Growing Up SoHo
If you grew up in SoHo in the 1970s and 80s, your childhood, looking back, was no doubt unique. Back then, though, we thought everyone grew up like us---riding bikes in the house, running under parked tractor trailers, going to loft parties late into the night. Helicopter parenting wasn’t a thing back then, and we were free to roam the empty SoHo streets doing as we pleased as long as we were home for dinner.
These are some of the many stories I received about growing up in SoHo. Some are quoted, some paraphrased, all are true to the extent that memory is truthful!
The Streets Were Our Playground
When we were kids, the streets of SoHo were empty after business hours and on weekends. This was when we would come out to play. A childhood friend writes:
When my brother and I were walking with our parents along Greene, Wooster, Mercer, etc, between Canal and Houston, we used to have a great time playing a game called “Don’t touch the ground” in which we used the loading docks, steps and architectural ledges along the fronts of the buildings to avoid walking on the sidewalks that we pretended were made of lava. Each time we had to cross a street, we would walk along the crosswalk white paint or zig-zag bricks to avoid touching the street, although this didn’t work on the cobblestones as they didn’t usually have crosswalk lines.
Sword fighting with cardboard tubes left over from bolts of fabric never grew old. We would choreograph complex fights between two to four cardboard warriors where we would clash swords, climb up loading docks and jump over each other’s low swings. The loser of the epic battles was the one who’s tube broke first.
Dumpster diving was always fun. Our parents would tell us we could only bring home new things if we threw out old things. Spools of thread, fabric swatches and sewing machine parts.
My friends and I used to play hide and seek in the parked Entenmann’s trucks at Wooster and Prince. They always left the trucks unlocked so we would run in and out of them. I loved the smell of that corner. Entenmann's had a fleet of Grumman delivery trucks that looked like mail trucks. I’d say 6-10 trucks parked in their lot on that corner with a loading dock. We would jump from truck to truck, either on top, or between their sliding cab doors which they often left open.
Across from The Broome Street bar in the intersection of Broome, Watts and Thompson, we enjoyed playing on the welded sculptures especially the one that looked like a motorcycle. (see photo above)
Others remember breaking into the New Museum Building (before it was the New Museum Building) and spending the night there, running barefoot in rain and getting yelled at for not wearing shoes by random adults, getting inside refrigerator boxes rolling into the street, wearing just your bathing suit in the street to walk to Thompson Street Pool, wearing pajamas in the street, wearing garbage bags and having shaving cream fights, and running naked in the sprinkler at Silver Towers until someone got upset at those “crazy naked artist kids from SoHo.”
It All Began at Playgroup
For me and my posse, many of our earliest childhood memories are from the SoHo Cooperative Playgroup in a basement on the corner of Prince and Wooster. Fellow playgroupers remember it as a “dirty rat infested basement” where you walked down a hallway with dirt floors with wooden boards that led to the “clean room” where there were no windows but gymnastics mats on the floor and “not a lot of talk, just action: jumping around making stuff” like macaroni necklaces and Play-Doh sculptures. There was “structure but a lot of violence, kids fighting with each other, the idea was children should be allowed to work their problems out in a natural process” so we were not disciplined.
I also remember that, since we were in the basement, we would have floods every once in a while. The children would all have to stand up against the wall while the parents tried to clean away the water and dry out our "rugs." We had moving blankets as rugs, and for the longest time, whenever I saw anyone moving, I always wondered why they covered all their furniture with rugs.
The Whole Key Thing
It was always fun when someone came to visit in SoHo. We didn’t have buzzers to open the front door, so people usually called from a corner phone booth or yelled up to let you know they were downstairs. This is when the fun began.
One fellow SoHo kid remembers:
I remember when people came over to visit, first you had to explain that Greene Street was in Manhattan, you had to give precise instructions on how to get to your loft, you had to tell them that you would look out the window or hang out on the fire escape in order to throw down the sock that had your front door key in it then you would see them in another 20 minutes because that’s how long it would take your visitors to walk up the 6 flights of stairs to get to your front door.
Many others fondly remember the “key throwing days,” when SoHo denizens would employ one of three methods of letting their guests in. The most popular was throwing the front door key in a rolled up sock (or sometimes a stuffed animal) out the window. This was to soften the key’s landing. “If you were smart you let it hit the pavement. There was no aiming from that height (if you lived on a high floor), and sometimes the socks would land in something gross, like a puddle.”
