Archive for the ‘SoHo People’ Category

Interview with Choreographer Rebecca Kelly

September 10, 2018
5 Charles clicks heels crop

Rebecca Kelly and Toni Smith on West Broadway doing a street performance, announcing an upcoming loft performance, c. 1979*

 

Like many SoHo pioneers, choreographer Rebecca Kelly moved to SoHo in 1974 in search of space to do her work. With husband Craig Brashear, she renovated a raw loft, founded Rebecca Kelly Ballet, raised a family, and adapted to an ever-changing New York. In the following interview, Kelly shares her memories of dancing in SoHo.

 

When did you arrive in SoHo and where did you come from?

I arrived in New York to pursue a career in dance as a performer, straight after graduating in 1973 from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After living for a year in a compact apartment over a Mexican Restaurant in the West Village, with a dancer roommate, it was clear we needed more space. I found the loft in 1974. You could see a lot of sky and not too much traffic, which I liked.

We explored the area, spotting a sign in FOOD, a store on Prince Street. It said “loft – 2500 sq ft. for rent.”  How big was 2500 square feet? I wondered, as big as a basketball court?  We climbed four flights up to find a raw space, plaster falling off brick walls, floors thick with glue and varnish, but it was a big unobstructed space. No plumbing, no pillars, no amenities at all. Still, we could envision having our own studio, and a spacious living area. We found two more dancers to split the rent. The four of us got to work. I designed the layout for a comfortable 4 bedroom, open kitchen flowing into the living room and the large open studio. I had this book, Reader’s Digest How to Build a Home.  We began renovations and moved in.

My future husband, Craig Brashear arrived in NYC in 1975 after completing his Physics degree from Haverford College, PA. We met through dance, and soon became partners. My previous roommates who all had been aspiring dancers at one point, developed different interests. Craig and I married, and we took over the loft by 1978.

 

10 RK studio

Therese Wendler rehearses in the Rebecca Kelly Ballet Studio

 

Why did you move to SoHo?

 It was really about the space. There were rental opportunities if you had the inclination to renovate. It was possible for us to think we could do this ourselves. I always liked carpentry. My father had made sure that his daughters and son were all very handy with tools. So the rent was affordable, split four ways.  The neighborhood was so interesting, populated by other artists, all very purposely pursuing their dreams.  There were quite a few other dance studios and lofts around.  It was a dynamic environment.

 

What was everyday life like back then? Where did you go? What did you do?

 As dancers, we were making no money at all, so initially the roommates and I took any jobs we could, as a reception clerk, hat check girl, embroiderer for a jeans store to support our dance habits. It was exhausting between working, taking class, going to auditions, and eventually rehearsing with small modern companies, while studying at [Merce] Cunningham, and various ballet studios. I performed every Sunday evening with the Charles Weidman Company for several years. He paid us in oatmeal cookies and cheap wine, but occasionally we went on tour and received a real wage. He was an extraordinary man. I was also performing with the Vanaver Caravan, a music and folk dance, modern company, and several pick up companies.

 

9 RK rehearsal

RKB dancers in rehearsal: Erin Ginn with Jacob Taylor, and Allison Piccone with Nile Baker in Kelly’s newest ballet “Entnglements” which premiered July 2018 in Lake Placid, NY

 

What was it like to start a dance company in 1970’s SoHo?

We were uncertain about whether it was a realistic idea. I remember going to David White who was the Director of the Dance Theater Workshop to seek his advice – and encouragement.  He asked why would you want to incorporate, and thought that wasn’t important. But we were committed, and we envisioned permanence. At that time, Craig and I still weren’t married, but we were already identifying people for our Board. One candidate asked, “How can I be sure the organization will last if you two break up?”  Craig and I thought – “not a problem, we’ll get married.”  So we did. Working with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and CCF (Cultural Council Foundation) our 501-c3 came through in June 1979. Craig and I were married at the 15th Street Meeting House (Quaker) in December of that year.

