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.

 

 

George Maciunas: The Father of SoHo

December 31, 2016
George Maciunas (photo: fluxus.org)

George Maciunas (photo: fluxus.org)

It is worth noting that, in the past six years that I have been writing about the history of SoHo, I have not included a profile of George Maciunas, often called “the father of SoHo.” Perhaps I felt that, not having known him personally when so many others still in SoHo today had, I was not worthy of the task. Perhaps I felt I could not do such a larger than life figure justice.

In this post, I will attempt to outline Macuinas’ contribution to the development of artists SoHo and loft living, with only glancing references to his contribution to the art world, most notably his role in the Fluxus movement of the late-1960s. For more on this I refer you to the many works that cover this subject, including the excellent Illegal Living by Shael Shapiro and Roslyn Bernstein.

Born in Lithuania, George Maciunas’ family emigrated to the US in 1948. He studied art in New York and Pittsburgh. After a short stint working in Germany, Maciunas established the official Fluxus Headquarters at 359 Canal Street.

The Art Story website describes the Fluxus Movement:

Fluxus was a loosely organized group of artists that spanned the globe, but had an especially strong presence in New York City. George Maciunas is historically considered the primary founder and organizer of the movement, who described Fluxus as, “a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, Vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp.” Like the Futurists and Dadaists before them, Fluxus artists did not agree with the authority of museums to determine the value of art, nor did they believe that one must be educated to view and understand a piece of art. Fluxus not only wanted art to be available to the masses, they also wanted everyone to produce art all the time. It is often difficult to define Fluxus, as many Fluxus artists claim that the act of defining the movement is, in fact, too limiting and reductive.

Other leading members brought together by this movement included Ay-O, Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Wolf Vostell. (source)

A few years after returning to New York, Maciunas would begin to leave his indelible mark on the neighborhood that is now called SoHo, earning him the title “The Father of SoHo.” It was then that he began purchasing loft buildings from closing manufacturing companies to develop as Fluxhouse Cooperatives, buildings with live-work spaces for artists.

A Fluxhouse Contract

Fluxhouse Contract

In his manifesto titled “A Fluxhouse Plan for an Artist Condominium in New York City” he wrote:

While it has been recognized for some time that New York City is one of the leading art centers of the world, with probably the largest artists population, it is considerably less well known that the city suffers from a severe shortage of economical working space for artists. In part this shortage is due to the moderate means of the average professional artists and the artists’ special space requirements….

But the scarcity of economical working space is part of the general problem arising from urban obsolescence and decay. Large areas of the central city, zoned for commercial and light manufacturing use, were constructed some time ago…

And the process of obsolescence and decay here continue without obstruction. Nevertheless there are many buildings in such areas that are architecturally sound and potentially valuable if considered from the point of view of radically altered use.

(excerpt as quoted in Illegal Living)

Fluxhouse II, the first of many Maciunas Coops at 80 Wooster Street, ca. 1945 (photo: Office for Metropolitan History via The City Review)

Fluxhouse II, the first of many Maciunas Coops at 80 Wooster Street, ca. 1945 (photo: Office for Metropolitan History via The City Review)

With this manifesto, George Maciunas went on to fulfill its mission, albeit in unusual and unconventional ways, by cooping 16 loft buildings over 10 years. Ignoring New York State real estate laws, Maciunas sold loft units to artists in this M1-5 zoning district that allowed for commercial and manufacturing uses but absolutely no residential use. He also failed to file offering plans before offering the units for sale. This led to inquiries by the State Attorney General’s office. Maciunas then began wearing various disguises and went out only at night. He also had his friends send postcards from around the world to make officials think  he was abroad, and he even installed a guillotine blade on his front door to avoid “unwanted visitors.”

During this period, hundreds of artists contacted Maciunas about purchasing lofts, knowing full well that it was illegal and there was a good chance that the would loose any investment made if caught by city officials. No bank was willing to loan money for the illegal Fluxhouses, so artists used their life savings and borrowed from friends to make the down payment. This is how desperate artists were for live-work spaces. Until then, most artists lived in small apartments and rented a separate studio space, which was very expensive and not sustainable in New York. Maciunas offered an alternate possibility where they would be able to stay in New York AND continue to make art.

SS-RB photo


Shael Shapiro, architect and co-author with his wife, Roz Bernstein, of Illegal Living, talk about buying a loft from George Maciunas and doing construction at 80 Wooster Street.

