Archive for the ‘SoHo Institutions’ Category

SoHo Historic Landmark: The GAA Firehouse

November 5, 2016
Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse exterior, 1971 (photo: Diana Davies, NYPL Digital Collection)

Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse exterior, 1971 (photo: Diana Davies, NYPL Digital Collection)

In June 2016, President Obama designated the Stonewall Inn and the surrounding area a national monument, the country’s first national monument to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Preservationists are now fighting to have other sites significant in the early gay rights movement designated as landmarks, including one here in SoHo.

The firehouse building that was once the headquarters of Engine Company 13 at 99 Wooster Street was also the headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), whose symbol was the Greek letter lambda, from 1971-74, the period when the group was most active. The building is now home to a Victorinox Swiss Army store.

The GAA was first and foremost a political activist organization that sought to advance LGBT civil and social rights. The GAA Firehouse, however, was also a gathering place, a community center that hosted many social events, most notably its hugely popular Saturday night dance parties.

Dance at Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse, 1971 (photo: Diana Davies, NYPL digital collection)

Dance at Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse, 1971 (photo: Diana Davies, NYPL digital collection)

As Maggie Keenan-Bolger writes in “Discovering the LGBT Library: The Firehouse” on the New York Public Library blog:

These dances were one of very few places LGBT folks could go to interact socially and politically.  Many of the gay bars at that time were owned by Mafia members who had complicated relationships with the police and who would often blackmail wealthy patrons, threatening to out them to their employers and families.  The Firehouse offered events for LGBT people organized and run by LGBT people.  Aside from being a top fundraiser for the GAA as well as an ideal outreach and recruitment tool, the dances offered a safe space for LGBT people at the time to have some fun without fear of persecution.

The GAA also published the Gay Activist newspaper and hosted “Firehouse Flicks,” a film series curated by Vito Russo, who would later write The Celluloid Closet, a hugely popular and influential book that examines images of homosexuality and gender variance in Hollywood films from the 1920s to 1980.

gay-pride-week

Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse with Gay Pride Week banner, 1971 (photo: Diana Davies/NYPL Digital Collection)

Many of the GAA’s advocacy activities were planned at the Firehouse, including sit-ins and picket lines. Its most famous tactic was the “zap,” raucous public demonstrations designed to embarrass a public figure or celebrity while calling attention to issues of LGBT rights.

According to the entry for the GAA on Wikipedia:

Some of their more visible actions included protests against an anti-gay episode on the popular TV series Marcus Welby, M.D., a zap of Mayor John Lindsay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later at Radio City Music Hall, a zap against Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (the “Rockefeller 5”), a zap at the Marriage License Bureau demanding marriage rights for gays, a zap against Fidelifacts, which provided anti-gay information to employers, a zap at the NYC Taxi Commission (which required gay cab drivers to get an OK from a psychiatrist before being employed), and a zap at the New York Daily News, which printed a scurrilous editorial attacking “queers, lezzies, pansies, call them what you will.”

Welcome to GAA’s Firehouse (photo: Fred MacDarrah/Queerest Places)

Welcome to GAA’s Firehouse (photo: Fred MacDarrah/Queerest Places)

On October 15, 1974, a fire set by arsonists in the wee hours of the morning on the upper floors if the firehouse destroyed the GAA’s headquarters. About 50% of the building was damaged and the GAA moved to another location.

The firehouse was designated part of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on August 14, 1973, while the GAA occupied the building.  However, the LPC designation report does not mention its connection to LGBT history and is thus, according to The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) newsletter, “vulnerable to future compromise or loss…. This can be easily changed by amending the designation reports for these districts to include information about the LGBT history of these sites, or by considering the sites for additional individual landmark designation.”

Other sites that GVSHP would like to see designated as an individual landmark include the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on 208 West 13th Street and Julius’ Bar (159 West 10th Street), the oldest gay bar in New York and the site in 1966 of the first civil disobedience action for lesbian and gay rights, which led to the lifting of New York State’s ban on gay bars.

Julius' Bar on West 10 St. (image: sideways.nyc)

Julius’ Bar on West 10 St. (image: sideways.nyc)

To be included in this list of potential landmarks speaks to the vital importance of the Firehouse to the origins of the gay rights movement of the 1970s. It is not a surprise that it was located in SoHo, probably one of the most inclusive communities in New York City at that time.

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.

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…)

Is there art in SoHo?

