Let’s Talk About SoHo

December 2, 2017

“SoHo in Transition” at NYPL Mulberry Street Branch, October 23, 2017

On Monday, October 23, I led a Community Conversation at the Mulberry Street branch of the New York Public Library on “SoHo in Transition.” It was the first in a series of three such conversations to take place this fall that examine SoHo’s past, present, and future. The purpose of these conversations is to engage dialogue that creates a greater connection among old and new residents of our community. This first conversation focused on SoHo’s past. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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Small Town Rag

October 7, 2017

The other day, I was going through issues of The SoHo Weekly News for a research request and I came across the very first issue, Volume One Number One from October 11, 1973. I thought it merited a closer look, that it could tell us something about what our neighborhood looked like 44 years ago and also give us a glimpse of what the startup newspaper and its editor, Micheal Goldstein, had in mind at the very beginning.

The front page headline reads “SoHo Wins Landmark Fight,” announcing that SoHo had officially become the first commercial district in the world to become a landmark. The area is protected because of its large concentration of cast iron buildings dating back to the mid-19th century. Due to its landmark status, the exteriors of buildings in SoHo cannot be altered without permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The article includes a humorous cartoon of what appears to be Abe Beame as Alice being asked by a faceless voice “Now let’s go over that part again, Alice, where you slipped and fell into the rabbit hole.” Beame, then City Comptroller, had reluctantly voted for landmarking the district, as he had many backers from the real estate industry in his bid for Mayor. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

SoHo Swan Song

July 1, 2017

Today’s guest post is by my (former) neighbor Michael Gentile, who recently moved out of SoHo after being in, out, and around the neighborhood for the last 30 years. He expresses the sentiments of a growing number of long-time residents who lament the fact that SoHo has transformed to a point of being unrecognizable to them. I wrote about my own coming to terms with this fact a while back in my post “Where is New York?”  Here, Gentile weaves the neighborhood’s long history into his observations of present day in this swan song to the neighborhood he once called home.

Soho’s Not So Grand

A NYC neighborhood in flux

Soho’s current sugar high is a real buzzkill. This neighborhood, New York City’s birthplace of hyper-gentrification, originally called “Hell’s Hundred Acres,” houses the most breathtaking, fully restored 19th-century cast-iron building facades in the world. Fortunately, the successful efforts of architectural historic preservation and community boards have saved many buildings. However, Soho’s history has become diminished and lost with the results of the neighborhood’s ever-changing crossover, which gives comfort to the crowds seeking out sameness, but at a cost.

The enthusiastic transition to megastore retail, restaurants, hotels, and condominiums has claimed victims. Former loft residents, factory workers, artists, and political radicals vanished, and were not included in the neighborhood’s future.

A walk through Soho today is difficult. It’s an atmosphere of vulgarity: wayward tourists, distraught models, fist-bumping high-fivers, girly gigglers, techno design geeks, backward-cap bros, and vacuous throngs from all over, filling the streets.

Is creativity still at work in Soho? Sort of. On the steps of Prada, lifestyle and image are crafted. Supreme hoodie kids on Adderall snap iPhone selfies while sipping $17 hemp smoothies. At the Mercer Hotel across the street, anxious Twitter users wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fleeing Kardashian. On the sidewalks, fashion wannabe Snapchatters hurriedly clip-clop to double-parked, glossy-black, Suburban Uber-Lyfts. Flag-raised tour guide groups shuffle along, overflowing into the streets. Soho’s a playground for the wealthy, who look poor and shop rich.

Dystopian nightmare or growing pains? Depends on who’s talking. Soho’s present state could be perceived as a negative development in New York culture.

Business leaders, city planners, and politicians always get worked up over the idea of development. Real estate developers’ rote answers offer little comfort to the continuing gentrification problems, high rents, and empty storefronts. It’s disingenuous, hand-feeding the public a generic shopping experience structured at a marketing meeting by executives wanting to up their game. What’s the point? Money.

