Archivism as Activism: The Preservation of SoHo
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.
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. Well, I have this blog. That’s a start. But what else could I do? I have lived long enough to know that I am not an activist, at least not one on the front lines. I don’t have that kind of fire in me (but thank goodness some of my neighbors do!). No, I am a bookish librarian who can best serve as memory keeper—my superpower is archivism, not activism.
A flyer from the SoHo Artists Association
So here’s what I propose to do: create an archive of materials relating to development and preservation in SoHo from the 1960s through the 1980s and the present. Although are many primary source documents related to the art and artists that grew out of SoHo in NYC library collections, not much has been done to document development and preservation during this very important time and place in New York City history. GVSHP already maintains such an archive, and I feel that it is very important that we create one for SoHo, so that future generations can learn from, and be inspired by, those who came before them. It is my intention to collect archival documents from people who were crucial to the development, and consequently to the preservation, of the neighborhood where I was born and raised and still live, before these documents are lost forever. To this end, I will work in consultation with The New York Preservation Archive Project (NYPAP), who will provide support and contacts. They will also help find a permanent home for the archive, as they have forged relationships with local institutions such as the New-York Historical Society, which is actively acquiring materials related to preservation history. NYPAP also works with GVSHP to preserve its archival materials. Through this blog and from growing up in SoHo during its formative years as an artists community, I have many contacts with SoHo old timers. I have already written to some of them and have been offered files from:
The SoHo Artists Association (read my post on SAA here)
The SoHo Alliance (read my post on the Alliance here)
The Loft Law and Loft Board (read my post about artist certification here)
The Fight Against the Lower Manhattan Expressway (read my post about LOMEX here)
I also have (or will have) relevant back issues of:
The SoHo Weekly News
The Village Voice
I think the above list already constitutes a strong archive that represents the history and preservation of old SoHo. But if you, or anyone you know, has anything to add to this growing archive, please contact me at email@example.com. To fully document what SoHo was and, to some extent, still is, it is very important that the archive be as comprehensive as possible. This archive will ensure that future generations will know about SoHo as it was, a neighborhood made up of a wide variety of people, families, businesses, and civic groups who built a community unlike any other in the world, one worth preserving in this ever changing city.