October 3, 2015
Walter De Maria, The Broken Kilometer, 1979. Long-term installation, 393 West Broadway, New York City. Photo: Jon Abbott

Walter De Maria, The Broken Kilometer, 1979. Long-term installation,
393 West Broadway, New York City. Photo: Jon Abbott

Many people lament the fact that SoHo is no longer a cultural destination, that it has lost its creative soul. I beg to differ. SoHo may no longer be the center of New York’s art and gallery scene, but there is still a vibrant creative community here, though it is sometimes obscured by the more visible retail establishments. This is evidenced by the recent formation of three organizations in SoHo that work to highlight SoHo’s continuing connection to the world of art and design. The SoHo Arts Network, SoHo Strut, and the SoHo Design District have a diverse array of programming that highlight cultural sites and resources throughout our neighborhood that might otherwise be overlooked.

SANThe SoHo Arts Network (SAN) is a new partnership launched in March 2015 with a mission to support SoHo’s creative history and growing artistic community. Did you hear that? Yes, growing! According to the SAN press release:

Created in part in response to the misperception that SoHo has lost its arts community, the network provides an important platform to increase awareness of the neighborhood’s continued importance as an arts district, especially for non-profit organizations. … In addition, the network seeks to further ignite the growth of the arts in the neighborhood through public programs and events exploring SoHo’s rich cultural history. Future events being planned by the group include walking tours of SoHo’s artistic past and present, and a series of talks on SoHo in the 1970s.

The founding members of SAN include: Apex Art, Art in General, Artists Space, Center for Architecture: AIA New York Chapter, Center for Italian Modern Art, Dia Art Foundation, The Drawing Center, The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, HarvestWorks, Judd Foundation (101 Spring Street), Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Recess, Soho Photo Gallery, Storefront for Art and Architecture, and Swiss Institute. Click here for a map showing the locations of all member organizations.

Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art at 46 Wooster Street NYC

Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art at 46 Wooster Street NYC

SAN introduces us to relative newcomers to SoHo’s arts scene, such as The Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA, pronounced cheemaa), a nonprofit organization established in 2013 to promote public appreciation and advance the study of modern and contemporary Italian. SAN also reminds us that we are home to many long-established arts organizations, such as the Dia Art Foundation, The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and The Drawing Center among many others. When was the last time you visited the Earth Room or The Broken Kilometer? So close to my house, yet I have not been in years! (more…)

Yes, The SoHo Historical Society!

May 1, 2015

So here it is—my big plan. Drumroll please….. I plan to design and build a portable historical society that can navigate the bustling urban environment of today’s SoHo while showing a glimpse of its past. and today I am kickstarting a fundraising campaign through Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform for creative projects. Kickstarter-Logo- (more…)

Archivism as Activism: The Preservation of SoHo

August 1, 2014
 SoHo Newsletter

SoHo Newsletter

Keeping Watch, last month’s post on The SoHo Alliance and their mission to maintain, in the words of director Sean Sweeney, “controlled and appropriate development – a balance between residential and retail, seeking a quality-of-life that benefits everyone who visits, lives or works in SoHo” was inspired by another, equally laudable organization, The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), that is, according to its mission statement, “a leader in protecting the sense of place and human scale that define the Village’s unique community.”  In fact, GVSHP advocates on behalf of not only Greenwich Village proper, but the East Village and NoHo as well.  The work of these two organizations thus helps ensure that our historic roots are preserved and that the residents of these communities are protected.

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.

This past June I attended an event hosted by GVSHP, where host and long-time Village resident Calvin Trillin presented its annual Village Awards to local individuals and businesses that had contributed in some way to the preservation of Greenwich Village and its environs.  Among the award recipients were LaMaMa in the East Village, Unopressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books on Carmine Street, and Kathy Donaldson, an activist who has spent the last forty years working to preserve the heritage of her neighborhood.  Board members also reviewed GVSHP’s work during 2013-2014 to protect architectural heritage and cultural history.

I found this event inspiring for a number of reasons.  I was impressed by the awardees’ passionate dedication to the GVSHP’s mission and with the breadth and depth of GVSHP’s reach in its communities.  But most of all, I was inspired to find a way that I could do something to help preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of SoHo. (more…)

Keeping Watch: The SoHo Alliance and the Preservation of SoHo

July 1, 2014
An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post)

NYU 2031–An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post) The SoHo Alliance and other community groups lobbied against NYU’s expansion plan.