The daily crime scares some away. The setting is perfect. Picture any typical over-priced, high-end boutique. Enter a motley European couple—exit a pair of pricey Manolo Blahnik heels. The thieves blend into a sea of humanity.

When a grand larceny occurs, sometimes an ad-hoc protocol follows: the store empties, the staff blocks the sidewalk, the shop is put on lockdown, bummed-out employees light up and smoke. Everyone looks down, tapping away on their devices, calling the corporate office or making dinner reservations.

The NYPD set up a defensive move during peak periods: street patrols and a mobile processing “jail” station at Prince and Greene Sts. Supply and demand—where there are crowds, there are highly-organized criminals.

But crime is nothing new to Soho. During the 1860s, Mercer St. was part of the City’s “ten-cent houses” and the first red-light district, including Mrs. Van Ness’ number 149 brothel, filled with discreet prostitutes. On the same block, the recently closed, soon-to-be condo, the Mercer-Houston Street Garage, originally operated as a horse boarding stables. Then, in the 1930s as a parking garage, it housed Joseph “Black Lefty” Lapadura’s lively bootlegging operation until the FBI discovered it.

However, Soho’s most infamous moment might be the day young Elma Sands’ dead body was found underground, floating at the bottom of a Lispenard Meadow well. The well is still there, now at 129 Spring St.

It was the cold night of December 22, 1799, when Miss Elma planned on eloping with Levi Weeks. Mr. Weeks, a carpenter, was later charged and tried for her murder in 1800. His lawyers were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It was the first recorded transcript murder trial in the United States, and the jury acquitted Weeks in only minutes. Some say the spirit of Elma Sands still roams the streets of Soho at night.

And then there are the many non-rent-paying “tenants” who’ve endured these changes and flourished: rats, estimated at 100 million citywide. One thing’s for sure, the rodents are enjoying themselves every night, running around and jumping on tied-up cardboard boxes.

Meanwhile, a sleepy Soho pauses and moans a collective sigh during the few precious moments before dawn. A walk at sunrise might turn your head for the wrong reason. Curled up in Tiffany & Co.’s elegant Greene St. doorway, a homeless person snores away. Garbage trucks barrel down the soot-stained Belgian block streets. Seafood, dairy, florist, and bakery vendors make deliveries. A dog walker silently passes a jogger in the brightening gray light. It’s all a reminder that there are no dead ends in Soho, just detours.

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UPCOMING EVENT: New Documentary Film About SoHo

June 11, 2017

 

THE KARAMAZOFFS: A Walk on the SoHo Years
A documentary film

Directed by Juan Gamero & Carmen Rodríguez
86mins l Drama l US Premiere

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 from 6:00 PM to 7:45 PM (EDT) at the SOHO International Film Festival

For tickets and info, please click HERE

SCREENING FOLLOWED BY Q & A WITH FILMMAKER & CAST IN ATTENDANCE

 

View the trailer:

Synopsis: In the 1960s, the abandoned factories of New York’s SoHo were occupied by artists from around the world, transforming this neighbourhood in the heartland of art experimentation, with the boom of open studios, conceptual art, happenings, performances and video art.  The Karamazoffs is a group of recognized artists from Barcelona (Muntadas, Miralda, Zush and Robert Llimós, among others) who started their careers in New York in the early 70s and forged a long friendship that still exists today. Together with other pioneers from that era, like Jonas Mekas and Jaime Davidovich, they recall the origins and the rise and fall of one of the most colourful periods in contemporary art. With the help of exceptional vintage footage featuring Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Fluxus, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, Mekas, Davidovich, SoHo cable TV, George Maciunas, Laurie Anderson and The Karamazoffs.

 

New York: Our Fear City

June 3, 2017

Over the past several years, I have learned much about the history of SoHo writing this blog. I am, however, just beginning to understand the complex historical context in which our neighborhood developed. It did not, after all, appear in a vacuum.