 

7 RK costume

Rebecca Kelly collaborated with international artist Kevin Berlin for his “Black Swan” event at ART New York, spring 2018

 

When/why/how did Rebecca Kelly Dance transition from being a modern dance company to a ballet company?

After an exciting decade of international and national touring, making many interesting dances about social topics, and working with beautiful individuals, in 1991, I was invited to participate in the Carlisle Project, a prestigious program to develop ballet choreographers. It was a game changer for me. I had been frustrated for some time about not being able to get my dancers to “speak” in a particular way. Their training did not produce the flexibility and articulation that I needed for my works.

Craig and I also became parents that year, to our daughter, Hilary. As our focus shifted away from touring to residencies, teaching, and the founding of our SoHo neighborhood dance program Kids Co-Motion, I came racing back to my classical roots, but not the tiaras or tutus. My new works would use the eloquence of ballet technique, but with the sensibility of modern and contemporary dance, and my themes would be topical.

 

1989 promo shot of “Black Glass” on Jersey Street (bet. Lafayette and Crosby)

 

Please tell me a little about the dances CharlesMignonne, and Black Glass depicted in the photographs(*) taken in various locations in SoHo.

Charles, the solo, was dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, and was performed in many places, outdoors in Soho, at the Louise Nevelson Plaza downtown, at a wedding reception in Bangor, Maine, at Tavern on the Green, and by chance at Mohonk in the Catskills, on the eve of Mr. Chaplin’s death.

During the years when I performed with the Vanaver Caravan, I met cellist Abby Newton, who would turn out to be a life-long friend and music collaborator.  Craig and I conceived of the narrative dance Mignonne.  It is the story of a little stage hand (Rebecca/Chaplin) who falls in love with the beautiful cellist (Abby/Mignonne) and therefore neglects his work and gets in trouble with his boss (Craig/Boss).  The broom dance is a highlight.

Black Glass was an iconic dance of the 1980’s. In those days when we toured we looked more like a downtown rock band.  The dance was about the City –the  excitement, the danger and intensity and the beauty of urban life.  The original set pieces suggested giant shards of glass. The original commissioned score was by Brooks Williams. There was had a scene that suggested in slow motion a rape scene.   When we did this dance in Central Park for a video shoot, that scene caused quite a stir.

 

Has SoHo’s evolution affected your choreography or your company?

A few ballets came directly from living in Soho. One was a youth ballet commissioned for a company in Tarrytown. I called it American Suk.  It was inspired by a window at Prada on the corner. Suk is the Arab marketplace. My ballet was about gossip, girls, shopping, and fashion. Another was Tenderness of Wolves which premiered in 1988 at the Joyce Theater, a chic, noire ballet about a dysfunctional couple.

When I am making a ballet in my studio, my eyrie above the street, I am really away from SoHo. The dances just come from my imagination, my pondering about people and what motivates them.

 

4 Chaplin street dancing

Rebecca Kelly (foreground) and Amy Pivar perform RK’s ballet “Charles” on West Broadway, c. 1981*

 

What do you miss most about old SoHo? And what do you miss least?

I loved SoHo’s old uniqueness! I miss the wonderful Pineapple Dance Studio on the corner of Houston and Broadway, which brought together so many people from the dance community. I miss all of the early days of SoHo. It was a great place to be, it continued to be a fantastic place to bring up our daughter. I loved the one of a kind places to find treasures, to eat, to shop, or find costume and stage supplies – the walking distance to our daughter’s school, and walking distance to doctors and pediatrician.  It is not the same. The large chain stores have no interest for me. And the crowds…

 

8 RK portrait

Rebecca Kelly observing rehearsal, (photo: Adrian Buckmaster)

 

What are you up to these days?

We continue to offer an afternoon dance program mostly for busy teens during the school year, but we respond to neighborhood interest. So when there is enough of a demand to start an adult ballet fitness or barre class, or an early childhood class, we put that together. I continue to choreograph new ballets – the latest one inspired by entanglement theory.

 

What is it like for you to live in today’s SoHo knowing what it was like 30 years ago?

If you can’t adapt to change, then New York City is not the place for you.

