Posts Tagged ‘New York 1970’s’

(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.

(more…)

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…)

The SoHo Historical Society?

April 2, 2015
Loft For Sale - Copy for an advertisement, date unknown.  Sounds like a nice place.  And I think it was on West Broadway!

Loft For Sale – Copy for an advertisement, date unknown. Sounds like a nice place. And I think it was on West Broadway!

Ever wonder why SoHo doesn’t have a historical society or neighborhood association? I am forever grateful that we have the SoHo Alliance and SoHo Partnership. But I mean more like a place that preserves the cultural history of SoHo, what real loft living was like, what it was like to grow up in a loft not knowing that other children had doormen and elevators and carpeting, what it was like to raise a family while living illegally. Stuff like that.

Mike, Jane's husband, inspecting the installation of the first wall in the loft. (image: Cass Collins)

image: Cass Collins

Well, I have. I obviously think it’s an interesting story— I’ve been writing about it for the past 4+ years. And this blog will probably be around for years to come, even if I stop writing it today. But I think we need something more. Although there are archives throughout the world that collect the personal papers of significant artists and individuals who were SoHo pioneers, SoHo itself has no physical space dedicated to preserving its history as a neighborhood, nor is there any library or museum that tells its story. (more…)

Back to the Future on Mercer Street

January 31, 2015
The SoHo weekly News, November 1973.  See the end of this post for highlights from this issue.

The SoHo weekly News, November 1973. See the end of this post for highlights from this issue.

So here I am one month into cataloging The SoHo Memory Archive, and I have begun with the easiest collection first—a box of The SoHo Weekly News that contains issues beginning with Volume One, Number 1, dated October 11, 1973 (the very first issue!), through the September 16, 1976 issue, with lots of gaps in between. Every issue I picked up contained something post-worthy. When I came across the November 29, 1973 issue, however, the headline seemed especially relevant to SoHo of today.

The headline reads “City Closing SoHo’s Historic Fire Station.” The brief article states that Engine Company 13 and Ladder Company 20 are moving out of the historic 155-157 Mercer Street building to a more modern building on Lafayette (where they and their Dalmatian named “20” still reside today) and that the building was to be returned to the real estate department of New York after 120 years of continuous use. The article goes on to say that the land was originally purchased in two pieces for a total of $3,900.

Drawing of the oringinal Firemen's Hall (source: MCNY via NYT)

Drawing of the original Firemen’s Hall (source: MCNY via NYT)

Firemen’s Hall, as the building was originally called, is an 1855 building that has been stripped over the years of most of its features and details.  In the early 19th century, fire fighting was done by an assortment of rival volunteer groups with no centralized director.  This hall was built as a headquarters for two of these groups—a move toward cooperation amongst competitors.  The upper floors housed a library, meeting room and reading room.  In 1865 the volunteer system was replaced by a professional fire department and in 1885 a new headquarters was built on 67 Street, leaving Firemen’s Hall to become a regular firehouse. (more…)

Archivism as Activism: The Preservation of SoHo

August 1, 2014
 SoHo Newsletter

SoHo Newsletter

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

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

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

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

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

The Sunny Side of SoHo

March 1, 2014

IMG_3632Happy winter everyone.  Going into my third week at home with some awful cold-y flu-y thing that’s been going around.  Been trying to think of something profound or at least marginally interesting to write about but nothing of note is coalescing as I stagger around in my semi-conscious Nyquil stupor.  I’ve thus decided to leave the profundity up to others for today and am bringing you some blasts from the past via other people’s loci of foci.

First up, Sean at The SoHo Alliance recently sent me a link to this oh so groovy video “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Pizzicato Five, shot almost entirely in SoHo.  Anyone care to guess when it was filmed?  It’s pre-Mercer Hotel, there are shots of the Prince Street Station post office and the flea market on Canal and Greene.  Jerry’s is still there as is the Prince Street Bar.  This video is from an era when I already thought SoHo had become something else, something akin to a shopping mall.  I had already thrown up my arms and said to myself, Oh, well!  At least now I can get dinner someplace other than Fanelli’s.  I thought SoHo had already ARRIVED.  What an innocent time that was!

Next we have a short but sweet video from video artist Jaime Davidovich entitled, “Views of SoHo 1975.”  Desolate streets with lots of trash, and a peek at the old Dean and Deluca.  Those were the days….

And last but certainly not least, we have Jim Stratton‘s “Homage a Anonymous Blocks: A Cinematic Ballet in Three Movements.”  Using still photography and video, Stratton creates an homage to the streets of SoHo ca. 1971/2.  Enjoy!

Writing SoHo

January 1, 2014
Cover of the December 30, 2002 issue of THE NEW YORKER by Barry Blitt

Cover of the December 30, 2002 issue of THE NEW YORKER by Barry Blitt

Happy birthday to The SoHo Memory Project!  I began writing this blog on January 1, 2011.  As we enter year four, I thought I’d take a look back and tell you all the story of how this blog began.  Once upon a time….

I became a writer quite by accident, and I would not even describe myself as a writer, at least not in any conventional way.  I don’t sit in a room typing furiously while chain-smoking (do any writers do this anymore?), I don’t make a regular income from my writing, nor is it my main occupation.  But writing is a huge part of my everyday life, and I do not know where I would be without it.

I grew up in SoHo in the 1970s when the neighborhood was a derelict area where artists lived illegally in loft buildings that housed mostly warehouses and light manufacturing.  It was completely different from the SoHo of today, but in many ways, although it was dirty and desolate, it was a much friendlier, homier place to live back then. (more…)


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