Just this week, I began reading Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, an excellent new book by Kim Phillips-Fein, historian and friend of SMP. The book takes an in-depth look at New York in the mid-1970’s, when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, as well as the aftermath of the austerity plan that would eventually bring our fair city back to life. Kevin Baker of The Guardian says of the time:

New York’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s is surely one of the weirdest moments in the history of the city – indeed, of the United States. It was a time when the wholesale disintegration of the largest city in the most powerful nation on earth seemed entirely possible. A time when the American president, Gerald Ford – egged on by his young chief of staff, one Donald Rumsfeld – sought not to succour New York but to deliberately shame and humble it, and perhaps even replace it as the world’s leading financial centre.

Read the rest of this entry »

Where Everyone Knows Your Name: Placemaking and SoHo

May 6, 2017

Ken Schol Mon Levenson and another artist at Fanelli’s. Beer and coffee for breakfast. (Horizon Magazine)

Over the past few years, “placemaking” has become a buzz word in unrbanist circles. The term seems to have supplanted “community building” and “neighborhood enhancement,” terms with somewhat similar definitions, as the key to (re)vitalizing and unifying neighborhoods. As defined by Wikipedia:

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.

Can you think of such a space that exists in SoHo? Do you wish we had more places like this to congregate and socialize? Karissa Lidstrand, who is completing her M.S. in Urban Placemaking and Management at the Pratt Institute, has kindly offered to write a guest post about placemaking and SoHo. The following is an extension of a finding from Chapter 3 of her thesis, Creating Seats at the Table: A Business Improvement District’s Methods for Evaluating Community Needs.

Figure 1: Food Restaurant on the corner of Prince and Wooster ca. 1973

The Struggle to Build Social Capital

When asked what community means to you, how would you respond? The term community can be very subjective. Some may think of their friends and family as their community while others may think more broadly. If you were to use that definition when thinking about community space would the result be a community center or something more private?  In SoHo community space has appeared in a variety of forms in part because of the neighborhoods land use.

Prior to World War I the manufacturing industry was booming in SoHo, as it was in many other cities across the United States. The cast iron architecture that lines the streets of SoHo was created in the late 1800s, influenced by the textile industry that located there. Legally these buildings were, and still are, zoned for manufacturing use. The manufacturing designation prohibited community facilities such as houses of worship, community centers, hospitals, and schools from being established.

It wasn’t until the textile industry gave way to foreign competitors after World War II that neighborhoods like SoHo began to see the effects of manufacturing leaving the inner city. Buildings occupied by factories in the 1800s later became vacant loft spaces post-1940. Not all manufacturing left SoHo at once, printing companies and warehouses moved into the upper floors, taking advantage of reduced rents and the large, open spaces.

The rapid decline of manufacturing in the neighborhood left the area inactive. The quick transition of SoHo to an artist community began in the early 1960s. A variety of artists saw the potential in the loft spaces as locations for their studios. Building owners rejoiced with the opportunity to rent their vacant spaces, even for a low price. As manufacturing declined and the artist community made this neighborhood their home, the lack of community facilities become more apparent.

In the twenty first century SoHo and New York City have experienced a significant amount of investment and population growth. This has impacted the composition of many neighborhoods, impeding efforts to strengthen “social capital,” the relationships between residents (old and new) and the people who work in the neighborhood.

Through interviews conducted with community stakeholders the lack of community space in SoHo was identified as a concern among a variety of stakeholder groups.

Yukie Ohta, a longtime resident of SoHo, reminisced of spaces where people used to come together when she was growing up and where she would take her children. Some of those spaces included Food and the Scholastic Store. Food was a restaurant on Prince Street where locals could grab a bite to eat, artists could find employment, and neighbors could converse. It was perfect for families because below the restaurant was a play group where parents could drop their children off to interact with other kids while they sat upstairs conversing with friends.

The Scholastic Store was a neighborhood staple where parents could take their children to read and hang out for hours without the looming pressure of purchasing anything in return. Finding places to take children has become a concern given that the only major outdoor space in the SoHo neighborhood is Vesuvio Playground. For those that live on the east side of SoHo closer to Lafayette Street, walking to Vesuvio Playground on Thompson Street is at least a 10 minute walk.