 

 

Remembering Michael Goldstein

July 9, 2018

Facebook post by Allan Tannenbaum remembering Michael Goldstein (photo: Allan Tannenbaum sohoblues.com)

Michael Goldstein, founder of the SoHo Weekly News, died on May 19 at the age of 79. One of SoHo’s great influencers, Goldstein left his mark on our neighborhood through his newspaper, as well as his larger-than-life personality.

The SoHo Weekly News (SWN) published Volume 1 Number 1 on October 11, 1973. Michael Goldstein once said that he started the paper so tate SoHo residents didn’t have to hang fliers everywhere to let people know what was going on. In an editorial in the inaugural issue Goldstein wrote:

Thank you for picking up our first issue. We are planning to report what’s going on down here honestly and fairly. To do that we need your help–in telling us your problems, filling us in on what’s happening and keeping us generally informed. The support for this paper, as you can see from the advertisements, comes from within the community. Starting next week, we would like to run as many community bulletins as possible (e.g.., playgroups, openings, bake sales, lost and found etc,). If you send us these items in writing, we’ll be happy to print them at no charge…

So began The SoHo Weekly News, which ran from October 1973 until March 1982, though Goldstein left in 1979 after he sold the paper to Associated News Group. The paper “defined the disparate region of lower Manhattan that became known as “SoHo”. If our experiment in creating a new culture and a new lifestyle eventually failed, the SoHo Weekly News did not fail in reporting it,” says contributing illustrator Harry Pincus. What began as a local paper grew in influence over the years to become a competitor of the Village Voice, the only other downtown paper to cover news and culture at the time.

Goldstein founded SWN after being burnt out by a successful career in public relations. As a music promoter, Goldstein “eventually represented a long roster of marquee clients that included Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. He boasted that he represented 10 different acts at the Woodstock festival in 1969, and that across the years 17 of his clients were voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” according to The New York Times.

Undated photo of the SWN staff, Michael Goldstein, seated center (photographer unknown, from the collection of Allan Wolper)

At SWN, Harry Pincus tells me Goldstein “hired a gang of young talents, like Cynthia Heimel, Allan Tannenbaum, Janel Bladow, Stephen Saban and Peter Occhiogrosso, as well as some old refugees and beatniks from the East Village Other and the Village Voice. Yakov Kohn, the editor, was a former Israeli ‘freedom fighter’ who ambulated with a cane and weighed about eighty pounds who had once thrown a ‘punk’ named Bob Dylan out of his jewelry store on MacDougal Street.” (See a brochure highlighting SWN staff here: soho_news_viewpoints_brochure)

Those who knew Michael Goldstein have vivid memories of his strong and seemingly irksome-yet-lovable character. Tannenbaum remembers when he was first hired by Goldstein. A young aspiring photographer in his late-20’s, Tannenbaum came to New York City by way of Rutgers and San Francisco State. Tipped off by a friend who mentioned that SWN was looking for a photographer, he went to Goldstein’s loft on Broome Street that also served as the paper’s office. Goldstein flipped though Tannenbaum’s portfolio and stopped at a photo of Jimi Hendrix, his former client, and told him, “Yeah, you know how to take pictures.” Goldstein sent him on an assignment to cover the Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central, promising to pay $5 a photo if they were good.

Michael Goldstein with Allan Tannenbaum at the 450 Broome Street SWN office (Photograph Allan Tannenbaum sohoblues.com)

Following that assignment, Goldstein put Tannenbaum on staff at $40 per week. Tannenbaum had recently been fired  from a job as a bartender (for failing to break up a fight), so he was collecting $45 in unemployment in addition, which more than covered his $90/month rent in his Brooklyn commune. Still, $40 was not a lot of money, so to make the deal more equitable, Tannenbaum asked Goldstein to pay for his film, to list him as Chief Photographer on the paper’s masthead, and to grant him full ownership of all his photos. Goldstein agreed to these terms and is said to have given “everyone a piece of the action in lieu of payment,” according to Allan Wolper, former Managing Editor of SWN.

