapping away on their devices, calling the corporate office or making dinner reservations.

The NYPD set up a defensive move during peak periods: street patrols and a mobile processing “jail” station at Prince and Greene Sts. Supply and demand—where there are crowds, there are highly-organized criminals.

But crime is nothing new to Soho. During the 1860s, Mercer St. was part of the City’s “ten-cent houses” and the first red-light district, including Mrs. Van Ness’ number 149 brothel, filled with discreet prostitutes. On the same block, the recently closed, soon-to-be condo, the Mercer-Houston Street Garage, originally operated as a horse boarding stables. Then, in the 1930s as a parking garage, it housed Joseph “Black Lefty” Lapadura’s lively bootlegging operation until the FBI discovered it.

However, Soho’s most infamous moment might be the day young Elma Sands’ dead body was found underground, floating at the bottom of a Lispenard Meadow well. The well is still there, now at 129 Spring St.

It was the cold night of December 22, 1799, when Miss Elma planned on eloping with Levi Weeks. Mr. Weeks, a carpenter, was later charged and tried for her murder in 1800. His lawyers were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It was the first recorded transcript murder trial in the United States, and the jury acquitted Weeks in only minutes. Some say the spirit of Elma Sands still roams the streets of Soho at night.

And then there are the many non-rent-paying “tenants” who’ve endured these changes and flourished: rats, estimated at 100 million citywide. One thing’s for sure, the rodents are enjoying themselves every night, running around and jumping on tied-up cardboard boxes.

Meanwhile, a sleepy Soho pauses and moans a collective sigh during the few precious moments before dawn. A walk at sunrise might turn your head for the wrong reason. Curled up in Tiffany & Co.’s elegant Greene St. doorway, a homeless person snores away. Garbage trucks barrel down the soot-stained Belgian block streets. Seafood, dairy, florist, and bakery vendors make deliveries. A dog walker silently passes a jogger in the brightening gray light. It’s all a reminder that there are no dead ends in Soho, just detours.

This story first appeared on
http://splicetoday.com/

Where Everyone Knows Your Name: Placemaking and SoHo

May 6, 2017

Ken Schol Mon Levenson and another artist at Fanelli’s. Beer and coffee for breakfast. (Horizon Magazine)

Over the past few years, “placemaking” has become a buzz word in unrbanist circles. The term seems to have supplanted “community building” and “neighborhood enhancement,” terms with somewhat similar definitions, as the key to (re)vitalizing and unifying neighborhoods. As defined by Wikipedia:

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.

Can you think of such a space that exists in SoHo? Do you wish we had more places like this to congregate and socialize? Karissa Lidstrand, who is completing her M.S. in Urban Placemaking and Management at the Pratt Institute, has kindly offered to write a guest post about placemaking and SoHo. The following is an extension of a finding from Chapter 3 of her thesis, Creating Seats at the Table: A Business Improvement District’s Methods for Evaluating Community Needs.

Figure 1: Food Restaurant on the corner of Prince and Wooster ca. 1973

The Struggle to Build Social Capital

When asked what community means to you, how would you respond? The term community can be very subjective. Some may think of their friends and family as their community while others may think more broadly. If you were to use that definition when thinking about community space would the result be a community center or something more private?  In SoHo community space has appeared in a variety of forms in part because of the neighborhoods land use.

Prior to World War I the manufacturing industry was booming in SoHo, as it was in many other cities across the United States. The cast iron architecture that lines the streets of SoHo was created in the late 1800s, influenced by the textile industry that located there. Legally these buildings were, and still are, zoned for manufacturing use. The manufacturing designation prohibited community facilities such as houses of worship, community centers, hospitals, and schools from being established.

It wasn’t until the textile industry gave way to foreign competitors after World War II that neighborhoods like SoHo began to see the effects of manufacturing leaving the inner city. Buildings occupied by factories in the 1800s later became vacant loft spaces post-1940. Not all manufacturing left SoHo at once, printing companies and warehouses moved into the upper floors, taking advantage of reduced rents and the large, open spaces.

The rapid decline of manufacturing in the neighborhood left the area inactive. The quick transition of SoHo to an artist community began in the early 1960s. A variety of artists saw the potential in the loft spaces as locations for their studios. Building owners rejoiced with the opportunity to rent their vacant spaces, even for a low price. As manufacturing declined and the artist community made this neighborhood their home, the lack of community facilities become more apparent.

In the twenty first century SoHo and New York City have experienced a significant amount of investment and population growth. This has impacted the composition of many neighborhoods, impeding efforts to strengthen “social capital,” the relationships between residents (old and new) and the people who work in the neighborhood.

