Archive for the ‘SoHo Places’ 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…)

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

March 4, 2017

Every once in a while, I like to dip into our SoHo Profiles folder to gather and share some of the wonderful memories of old SoHo readers have submitted to The SoHo Memory Project (to submit your SoHo Profile, please click here). It’s fun to see where there are overlaps or if there are themes that run through them. In this batch, a lot of people remember finding useful things on the street and while dumpster diving. And the loading docks, everyone remembers them. Quite a few also mention Fanelli’s and other SoHo gathering spots. I especially like the very funny story about the chickens!

The following is a compilation of recent responses to the question, “What is your most vivid SoHo memory?”

A Zelf sander

A Zelf sander

Amber, who was in SoHo from the 1970’s through the 1990’s, misses a lot about old SoHo:

The stuff you would find in the dumpsters. My mother found a spool of gold and silver card stock, and I would make full-body head dresses out of it and wear them around the neighborhood and to pizza at that place with a garden on 6th ave that became a Duane Reade. the carrot cake at Food, that spicy pepper smell around Broome or Grand. The constant creative activity- the neighborhood was so sparsely populated, and it was just “us” and the guy at Zelf tool rental and the nice people at Fanelli’s. The sound of the trucks, the Neon Gallery, and the broken kilometer, and of course the Duane Hansons.

 

St. Alphonsus Chruch on West Broadway during demolition (photo: Rachel Pincus)

St. Alphonsus Chruch on West Broadway during demolition (photo: Rachel Pincus)

Richard (b. 1946) lived on Grand Street from 1975-1990:

Sohozat, DeRoma’s, Broome Street Bar, Magoos, The Cupping Room, The Performing Garage, The Canal Street Flea Market, O.K. Harris Art Gallery, Lucky Strike, Watts Happen Inn, Fanelli’s, Vesuvio Bakery, The Spring Street Bar, Smokestacks Lightning, The Nancy Whiskey Pub, Leo Castelli Gallery, The Earth Room, The Ear Inn, cobblestone streets, blackouts and blizzards. Searching for wood on the streets in January of 1976 to bring home and burn in my pot-bellied stove. Being able to make art and then display it in the window of my studio. The Bells of the Church of Saint Alphonsus. Hornblower Antiques. Hanging out on the stoop of my studio and talking to the old long-time Italian immigrant neighbors. The sound of the Grand Street bus going East. The sunlight coming through the front windows of my studio.

 

Dumpster diving on Mercer Street, ca. 1977

Dumpster diving on Mercer Street, ca. 1977 (photo:Nancy Haynes)

Sarah (b. 1963) lived in SoHo in the 1960s:

Finding endless scraps from the small area factories and making cool things with them.  Also, climbing up and down the truck loading docks as I made my way down the streets (one could not pass on the sidewalk because there were always trucks parked at a right angle to the sidewalk!)

 

The ball field at NYU Playground, 1973

The ball field at NYU Playground, 1973

Lucien (b. 1966) grew up in SoHo:

Playing at playground east of Silver Towers while my parents climbed the fence into the field at the NE corner to play softball.  Judson Health Clinic.  Mary’s Candy store on Thompson.  Dumpster diving!  Running along Greene or Wooster along the tops of loading docks and other building structures playing “don’t touch the ground” with my brother.  Sword fighting with cardboard tubes left over from bolts of fabric.  Climbing in and on the bread delivery trucks at Wooster? and Prince.

 

Nicholas (b. 1967) was also a kid in old SoHo:

My mother sent me to the bodega on West Broadway and Prince street to get her beer and cigarettes when I was 9. One of the guys who worked at the bodega sent me home to get a note from my mother.  When I returned with the note he put the 6-pack in a paper bag and walked me half way home before handing me the bag.  I think he was nervous about breaking the law.  That kind of thing would be impossible today.

 

Exterior of Magoo's, 1978. (Photo: Ken Nadle via Art in America)

Exterior of Magoo’s, 1978. (Photo: Ken Nadle via Art in America)

Kaleb (b. 1968), who lived in SoHo from 1977-1991, remembers:

I woke up one morning to the sound of chickens.  I thought I was dreaming.  I got up and looked out my window.  A truck carrying cages of chickens heading to the slaughter house on Mulberry and Prince had taken the corner on Lafayette too fast and cages of chickens spilled across the street, many cracking open.  Dozens of chickens were wandering around dazed, clucking, confused.