“I am truly indebted to Michael for hiring me and giving me the rights to my pictures,” Tannenbaum says. “He hired me when I couldn’t even get a job as a photo researcher for Magnum photos and was thinking if I didn’t get something soon, maybe he was in the wrong line of work.”

Peter Occhiogrosso, Music Editor and Associate Editor at SWN from 1975 to 1982, says of Goldstein, “He was the only person who fired me and then hired me on the same day.” He describes SWN as a place where people had a freedom unlike most other places, and adds that Goldstein gave him a stepping stone to a career as a writer. Occhiogrosso, whose writing focused on jazz and the downtown music scene, adds that Goldstein “let me write about anybody, whatever length I wanted.”

December 3-9, 1980 issue of  SoHo News. Cover story about Yoko Ono by Peter Occhiogrosso, photo by Allan Tannenbaum.

“At a time when The Village Voice seemed to have a monopoly on coverage of Downtown news and arts, Michael offered an alternative,” Occhiogrosso told The New York Times. “Maybe because of his background in the rock ′n’ roll world, Michael was especially attuned to the developing music and associated night life scene south of 14th Street, but especially in the semi-industrial zone between Houston Street and the business district.”

Occhiogrosso, who worked at the Village Voice for around $50-$75 per story before he came to SWN, was asked by the Voice to choose between the higher paying, higher profile paper and SWN, who they saw as a direct competitor. He chose to go with SWN, even though they only paid $10 per story. When Occhiogrosso came onto staff, he told Goldstein that he had to be paid at least $50 a week, so Goldstein, who could not afford to pay him that much up front, offered him $20/week plus $30 in equity, a similar deal to Tannenbaum, who received equity through ownership of his photographs. Goldstein, a man of his word, paid Occiogrosso the accumulated $30 a week in equity when Associated News Group bought the paper from him. Another example of Goldstein giving staff “a piece of the action.”

Allan Wolper was also hired away from the Village Voice. He posits that it was Goldstein’s role at the paper to keep everyone there “a little crazy.” Stories of heated arguments and even throwing objects abound. “All that yelling and screaming gave birth to a lot of great journalism,” Wolper says, adding that it was also Goldstein’s belief that anything could happen and his gift for promotion that moved the paper forward.

Portrait of Michael Goldstein by Harry Pincus

Harry Pincus remembers the day he was hired by Goldstein at the SWN office:

There was a loud noise, and a seemingly deranged gentleman was ejected from the bowels of the office, hurling every vile epithet imaginable at [Goldstein,] the cherubic gentleman with the oversized eyeglasses. He then paused to dump a waste basket on [Goldtein’s] head, angrily slammed the door shut and fled to the street. Silence. The poor man was sitting there covered in garbage. His desk was covered in garbage.

One can only wonder what Goldstein had done to provoke such an outburst.

Allan Wolper remembers that Goldstein once told every writer who worked for him to go to newsstands and if SWN was not sold there, told them to demand why. This went on until his paper was featured at the “big newsstand” on 8th Street and 6th Avenue, right next to the Village Voice. SWN had arrived.

Even so, it drove Goldstein crazy when nobody believed that people were actually reading SWN. To prove that he did indeed have many readers, he decided to list an event on the back page with the incorrect time, and it worked. People showed up an hour early for the event. Point proven, and may people pissed off, I’m guessing.

Despite his shenanigans, Goldstein was a pillar of his community, and through his newspaper, he had a large hand in shaping SoHo’s culture. “The SoHo Weekly News was a welcome challenge to the Village Voice — and much hipper. All of us in SoHo certainly read it with enthusiasm. Michael Goldstein was a rising star in the downtown culture,” says Mark Gabor, former member of the SoHo Artists Association, an artists’ advocacy group.

“The scope of what he did was fantastic. He really gave openings to people who were coming up, emerging writers,” says Peter Occhiogrosso.

Harry Pincus sums it all up by lamenting, “Those days are gone forever, and there will never be another SoHo News. Or another Michael Goldstein.”