Through interviews conducted with community stakeholders the lack of community space in SoHo was identified as a concern among a variety of stakeholder groups.

Yukie Ohta, a longtime resident of SoHo, reminisced of spaces where people used to come together when she was growing up and where she would take her children. Some of those spaces included Food and the Scholastic Store. Food was a restaurant on Prince Street where locals could grab a bite to eat, artists could find employment, and neighbors could converse. It was perfect for families because below the restaurant was a play group where parents could drop their children off to interact with other kids while they sat upstairs conversing with friends.

The Scholastic Store was a neighborhood staple where parents could take their children to read and hang out for hours without the looming pressure of purchasing anything in return. Finding places to take children has become a concern given that the only major outdoor space in the SoHo neighborhood is Vesuvio Playground. For those that live on the east side of SoHo closer to Lafayette Street, walking to Vesuvio Playground on Thompson Street is at least a 10 minute walk.

Interior of Mulberry Street Library (photo by New York Public Library)

Sherri Machlin, acting manager of the Mulberry Street Public Library Branch, discussed how community spaces are limited and that there needs to be more especially since the library is at capacity and has little room to grow.

Community space is more than just publicly assessable; it provides a level of comfort and facilitates interactions between community members. The lack of dedicated community space in SoHo has created a situation where residents have had to create their own.

When asked where people hang out today places like Broome Street Bar, Fanelli Cafe, Housing Works Bookstore & Café, and Elizabeth Street Garden come up. Parenting groups struggle to find places to meet and often choose the seating area atop Whole Foods on Houston Street.

Members of the SoHo community have adapted to the unique constraints of their neighborhood to build community space for decades. Now a renewed twenty-first century urbanism has thrown them a new twist. The current lack of community facilities results in little room for new and old residents to come together and converse. As a result, it makes the task of building social capital more difficult. Establishing spaces that provide a level of comfort and facilitate interaction between community members will go a long way towards strengthening that social capital.

 

 

Are There Still Artists Living in SoHo?

June 4, 2016
The Village Voice - April 9, 1964 issue about artists rallying for loft rights, back when you had to pay (10 cents!) for the paper.

The Village Voice – April 9, 1964 issue about artists rallying for loft rights, back when you had to pay (10 cents!) for the paper.

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.

Application for Artists Cer

Application for Artists Certification

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.

The making of an artist's joint live-work quarters in the early 1960's (photo: Louis Dienes)

The making of an artist’s joint living and work quarters (photo: Louis Dienes)

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.

25 West Houston Street, whose most famous artist-resident is Kanye West, is exempt from JLWQ because it was built on a lot AFTER the law went into affect.

25 West Houston Street (whose most famous artist-resident is Kanye West) is exempt from JLWQ because it was built on a lot AFTER the law went into effect.

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.

Artists' Lofts: 1960’s-1970’s — Many buildings in SoHo had been built as commercial lofts, which provided large, unobstructed spaces for manufacturing and other industrial uses. These spaces attracted artists who valued them for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light and low rents. Before loft living in SoHo was legalized, artists living in commercial buildings posted AIR (Artist in Residence) signs that indicated that someone was living in the building and on what floor in case of a fire or other emergency.

Artists’ Lofts: 1960’s-1970’s — Many buildings in SoHo had been built as commercial lofts, which provided large, unobstructed spaces for manufacturing and other industrial uses. These spaces attracted artists who valued them for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light and low rents. Before loft living in SoHo was legalized, artists living in commercial buildings posted AIR (Artist in Residence) signs that indicated that someone was living in the building and on what floor in case of a fire or other emergency.

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.

 

The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980

April 30, 2016

Lofts of SoHoI 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.

From The University of Chicago Press:

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:

Prince Street art fair, SoHo, by Robin Forbes, 1976. (Reproduced by permission from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Prince Street art fair, SoHo, by Robin Forbes, 1976. (Reproduced by permission from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Chapter 4
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.

SoHo cast- iron building, 98 Greene Street (1881).

SoHo cast- iron building, 98 Greene Street (1881).

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.

Listening to SoHo

March 5, 2016

storybooth

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.

GS-KD photo

Guy Story, longtime SoHo resident and musician, speaks with his wife, Kerry Donahue, about leaving Mississippi to come to New York City:

SS-RB photo

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:

JS-CS photo

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:

 

JK-EW photo

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:

SS_YO photo

Sean Sweeney, Executive Director of the SoHo Alliance, tells Yukie Ohta about SoHo’s fight with Donald Trump:

TW-VL photo

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gone But Not Forgotten: Sharon Watts’ SoHo

February 6, 2016
John Baeder copy

John Baeder Postcard

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!