 

 

Mike Fanelli of Fanelli's

Mike Fanelli of Fanelli’s

Sybil (b. 1954) lived in SoHo from 1977-1999:

During my first summer there, 1977, there was the big Blackout in the Northeast. I remember sitting on my fire escape around three in the morning and seeing more stars than I’d ever seen in NYC. Mike Fanelli, asking the local tradesmen/artists, “are you working”, and not charging folks if they were out of work. Then, there was the guy who, around 10 or 11 at night, every so often, would come riding across Prince Street on a bicycle, from the Bowery, towards Soho, singing opera at the top of his lungs, with his dog running along side of him. I could hear him from blocks away, before he appeared outside my window. If I was in bed, I’d get up to run to the front room window, to see him. It made me feel joyful to hear and see him.

 

Vered (b. 1947) has lived in SoHo for close to 50 years:

Meeting talented people from all over the world and from places in the United States that I had never heard of.  They came, every year, the best and the brightest from rural, agricultural and cosmopolitan places and they all ended up here trying to build old lofts into studios and to make themselves famous.  Andy Warhol walked and hung out among us, Henry Miller too, Blondie sang at Arturos, Phillip Glass bought my piano when I needed rent money.

 

Cast Iron Facades

Cast Iron Facades

Thornton (b. 1936) who has also been in SoHo for half a century remembers:

The buildings, the architecture that is so compelling both inside and out.  It was a soulful place filled with artist of diverse background, drawn here from every part of the US and abroad to try and make art of every kind; jazz, poetry, sculpture, dance, painting, and photography etc.  The energy was amazing and unique because we were here in one area while the rest of the city for the most part ignored us.

 

Thanks to all of you who submitted SoHo memories. Please keep adding to our collection. Memory is ephemeral, so lets catch as many as we can before they slip away!

 

 

 

The Old Kid on the Block: Mercer Parking Garage

February 4, 2017
The Mercer Parking Garage after it closed for good.

The Mercer Parking Garage after it closed for good.

As many of you locals know, The Mercer Parking Garage on Mercer between Houston and Prince, closed its door on December 31, 2016. The garage opened in the 1960s and had been continuously operating since then. So it was already a neighborhood mainstay when I moved in next door in 1974.

And it certainly was a mainstay in my life. The garage guys were there, year in and year out, when I came home from school, and later when I came home from college (all the way from Morningside Heights!). As an adult, I still saw the same faces from when I was a child. Morris, Junior, Willie and later, Jay, Pedro, Juvie (sp?), and still Willie. They were my security detail back when SoHo was dark and desolate, they saw me grow up and they’ve known my daughter since the day she was born.

Willie at the garage on December 30, 2016

Willie at the garage on December 30, 2016

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

The famous PARKING sign. Where will it go? Perhaps it needs a home in the SoHo archive.

The famous PARKING sign. Where will it go? Perhaps it needs a home in the SoHo archive.

In 2011, spoke with Jay, the owner of the garage, and found out that his family has a long history in SoHo and on Mercer Street, WAY longer than my family.

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

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

Morris Diamond worked at his family’s embroidery factory at 101 Spring Street from after World War II until 1969 when the factory closed. He then worked with his brother, Calman Batt, at the garage at 165 Mercer Street until his death in 1987. Jay Batt, Morris’ nephew, ran the garage until it closed at the end of last year.

Morris Diamond worked at his family’s embroidery factory at 101 Spring Street from after World War II until 1969 when the factory closed. He then worked with his brother, Calman Batt, at the garage at 165 Mercer Street until his death in 1987. Jay Batt, Morris’ nephew, ran the garage until it closed at the end of last year.

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

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

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

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

The enormous car elevator. I always wanted to ride in it.

The enormous car elevator. I always wanted to ride in it.

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

This sink has seen it all.

This sink has seen it all.

Business declined due to the recession. More and more people chose to just stay home.  But Jay said he would never sell, and he didn’t.  He knew just how valuable his enormous building was, but he liked running a business and he planned to pass it along, just as it was passed along to him. But things changed, as they always do.