In a recent email regarding community opposition to NYU’s 2031 plan, Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance, announced:

In a stunning victory for our community, a State Supreme Court justice ruled that the City acted illegally in giving away parkland on Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place to NYU to be used as a construction staging-area for the university’s planned 20-year expansion program.  NYU had planned to squeeze 1.9 million square feet of high-rise buildings into the two super-blocks above Houston Street. (Read more about the plan here.)

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

The SoHo Alliance, with the tireless and fearless Sweeney at its helm, was instrumental in this victory. As a matter of fact, Sweeney and his associates who form the all-volunteer SoHo Alliance have been working for decades to preserve SoHo’s quality of life by actively monitoring proposed development and opposing developers who attempt to overreach the boundaries of regulatory laws.

In a profile of Sweeney in the now-defunct SoHo Life magazine, he states, “The SoHo Alliance strives for controlled and appropriate development – a balance between residential and retail, seeking a quality-of-life that benefits everyone who visits, lives or works in SoHo.” Without the SoHo Alliance, our neighborhood, believe it or not, would most certainly be far more commercially developed than it is today, with bars and nightclubs on every corner late-night revelers disturbing our peace at every hour.

Alliance members serve in key leadership positions on Community Board #2, providing our neighborhood a direct voice in City government. A few of their many accomplishments this past year (click here to see more) include: (more…)

Reading SoHo: Recent Books

February 1, 2014
Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via Flavorwire.com

Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via Flavorwire.com.  From Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock.

I wanted to conjure New York as an environment of energies, sounds, sensations. Not as a backdrop, a place that could resolve into history and sociology and urbanism, but rather as an entity that could not be reduced because it had become a character, in the manner that a fully complex character in fiction isn’t reducible to cause, reasons, event.

—Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers,
in The Paris Review

While recently re-revisiting my SoHo book idea that seems forever stuck in Neverland, I was thinking about books of note have recently been written about SoHo.  There is, of course, Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of Soho (2010) by Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro, a history of the evolution of SoHo as told through the history of 80 Wooster Street and the people who lived there, as well as Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (2003) by Richard Kostelanetz, which is soon to be out in a revised edition, among other excellent books that have come out over the years (see list below).

There are two brand spankin’ new books, however, published within the last year, that merit particular attention in case they’ve been overlooked by my fellow SoHo memoriticians.  The first is Ann Fensterstock’s Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from Soho to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond that follows the evolution of New York’s arts hubs over the past fifty years.  There is also the novel The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, about a young artist who moves to New York from Nevada and then finds her way to Italy where she becomes involved in a radical movement.  Although neither of these books focus solely on SoHo, the sections that do are quite compelling and each do their part in shaping our collective memory of SoHo in the 1970’s. (more…)

All the News That’s Fit to Print, SoHo Style

February 9, 2013

SWN headThe other day, I was given a treasure trove of SoHo memory in the form of two boxes full of issues of The SoHo Weekly News from 1974 and 1975 (thanks, J and C!).  I remember seeing the paper lying around the house and probably used it for more than one paper mache project, but I cannot say that I was a regular reader.  I’m sure you older folk read it religiously for local news and listings, in the way that I read the Village Voice in the mid-1980’s when I was a young, single person looking for culture, high and low.

According to the SoHo Weekly News Online, “From October 1973 until March 1982 the SoHo Weekly News was New York City’s hippest paper and guide to what was happening in Fun City.”  (more…)

Ephemeral SoHo

January 26, 2013
Crosby Street, 1969

Crosby Street, 1969

This May, I will be traveling in Japan with my family, and while I am there, I will be having a SoHo Memory Project exhibition at my father’s gallery in his hometown of Okazaki.  I will display of photos and artifacts related to this blog and the story it tells about the SoHo experience as lived by its pioneers.  I think that the people of Okazaki, so far removed from The United States, New York, and certainly SoHo, will find the story of what my mom and dad, who disappeared 45 years ago only to reappear this year and build a house right back where they started, fascinating, if not incredible.  I will be putting together a catalog for the show that I will share with you, and I will most certainly be posting observations from the gallery in May.

The show will feature an essay by my mother about her memory of the early SoHo days that I translated and posted here a while back, and I will display related photographs printed on several media including paper, canvas, metal and wood.  I would also like to include pieces of ephemera, such as newspapers, letters, flyers.  Basically, anything that would materially illustrate what life was like back then.  I’ve posted images of some of the items I have gathered below. (more…)


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