Sharon in front of her Bleecker Street building, May 1972

177 Bleecker Street, May 1972

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.

FOOD Menu

FOOD Menu

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

Dear D____,

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.

Hanson

Image of Duane Hanson piece, scrapbook clipping from The Village Voice.

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.

Acconci Behavior Fields postcard

Vito Acconci Behavior Fields Postcard

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.

Spring Street Bar Wine List

Spring Street Bar Wine List

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.

The World Trade Center

The World Trade Center, 1971

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.

For more information about Sharon Watts:
www.sharonwattswrites.com
www.sharonwattscreative.com

Welcome to Year Six: The SoHo Memory Project in 2016

January 2, 2016
The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society is ready to roll!

The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society is ready to roll!

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!


LOOKNG FORWARD

The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society

A visitor watches a film at the SMP Portable Historical Society

A visitor watches a film at the SMP 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

For a full schedule of events, please click here. I hope to see you at one (or more) of these sites in 2016! (more…)

SoHo Past, Present, …Future?

December 5, 2015

What a year it’s been for The SoHo Memory Project! We’ve made so much progress toward preserving and sharing the history of SoHo during this first few months of programming. There has been a recent groundswell in interest in SoHo history, and I so appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm to come together to celebrate our neighborhood’s rich history. I will do my usual annual “recap and look forward” post next month, but wanted to first share my more general ideas about where we stand as a community today.

new-york-city-subway-crime-1970s.jpg

NYC Subway 1970’s (Photo: Anthony Casale/New York Daily News)

It seems to me that SoHo, and perhaps New York City in general, is at a tipping point. I have had the same discussion with a number of people lately about how our city is at a critical juncture. On the one had, there seems to be a lot of looking back, especially at the 1970’s, going on (see Edmund White’s NYT piece “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?”). A nostalgia for a time that was, yes, dirty, dangerous, and dire, but also full of potential. Our fair city was on the brink of bankruptcy and was on the verge of complete chaos (remember the blackout of ’77?), but it was also a time pre-AIDS, pre-Bloomberg, pre-Superstore, pre-internet, when hardship bred true creativity and passion. A circumstance so bleak could have led to a contagion of apathy, but the opposite happened in SoHo, innovation, stemming from a place of pure hope, flourished.

28veto_lgWhat a stark contrast between that SoHo and the SoHo (and New York) of the present. If the 70’s was a time when the world was ready to leave us all to crash and burn, this present decade has thus far been a time when developers and foreign interests have made New York soar and shine. It seems that investors cannot throw enough cash at us and just when you think development has reached its peak, yet another high rise or mega store peeks up over the skyline. A far cry from the days of “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. Here in SoHo, we have soaring real estate prices, a continued influx of luxury brands opening flagship stores, and large retail chains in search of ever-larger spaces to set up shop. The sparkle, or perhaps some would say glare, of these establishments have made all but invisible the other SoHo, the SoHo that emerged back when all was darkness and doom (see my post Is there art in SoHo?).

So what next? We are at a (critical!) juncture in SoHo, where our neighborhood has all but lost its creative soul while it has gained oodles of commercial vitality. How does SoHo celebrate what remains of its past while bolstering the new? How does it remain relevant and not become too vanilla, just one of many successful American commercial hubs?

sephoraThe brands that inhabit the ground-floor commercial spaces on our main thoroughfares and side streets are brands that can be found in many commercial districts in many American cities. This is what people refer to as the “mallification” (or mollification?) of SoHo. In addition, many in the media claim that only a negligible number of artists remain in SoHo. I beg to differ. It is certainly true that SoHo is way past its heyday as an artists community, but the arts still thrive in SoHo, albeit quietly.

Mullican Installation View 1

Installation view of “Matt Mullican: A Drawing Translates the Way of Thinking” at The Drawing Center, New York, 2009

(more…)

Crosby Street

August 1, 2015

 

Are you ready to go back? WAY back? Here we go….

Filmaker Jody Saslow contacted me recently about a film he made when he was at NYU film school called “Crosby Street.” It is a beautiful portrayal of everyday life on Crosby Street in 1975 that profiles workers and residents alike at a time when gentrification was just peeking its head around the corner.

This film resonated with me in so many ways. As an archivist and historian, this film is an essential resource that documents our neighborhood’s heritage. These firsthand accounts are “proof” of what SoHo was like back then. (more…)


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