The good news is, Jay will still be able to pass it along, as he did not sell the building. From what I have heard, after an extensive renovation and restoration, the building will house offices and retail on the ground floor. This will change the block considerably, but it will not be an anomaly. The building will feel right at home with the Mercer Hotel, Prada, Balenciaga, Zadig and Voltaire, Versani, Marni, Vera Wang, 45 RPM, and the currently-under-construction Tori Burch, Marc Jacobs, and a three story Dolce and Gabbana. As a matter of fact, in recent years it was the garage that was the anomaly on the block.

But the question still remains, who will protect me now? I’d better start getting cozy with the doormen at the Mercer Hotel…

Pedro in the garage's office

Pedro in the garage’s office

An earlier version of this post appeared on this blog on July 2, 2011.

 

 

SoHo Walks of Fame

July 30, 2016

Mercer Street, November 2, 2012 after Hurricane Sandy

I took this photo outside my house on November 2, 2012 after Hurricane Sandy

Images of SoHo appear on a daily basis in the media. Paparazzi shots of celebrities making their way down SoHo streets. Fashion shoots of supermodels preening on  SoHo streets. Portraits of luxury lofts for sale. Major motion pictures set in SoHo then and now. Commercials for products with SoHo as their backdrops.

As I was doing research for this post, something interesting occurred to me.  Many of the films I found were shot either on Crosby Street between Prince and Spring, or on Mercer Street between Houston and Prince.  Come to think of it, these two blocks, the first where I lived until I was five years old, and the other to which we moved in 1974 and where I still live today, have appeared countless times not only on film, but in print as well.  After some poking around, I came up with an inventory of media where these two blocks have appeared.  What makes them so appealing to photographers and film makers?  Or is it that every block in SoHo appears repeatedly in the media so I could have picked any two blocks at random?  One thing is for sure, it is not MY presence on these two streets that have made them alluring to visual artists over the years.  Then what is it?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Let me know if you have any ideas!

Photography

MNY76144

Berenice Abbott shot this mini-Hooverville on Mercer and Houston in 1935, during the Great Depression before SoHo was SoHo.

 

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

Thomas Struth caught the essence of 1970’s SoHo streets in this 1978 photo of the corner of Crosby Street and Spring Street looking north toward Prince.  I had already moved out by the time this was taken.

 

chanel ad

This Chanel ad, shot in front of my building on Mercer Street, appeared in Vogue, among other major fashion magazines, in the early 1990’s.  I always wondered why the paparazzi were photographing her from behind.  Note the photoshop job on the garage sign in the background.

Me and my sister playing on that same loading dock ca. 1976

Me and my sister playing on that same loading dock ca. 1976

 

christinahotel

And speaking of paparazzi, countless photos taken in front of the Mercer Hotel, where photographers camp out around the clock, have appeared everywhere.  Here, Christina Aguilera takes her dog out for a walk.

Mandatory Credit: Alequin/Bosch/INFphoto.com

Credit: Alequin/Bosch/INFphoto.com

In this December 6, 2012 photo from Just Jared: A grinning Taylor Swift and Harry Styles leave a party at Crosby Hotel  together.

Yukie and Mimi in the parking lot on Crosby, ca. 1974

This is a photo of me and my sister in ca. 1973 standing in almost the same spot at Taylor and Harry, back when it would have been absurd to even think about building a hotel in SoHo.

 

Album Covers

The back of Joni Mitchells' xxx album title title tile, photo taken n Mercer Street between Houston and Prince looking south.

This is the back of the album jacket of Joni Mitchell’s 1968 Song to a Seagull. The photo was taken on my block, outside 169 Mercer Street looking south.

 

Billy Joel

Growing up on Mercer Street, I owned and often played Billy Joel’s 1983 An Innocent Man.  Looking at the jacket photo, I had no idea that he was sitting on my block, on the steps of 142 Mercer Street at Prince, at what is now the Prada Store.

Music Videos

I was clued in to this  video by Alex at Flaming Pablum, who describes it as “an ancient, pre-Hip Hop Beastie Boys video wherein the fledgling foursome (back when future Luscious Jackson member Kate Schellenbach was still in their ranks) and their youthfully punky pals are depicted frolicking with juvenile abandon amid what looks likethe then-grimy, industrial streets of SoHo.”  Much of this video was shot on Crosby near Spring, where the parking lot used to be.