SoHo Photos

March 31, 2018

Boys playing at Houston Street lot (image: Nancy Eder)

Ever since I put out a call for SoHo photos, I’ve received all kinds of images, of people, places, events from the 1970s through the present. I’ve included a selection below (click on any photo to view as slideshow), the beginning of what I hope turns into a much larger collection that encompasses as many SoHo stories as possible.

Please continue to send images to yukie@sohomemory.org, and please include a caption with place and date.

Enjoy! (more…)

Dunn’s Deals: Douglas Dunn and the Lofts of SoHo

November 4, 2017

Cassations rehearsal at Douglas Dunn Studio, 541 Broadway, 3rd Floor. Decor by Mimi Gross. 2012

Douglas Dunn, choreographer, dancer and long-time resident of SoHo, recently shared with me a letter he wrote to Wendy Perron, also a choreographer and dancer, who is currently working on a book about Grand Union. Grand Union, in Perron’s words, was “a pivotal improvisation group that was unforgettable for downtown dancers in the 1970s.”

In his letter, Dunn shares memories of moving to and around SoHo, from apartment to loft to larger loft. His story captures SoHo’s evolving real estate landscape at the time, and also reads as a who’s who in modern dance. A fascinating story with beautiful photographs!

click on photographs below to view slideshow with captions

(more…)

SoHo Memory Profile: Dickie Landry’s New York

September 2, 2017

Richard “Dickie” Landry (photo copyright Andre Comeaux)

“People can be uncomfortable when you do a lot of things.” —Dickie Landry

True Renaissance man and renowned jazz saxophonist Richard “Dickie” Landry is so much more than his first claim to fame. Dickie has performed his music throughout the world and was a seminal member of the Philip Glass Ensemble. He is also well-known for his photography, a medium he found almost by accident, and is now gaining much recognition as a painter. To add yet another item to this list, Dickie oversees an 80-acre pecan farm in Cecilia, Louisiana. And, in a pinch, Dickie also plumbs.

Landry’s solo concert at the Guggenheim Museum

As he says in my interview with him below, Dickie only lived in SoHo for 6 months in its early heyday, but he was an integral part of the SoHo arts community of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The catalog from his 2014 photography exhibition Dickie Landry’s New York: 1969-1979 at the Paul and Lulu Hillard University Art Museum of the University of Louisiana documents these years through many wonderful portraits of his friends and co-conspirators including Keith Sonnier, Philip Glass, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Jonas, and Moondog, among many others. Click here to see Dickie’s photographs. (more…)

The Three Rs: Reminiscences, Reflections, and Ruminations

August 5, 2017

 

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

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

 

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

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

Feeling of discovery.

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

The edgy, avante garde feel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight knit community, space to walk and breathe.

(more…)

SoHo Pioneer: Jaime Davidovich (1936-2016)

March 4, 2017
Jaime Davidovich walking through the Silver Towers

Jaime Davidovich walking through the Silver Towers (photo: Jaime Davidovich Collection)

Jaime Davidovich, painter, video and installation artist, and friend of The SoHo Memory Project passed away in August at the age of 79. Born in Buenos Aries, Davidovich moved to SoHo in 1964. He and his then wife, Judith Henry, founded Wooster Enterprises, after the street on which they lived, a conceptual stationery design studio affiliated with the Fluxus group.

An array of items available through Wooster Enterprises

An array of items available through Wooster Enterprises (photo: Churner and Churner WOOSTER ENTERPRISES catalog)

In 1976, he founded Cable SoHo with a group of artists interested in the power of public-access broadcasting. This group later turned into the Artists’ Television Network that produced “SoHo TV”, a weekly arts magazine on Manhattan Cable Television. Davidovich then developed “The Live! Show,” which premiered in 1979 and ran until 1984.