George Maciunas, a consummate control freak by reputation, managed all of the aspects of the cooping process from finding the buildings, to selling the units, to renovating them. He was not, however, doing this for profit, as he always only broke even or even lost part of his investments in these conversions that he offered at impossibly low prices. Maciunas was able to work on a shoestring by sometimes cutting corners, often hiring artists to do much of the contracting work.

Maciunas and Hutching wedding where the bride and groom both wore wedding gowns (Photo : Babette Mangolt)

The Maciunas and Hutching wedding, where the bride and groom both wore wedding gowns (Photo : Babette Mangolt)

In one 1975 instance, where he supposedly shortchanged an electrician for subpar work,  Maciunas was severely beaten and barely escaped with his life. After this, the already sickly Maciunas’ health declined. In 1976, Maciunas left New York to begin creating a Fluxus art center in New Marlborough , MA. In 1978, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in July of that year, shortly after marrying Billie Hutching in a Fluxus wedding in New York City. The wedding, as described in the book Illegal Living, was “the Fluxus event of the era.”

There was a Flux feast of erotic foods, including a penis-shaped pate brought by sculptor Louise Bourgeoise. For the ceremony, Maciunas and Hutching both wore bridal gowns, while their bridesmaids Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller wore dressed in drag and their best man, Allison Knowles, wore tails.

 More details John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing in front of Maciunas' USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records!, c.1970 (photo: Wikipedia)

John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing in front of Maciunas’ USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records!, c.1970 (photo: Wikipedia)

George Maciunas is remembered by SoHo pioneers and aficionados of the Fluxus movement, but unknown to many in the general public, even to resdidents who currently live in SoHo lofts. He is worth remembering, however, not only for the loft coops he created that set the trend of adaptive reuse of buildings worldwide, but also for his idealism, his can-do attitude, and his democratic ideals, qualities that embody the SoHo spirit of the early days. Maciunas lived a multi-faceted and complicated life. Artists SoHo was only one of his many creations of this oft unsung hero, but perhaps the one that will be his most enduring.

Warhol and Maciunas, a film by Jonas Mekas includes footage of Maciunas’ 1971 Dumpling Dinner at 80 Wooster Street and shots of Fluxus happenings on street level.

SMP Year Seven: The SoHo Memory Keeper

December 3, 2016
The Cheese shop, Giorgio DeLuca’s first foray into the food business. He had been teaching High school in Brooklyn. His father was in the olive trade and knew a few people in cheese. He connected with Dean after a while creating Dean & DeLuca and a whole new kind of experience. (Ben Schonzeit)

The Cheese Store, Giorgio DeLuca’s first foray into the food business. He had been teaching high school in Brooklyn. His father was in the olive trade and knew a few people in cheese. He connected with Dean after a while creating Dean & DeLuca and a whole new kind of experience. – Ben Schonzeit

Another year gone with the wind. Can you believe that we have been preserving SoHo memories for six years, since January 1, 2011? They have flown by so quickly, and we have accomplished much, but there is still more to do!

Before embarking on year seven of The SoHo Memory Project, I would like to take a moment to reflect on highlights from this past year.

In 2016, we took the SMP Portable Historical Society out fifteen times to various venues around SoHo, including Judd Foundation, The Drawing Center, The New York Public Library, and Vesuvio Playground to name a few.

smp-at-gross2

The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation in May 2016

Great press and social media mentions stirred up much interest in our interactive exhibit and I was invited to speak about this project to staff, curators, and students from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sotheby’s, Princeton University, and NYU, among others.

detour-sohoThis fall, Detour came out with “SoHo: Artists in Residence”  a GPS triggered audio tour of SoHo that I narrate, and that also includes the voices of Roslyn Bernstein, Susan Brundage, Ken Hiratsuka, Brett Littman, Robert Morris, Barbara Rose, and Shael Shapiro. This one-hour tour takes you through the streets of SoHo while I point out little-known historical sites that are “hidden” in plain sight. I also tell personal anecdotes about what it was like to grow up in artists’ SoHo.

All in all, SMP had a very successful, public-facing year. Thanks to all of you who came out to visit with us in 2016.

A sampling of ephemera to be included in the SoHo Memory Keeper
(click on image to enlarge)

Looking ahead to 2017, I am pleased to announce that this January, I will launch a new digital initiative called The SoHo Memory Keeper, a (hi)storytelling nexus of resources related to SoHo (past and present, digital and analog) and a new digital model for preserving neighborhood history.

The Memory Keeper will be an immersive, interactive, digitally-based multi-media archive of resources on the artistic, cultural, social, political, urban history of the area that is now called SoHo, from colonial times through the present with a focus on the decades between 1960-1980, when SoHo was a thriving artists community.