Another method of key delivery was lowering a key tied to a long string. If you used the sock method, sometimes the key would land on a windowsill or ledge, and then what? The string gave you more control. And then there was the placing-the-key-in-a-basket-on-a-string method. People got creative with that one, sometimes lowering a basket with notes to passersby. One person on Prince Street would lower a basket of apples to sell to people on the street.
Pranking is a universal kid thing, not specific to SoHo, but here are some of the ways SoHo kids got up to no good:
We tried to come up with ways to get the Korean grocery merchants to change their serious expressions. I put avocado in my nose and pretended to sneeze on the counter. The guy just wiped it up with a napkin and didn’t change his expression.
I would drop a dollar behind two people and ask “Did somebody drop a dollar?” to see how they’d deal with it
I would sit in a cardboard box and wait for someone to come along and jump out. We thought it was hilarious.
We would get phone numbers off phone booths and then call them and only the creepiest people answered.
In our early teens life felt so boring. We went to Grand Union (now Morton Williams) and picked people to follow home. But when they got home it was like ok they went home now what? We got bored with that fast.
All of our pranks involved engaging with other people. We wanted to get a reaction, anger or laughter. We wanted some connection with them. We did a lot of stuff to get attention.
This isn’t exactly a prank, more of an elaborate escapade:
We had a toilet paper party. Admission to the party was a roll of toilet paper. We tied strings across a tap dance studio and people draped toilet paper across them. A friend worked in the popcorn store and brought garbage bags full of popcorn. We danced and ate popcorn and we thought we’d cleaned everything up. But the oils from the popcorn got rubbed into the floors, so the next day when the tap dancers started slipping around, my mom knew something was up.
Those Kooky Artists
Old SoHo is known, of course, for all of the world-renown artists that lived there. Artists were part of every SoHo kid’s everyday landscape.
When my friend’s parents first moved to SoHo, they found a loft to rent on West Broadway where they were the building caretakers in exchange for reduced rent. Once they had to clean up something very unusual. One of the tenants, a meat artist who was angry at the landlord, hid lots of meat under the floorboards before he moved out. It was her parents’ job to clean it up once it was discovered (the hard way, I assume).That artist was Tosun Bayrak, the inventor of Shock Art, who was known for his art happenings that often involved raw meat (and live rats).
Maybe the meat incident was the last straw, who could blame them? They moved to another loft, this time on Prince Street. It was a raw, dirty loft without even a toilet, so they hired a plumber, and his assistant, John Cage. All of the fixtures were put in backwards and reversed.
I've told this story many times, but it fits here. My sister and I used to jump on this giant piece of foam that was in our loft when we moved in. It was only a year later when the owner came to pick it up that we found out that it was a John Chamberlain sculpture,
Other friends wrote:
My parents dragged me around to all the art shows and I was always so bored, I just sat under a table. Later on, in the 80s, my friends and I would stop at gallery openings and get free wine before we went out for the night. Nobody was looking at the art, everybody had their backs to it. We lived upstairs from the Leo Castelli Gallery and we shared a basement and there was all this art by prominent artists stored there.
Once I was on my way to mail a postcard of Andy Warhol I had gotten at The Photographers Place to my dad and I ran into Andy Warhol. I showed him the postcard and he asked “Where did you get this?” I was kind of petrified. I had him sign it and then mailed it to my dad. I still have that postcard.
Once I went up to this guy with a Keith Haring t-shirt on and I said, “That’s a cool t-shirt, where did you get it?” and he said “At my show in Switzerland.” And I said “Oh you’re Keith Haring!” I never would have talked to him had I known it was him. Later, he was at one of the gallery openings that we stopped into and he waved. He was nice.
I went to high school in the Bronx, so at around 6 am I would walk through the Broadway Lafayette station and see fresh chalk drawings by Keith Haring. And I remember seeing Basquiat’s writings, with the e’s with the three lines, signed SAMO. They were the backdrop of my childhood, and only later I found out after that they were by Basquiat.
I had no idea what “being famous" meant at age 5…I once snapped a Polaroid shot of Viva Superstar (one of Any Warhol’s Superstars)in her red bathrobe smoking a cigarette sitting at our kitchen table. I was just 4 or 5 at the time and I really wanted to shoot a photograph with my father’s new Polaroid camera. I remember getting a good talking to for doing such a thing. I had no concept of why it was such a bad thing to do at the time. Sadly, the photo did not come out very well. You can only see her mouth and chin, half of her face was missing from the glare of the light from the lamp above the table. I remember that she liked the photograph but was not happy that I had taken it without permission. I just wanted to take a photograph.