 

Sean at The SoHo Alliance recently sent me a link to this trés trés groovy video “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Pizzicato Five, shot almost entirely in SoHo, a good portion of it on my block.  Anyone care to guess when it was filmed?  It’s pre-Mercer Hotel, there are shots of the Prince Street Station post office and Jerry’s is still there as is the Prince Street Bar.

Movies

stateofgrace27

Although I never saw the film, I remember when they were shooting State of Grace with Sean Penn, Gary Oldman and friends, which came out in 1990.  They must have done twenty takes of this scene until they got it just right.  They also shot a scene inside Fanelli’s, where these trigger-happy guys are headed.

 

I am legend mercer

Here’s a heavily-CGI-ed shot of our block from I Am Legend, the 2007 film starring Will Smith as one of a handful of survivors in a post-apocalyptic New York City.

ghost crosby

And who can forget Ghost, the 1990 romantic thriller starring Partick Swayze and Demi Moore.  In this scene, Swayze’s character is shot right in front of my old house at 97 Crosby Street during an attempted robbery.

ghost cast mercer

This cast photo from Ghost was taken on my current block on Mercer Street, in front of the (now) Prada Store, where Billy Joel shot his album cover yeas before.

Basquiat

basquiat

Here, Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie as Andy Warhol stroll down Crosby Street across the street from my old loft in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat.  Someone recently told me that Basquiat lived in our building at 97 Crosby about 10 years after we moved out.

My mom, my sister, and me standing in front of our building on Crosby Street, ca. 1975

My mom, my sister, and me standing on the same black in front of our building on Crosby Street, ca. 1975.

andy-jean-hi-rez-copy-1-1024x685

Here, the real-life Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol pose for a picture on my block on Mercer Street.  The Marc Jacobs store next door to my house used to be the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, where Basquiat and Warhol once had a joint show.

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

The poster for the Warhol-Basquiat show at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery, 1985

A version of this post first appeared on this blog on September 1, 2014

 

LaGuardia Corner Gardens

July 2, 2016
LaGurardia Corner Gardens on LaGuardia Place at Bleecker Street

LaGuardia Corner Gardens on LaGuardia Place at Bleecker Street

As we all know, SoHo proper has absolutely NO open space, not to mention green space. We once had a few parking lots, but those have all be developed, so we must venture across Broadway or West Broadway or Houston Street to get a glimpse of the sky.

In the past, I’ve written about public spaces near SoHo that residents visit and cherish for lack of their own. First, in 2011 I wrote about Bobby Bolles Park, now called Sunflower Park, the small triangle of land at West Broadway and Watts Street where Bobby Bolles placed his welded sculptures until they were removed by the Parks Department. Then, I wrote about Thompson Playground (now called Vesuvio) in 2012, where all of us SoHo kids learned how to swim. In 2013, I wrote about The Elizabeth Street Garden, an all-volunteer-run greenspace on Elizabeth between Prince and Spring in NoLiTa that hosts various events for families.

I have now come to my fourth in this series of celebrations of the few open air oases in our corner of this urban jungle: The LaGuardia Corner Gardens (LGC).

laguardiaIn 1974, on a vacant lot at the southwest corner of LaGuardia Place & West 3d Street dubbed “The Corner Garden,” a loosely formed group of Village residents began to garden on small plots, one of whom was my best friend’s mother, Ingrid. Ingrid used to bring us to help her plant and weed, and I probably wouldn’t remember it so well if my first bicycle had not been stolen from just outside the garden’s gate while I was picking strawberries. It’s currently strawberry season, so this must have happened around this time of year in about 1975. But this story is not about me and my ex-bike, it’s about our neighborhood’s scarce and valuable green space!

In the summer of 1980, the garden’s land was sold for development. The Corner Garden, as it was known, ended with the arrival of a bulldozer, and was replaced by the apartment building where that stationery store is today.

Garden Lot Spring 1982

Garden Lot Spring 1982

Ever resourceful and resilient, in the spring of 1981, several of the gardeners, led by Cheryl Small, Norma Turrill, Susan Kocki, Gean Mathwig, David Blake, Sandy Klabunde, and others, formed LaGuardia Corner Gardens, Inc., as a 501(3)(c) non-profit corporation. The gardeners negotiated with NYC’s GreenThumb program and Community Board 2 to move the garden to barren land a block south, on city property adjacent to a supermarket, where it is today.