 

 Videokitsch Commercial

Davidovich was a visionary who saw the power of cable television as a medium for disseminating art, ideas, and social commentary. “The Live! Show” included “celebrity” interviews (Laurie Anderson, Gregory Battcock, Eric Bogosian) and performances. Davidovich also taught art lessons on the show, including a lesson on how to paint Ronald Reagan. My favorite segment, however, was when Davidovich became Dr. Videovich, a “specialist in curing television addiction.” Dressed in a white lab coat, Dr Videovich took calls from viewers, showed commercials, and, sold “videokitch,” a collection of store-bought merchandise and limited-edition objects designed by Davidovich, such as television sets in the form of piggy banks, cookie jars, and windup toys.

After The Live! Show was cancelled due to escalating broadcast fees, Davidovich began making work that addressed politics and installed temporary video theaters in museums and galleries. He also had retrospective exhibitions at major museums, as well as gallery shows of his work from SoHo Enterprises and SoHo TV.

 

SOHO STORIES with JAIME DAVIDOVICH
Paul Tschinkel

Over the past few years, I had the privilege of meeting with Davidovich several times. At one meeting, he lent me his old slides of SoHo and granted me permission to use them to support my project, a very generous gift. Below is a selection of Davidovich’s photographs, including a few of himself. These images bring back memories of old SoHo and of the man who captured it as it was. Jaime Davidovich will be sorely missed.

SoHo Window

SoHo Window

West Broadway

West Broadway

Grafitti TV Art

Grafitti TV Art

Raw Loft

Raw Loft

Wooster Street Paula Cooper Gallery

Wooster Street Paula Cooper Gallery

Wooster Street Paula Cooper Gallery

Wooster Street Paula Cooper Gallery

Grand Union

Grand Union

Mercer and Prince Streets

Mercer and Prince Streets

SoHo Doorbells

SoHo Doorbells

420 West Broadway Gallery Building

420 West Broadway Gallery Building

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

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.

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

April 30, 2016

Lofts of SoHoI am so very pleased to announce the publication of The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980, by SMP friend Aaron Shkuda. I’ve know Aaron since he was doing research for his dissertation (also on SoHo) a few years back. He is now a professor at Princeton and has written this fascinating book about how residents transformed the industrial neighborhood that is now called SoHo into an artist district, creating the conditions under which it evolved into an upper-income, gentrified area.

From The University of Chicago Press:

In The Lofts of SoHo, Aaron Shkuda studies the transition of the district from industrial space to artists’ enclave to affluent residential area, focusing on the legacy of urban renewal in and around SoHo and the growth of artist-led redevelopment. Shkuda explores conflicts between residents and property owners and analyzes the city’s embrace of the once-illegal loft conversion as an urban development strategy. As Shkuda explains, artists eventually lost control of SoHo’s development, but over several decades they nonetheless forced scholars, policymakers, and the general public to take them seriously as critical actors in the twentieth-century American city.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 4 of  The Lofts of SoHo:

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

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

Chapter 4
Artist Organizations, Political Advocacy, and the Creation of a Residential SoHo

In February 1961, SoHo artists faced another threat that almost ended their nascent colony. This peril was not an economic downturn, the prospect of a highway, or even the early stages of gentrification. Instead, the culprits were some of the most mundane elements of urban governance: zoning ordinances and building codes. These types of regulations are meant to protect residents, and it was the issue of resident safety that caused an acute crisis in the SoHo artist community. In late 1960 and early 1961, a series of fires broke out in industrial lofts below Houston Street, leading to the deaths of four people, including three firefighters. Though none of the fires occurred in lofts where artists lived, these blazes led the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Department of Buildings to launch a series of inspections of SoHo structures.1

Although both agencies initially reacted to a series of code violations in industrial buildings, they soon made a surprising discovery: artists living il- legally in these structures. The New York Herald-Tribune reported that city officials found at least 128 illegal apartments in the area containing “beatniks, complete with beards” living with “mattresses on the floor and works on Zen Buddhism,” along with vermin and cockroaches. In turn, Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Thomas J. Hartnett wondered how anyone could stand living in this section of Manhattan, asking, “How do they get their milk delivered?”2