A sampling of the oral histories to be included in the SoHo Memory Keeper (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.)

In addition to presenting stories and first-person accounts, the Memory Keeper will provide access to a wide variety of source materials including photographs, maps, municipal documents, academic papers, newspaper and magazine articles, artist archives, oral histories, books, websites, film and video. It will also serve as a prototype for use in other neighborhoods to preserve local history in a flexible and universally accessible format.

I’ve already begun digitizing and cataloguing the SMP archive, and I have also brought on a great technical team who will be building the architecture of this new interactive archive that will eventually replace this one and will provide worldwide access to resources related to SoHo. A designer will be brought on board once all of the back-end stuff is finished to create a dynamic and delicious interface geared toward use by the general public.

I am in the process of applying for grants to help fund this initiative, but to make up the balance, I am appealing to you, the many friends of SMP, to consider making a year-end tax-deductible contribution to The SoHo Memory Project that will ensure that the Memory Keeper will not only present SoHo history as never seem before, but will become a template that other neighborhoods around New York City can use to create their own Memory Keepers. An ambitious goal, but certainly achievable with your help!

Thank you for a wonderful year and I look forward to seeing you all in 2017!

give online now button copy

When you click “give online now,” you will be taken to a donation page for the Uni Project and your contribution will be marked for the SoHo Memory Project. The Uni Project is a 501c3 nonprofit and serves as the fiscal sponsor of the The SoHo Memory Project, so your donation is tax deductible.

You may also mail a (non-taxable) donation to:

The SoHo Memory Project
159 Mercer Street, #4E
New York, NY  10012

Please make checks payable to The SoHo Memory Project


CROSBY STREET, a film by Jody Saslow (1975)

 

 

 

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.

Go With the Flow: The Water Towers of SoHo

October 1, 2016

Water Towers at Sunset (photo: Ingrid Cusson)

Water towers are a common sight in New York, especially in SoHo. Wherever you are, if you look up, chances are you’ll see at least one, if not a small forest of them dotting the skyline.  They are certainly a mainstay of SoHo’s architectural landscape. Although I grew up seeing them every day, I never really knew if or how they worked.  Do all of those wooden containers still hold water?  And if so, how does the water get in, and then out again? Read the rest of this entry »

(W)here is New York?

September 3, 2016

“The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

E.B. White, Here is New York

“I don’t feel like there’s any hope in ever going against the tide. I believe you have to get on your surfboard and ride it.

Patricia Field, Native New Yorker (NYT 12/26/15)

I loved NY alex

image: Alex Reiter

I write this while abroad in Costa Rica, where I am far removed from New York and SoHo. When I return, any perspective I might have will vanish, obliterated by the frenetic energy and constant buzzing that is the backdrop of my hometown. It is only when I am away that I can sense its absence and that I can reflect upon my usual normal.

My friend Lito, a Swiss-Frenchman by birth, bought some land and moved here over thirty years ago. He is accustomed to the lulling rhythms of “la pura vida,” the pure life, Costa Rica’s proud motto. When I arrived here, Lito asked me, “So how’s New York?” to which I answered, “It’s terrible! I feel as if they’ve taken it away from me! I’m so angry!” I was taken aback by my response. I did not know where those words came from. Who are “they” and what is “it”?  And what am I angry about?

We native New Yorkers are a tough and proud breed. Whether we still live there or jumped ship for the quietude of any place that’s not New York, we all wear our New Yorkness as a badge of honor. Just as we all have our own SoHo stories, we have larger New York narratives in which they are ensconced. One cannot exist without the other. My New York story is an extension of my SoHo story.

Me and my sister playing on

Me and my sister playing on the loading dock in front of our building ca. 1977

SoHo was a wonderful and wondrous place to grow up. As children we were free to explore the neighborhood, jumping from loading dock to loading dock, and the city, riding in the front car of subways to watch the stations go by, getting a certain thrill when the CC train stopped inexplicably between stations and the lights went out, leaving us momentarily in complete darkness because the graffiti covered windows let in no light from the tracks.

Photo: Steven Siegel for Daily Mail UK)

Photo: Steven Siegel for Daily Mail UK

I’ve always thought that I WAS living the pura vida. What could be more pura than New York? Where else in the world could such a diverse group of people live so closely packed together and make it more or less work, and thrive no less. Wherever in the world I go, when people find out I am from New York, they are in awe, as if I were a chosen one. I feel so cool. It would be smug, if I didn’t recognize that being a native New Yorker, and a SoHo native to boot, is not in any way a personal accomplishment, but merely a lucky circumstance not of my own making.

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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.

 

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.

 


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