After many Community Board meetings and hearings, and over some opposition but with the overwhelming support of the majority of local residents, the garden obtained approval to develop the space as a garden. The gardeners spread the dirt and removed the rubble, plots were assigned, a wood shed was built to house the tools, and the planting began. In April 1985 an underground connection to the water supply was installed, making the garden self-sufficient.

Community members at this year's June Garden Party

Community members at this year’s June Garden Party

Since then, LGC has been a cherished community hub where neighbors get together and enjoy a bit of nature and serenity in our otherwise uber-urban neck of the woods. The future of the garden is at present unknown. LaGuardia Corner Gardens is on land owned by the New York City Department of Transportation. LCG’s members have sought to transfer the site to the Parks Department in order to protect the garden from development. Both Community Board 2 and our NYC Council Member support the transfer, but NYU has blocked the transfer.

A Jack in the Pulpit, also called a Cobra Lily.

A Jack in the Pulpit, also called a Cobra Lily.

NYU owns the one-story supermarket adjacent to the garden, as well as the superblock comprising the Silver Towers. NYU has offered the supermarket site to the City for a public school. If the City decides not to build a school there, NYU will build on the site. A taller, bulkier building would block the sun needed to grow flowers — assuming the plants can be rescued during the multi-year construction.

Whatever the future brings, LGC at present is a beautiful, award-winning community garden, a place of natural beauty that is open to the public where visitors find an oasis of calm in urban surroundings. During the growing season visitors enjoy a dazzling display of daffodils, tulips, irises, peonies, roses, and other perennials, as well as shrubs and fruit trees. In the spring members conduct programs for local school-children.  Garden events include seasonal celebrations, events for children, and a variety of musical offerings. And best of al, it’s for all to enjoy, open daily with free admission, though donations are always welcome. So the next time you’re passing by, please do stop in and smell the roses—or daffodils, or tulips, or irises, or peonies…

Location:
511 LaGuardia Place (bet. Bleecker & Houston Streets). Google Map

Hours:
April – May: 10 am – 6 pm
June – August: 10 am – 8 pm
Sept. & Oct: 10 am – 6 pm
(Possibly closed when it rains)

Website:
http://www.laguardiacornergarden.org/wp/

Click here to donate online.

 

Ben Schonzeit

April 2, 2016
Ben Schonzeit in his studio on Mercer Street

Artist Ben Schonzeit in his studio on Mercer Street

I recently had the privilege of visiting the home and studio of Ben Schonzeit. It turns out the we have been neighbors on Mercer Street going on 40 years and we had never met. Ben, a pioneer of the Photorealist movement, is well-known for his gripping, hyper-realistic depictions of subjects in vivid color. He is also a prolific collage artist and I also discovered, to my delight, that he is a fellow mail artist! His talents are many, but the purpose of my visit was to view his photograph collection, specifically his photos of old SoHo. We spent a nice couple of hours looking at his vast collection of images from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The following are a select few of the many fantastic SoHo scenes he captured, now long gone, but never forgotten. All captions by Ben Schonzeit.

For more information about Ben Schonzeit and to view his wonderful paintings click here, and to view more of Ben’s photographs, click here.

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…)

You are What You Eat….or is it Wear?

September 5, 2015
(image via domesticgeekgirl.com)

(image via domesticgeekgirl.com)

A couple of months ago, I walked past 127 Prince Street at the corner of Wooster and was surprised to see that a Lululemon men’s store had opened. Lululemon for men? It had probably been there for months and I had just not noticed. What a leap, I thought, from the old days.

In 1971, that same space was home to a restaurant called Food. Founded by artists Gordon Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden, and Tina Giroux, Food was a social and culinary hub where artists could find employment, nourishment, and camaraderie. It was, for a long time, one of the only places to eat in SoHo, other than Fanelli’s and a few greasy spoons that were only open for lunch to serve the neighborhood factory workers.

foodfacadeAt Food, there was no wall between the kitchen and dining room—food preparation was a performance for all to see, and its consumption was a delight to mind and body. In truth, it was a revolutionary way to eat. SoHo was a community of counter-culture back then that included food and Food. Sometimes scarce, food was an integral part of SoHo life, often celebrated and raised to the level of art at Food. The restaurant’s founding was part of a culinary revolution that centered upon fresh, locally grown and often organic food in an open kitchen, common today but unheard of back then. (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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