This “discovery” of SoHo residents reveals an important element of the neighborhood’s early history: that the very idea of living in a loft was completely novel. Whereas lofts are now ubiquitous in urban areas worldwide, hardly any people considered living in former industrial space before the 1960s. Similarly, few observers saw artists as people with the power to trans- form neighborhoods or develop real estate, as demonstrated by the Herald-Tribune’s use of the word beatniks, the derogatory term for bohemians of that era, to describe SoHo residents; in that writer’s view, they did not even rise to the level of artist. As mentioned in the previous chapter, local building and zoning laws made no allowance for people who wanted to live in industrial buildings. As a result, when they encountered loft residents for the first time, city officials did not celebrate the possible rebirth of a struggling industrial area at the hands of artists. Instead, they threatened them with eviction.

In response to the specter of eviction, artists organized themselves politically, forming lobbying organizations and using public demonstrations and boycotts to advocate for their housing needs. SoHo artists threw the entire weight of the New York art world behind their cause. Well-known artists such as Willem de Kooning and Isamu Noguchi, as well as curators and gallery owners, spoke out in favor of loft residents. Through their advocacy, SoHo residents worked to redefine the role of the artist in society in the minds of local leaders. They argued that affordable housing for up-and-coming art- ists was crucial to New York’s future because artists were the backbone of its cultural economy, as well as the people who gave the city its reputation as the world’s leading creative and artistic center.

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

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

In making these arguments, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of the debate about how to redevelop cities at a time of urban crisis. By finding value and beauty in outdated industrial structures, they also reclaimed prop- erties viewed as obsolete eyesores by urban renewal advocates. By pioneering new uses for lofts, SoHo residents created powerful arguments against slum clearance, particularly in industrial and commercial areas.

SoHo artists also shifted the terms of the ongoing debates over neighbor- hood preservation and rehabilitation. Although meeting the housing needs of lower-income populations in central cities had long been a preoccupa- tion of policy makers, artists looked to demonstrate that they were a unique group—relatively poor people with distinct housing needs but who also had the power to drive the city’s economy and give it its unique identity. They urged city leaders to help bolster one of the few things that New York still had going for it—its reputation for the arts—by allowing artists to live in the manner that best suited them: in converted industrial lofts with room to live and work affordably.

Though they fought to change zoning laws, rather than against slum clear- ance, artists developed powerful arguments that pushed the debate over the future of urban neighborhoods beyond the renewal/community defense paradigm that had dominated discourse up to that point. Unlike antirenewal protesters, who mainly focused on preserving their neighborhoods, SoHo artists posited a new future for their community. They argued that their efforts would revitalize an area shaped by deindustrialization and urban re- newal. At the same time, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of a debate over the future of their neighborhood. To SoHo artists, urban culture could do for SoHo what other urban development schemes could not: create a vi- brant neighborhood that helped drive the city’s economy and identity. Much like the backers of projects such as Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, SoHo artists were staking out a place for culture in the city. The same New York artistic culture that could help the United States compete with the Soviet Union for cultural dominance globally could also help breathe life into moribund in- dustrial neighborhoods.3

In the end, artist groups in SoHo achieved goals that were both modest and significant. Their advocacy led to changes in two regulations that allowed only a limited number of artists to live legally in a loft. Yet these laws were the first to make it legal for anyone to live in such a structure and the first to give government sanction to anyone, artist or otherwise, to live in any former industrial space. Moreover, these policies indicated that more New Yorkers were starting to support an argument made by SoHo activists: that artists had a unique power to reinvigorate neighborhoods long ago left for dead. Thanks to artist advocacy, policy makers began to connect artist housing and urban vitality, a link that would become the foundation of theories of creative place making and the creative class several decades later. Through their actions and words, SoHo artists made the case that art could be a force for urban change.

Reprinted with permission from The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980by Aaron Shkuda, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Aaron Shkuda is Project Manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism & the Humanities, and holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago.

This book is available from The University of Chicago Press and at local bookstores including McNally Jackson at 52 Prince Street, and through Amazon.com.

To read another excerpt from this book please visit The Gotham Center blog.


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