Interior of Mulberry Street Library (photo by New York Public Library)

Sherri Machlin, acting manager of the Mulberry Street Public Library Branch, discussed how community spaces are limited and that there needs to be more especially since the library is at capacity and has little room to grow.

Community space is more than just publicly assessable; it provides a level of comfort and facilitates interactions between community members. The lack of dedicated community space in SoHo has created a situation where residents have had to create their own.

When asked where people hang out today places like Broome Street Bar, Fanelli Cafe, Housing Works Bookstore & Café, and Elizabeth Street Garden come up. Parenting groups struggle to find places to meet and often choose the seating area atop Whole Foods on Houston Street.

Members of the SoHo community have adapted to the unique constraints of their neighborhood to build community space for decades. Now a renewed twenty-first century urbanism has thrown them a new twist. The current lack of community facilities results in little room for new and old residents to come together and converse. As a result, it makes the task of building social capital more difficult. Establishing spaces that provide a level of comfort and facilitate interaction between community members will go a long way towards strengthening that social capital.

 

 

(Pre)School Daze

April 1, 2017
SoHo Playgroup-related items from The SoHo Memory Project Archives (click on image to enlarge)

In honor of the SoHo Playgroup Reunion taking place this month, I am posting about SoHo’s unique preschool. Our second such reunion, the “kids,” now around 50 years old, and their parents, most of whom are into their 70’s, will be getting together to have a potluck lunch full of reminiscing and catching up. Can you believe it? These are folks that I went to preschool with 45 years ago!

The SoHo Playgroup gang in the playground on Houston Street (photo: Mimi Smith)

I met most of my old-time SoHo friends at the SoHo Playgroup, which was started by neighborhood mothers as a series of playdates in various homes and at Thompson Street Playground (now called Vesuvio Playground) around 1970.  After that, for a time they met at the Children’s Aid Society until two local building owners, Charles and Fritz, donated a basement space on the corner of Prince and Wooster (under the restaurant FOOD, now the site of LuluLemon Men).  The Playgroup parents cleaned out the basement, put down tiles, and painted the walls.

After-playgroup playdate at 80 Wooster Street (photo: Judy Reichler)

Once the Playgroup moved into its own space, it became a bit more structured and organized.  Cynthia, a teacher, was hired for $50 cash per week and the parents paid $20 per child per week and were required to “work” one day per week.  The Playgroup operated weekday mornings, and each morning a group of three parents would help Cynthia look after the fifteen children, thus giving the children a fun place to play and socialize while the other parents had some free time.  An “after-school” program was also set up where groups of five children each would visit a rotating list of lofts to play during the afternoon hours.

Making macaroni necklaces (photo: Donald Gangemi)

I attended the SoHo Playgroup from 1972, around when it opened in the Prince Street space, until I was old enough to enter kindergarten at P.S.3 in 1974 (no such thing as pre-K back then!).  My sister also attended, from around 1974-1977.  Cynthia was the teacher there the entire time we attended.  I was pretty young, so I don’t have that many distinct memories of the Playgroup.  I do remember Cynthia as a wonderful, compassionate teacher and friend.

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.”  The playgroup space had moving blankets on the floor, and for the longest time, whenever I saw anyone moving, I always wondered why they covered all their furniture with rugs.

The Cheese Store, precursor to Dean & Deluca (photo: Ben Schonzeit)

I also remember Havarti cheese.  The parents of the day would be responsible for bringing in the snack of the day, and often it was purchased at THE CHEESE STORE, Giorgio DeLuca’s cheese shop at 120 Prince Street (now the site of Olive’s).  Giorgio DeLuca, along with two partners, went on to open Dean and DeLuca, the gourmet food store, across the street (now the site of Club Monaco).  My mother, who was pretty new to New York and the U.S., didn’t know what to buy, and one day she saw that another mom had brought in Havarti cheese, so she bought that too from then on.  I ate A LOT of Havarti cheese back in those days.

SoHo Playgroup was such as wonderful and special place to come into the world.  Mostly, but not all, children of artists, we were encouraged to discover and explore our inherent creativity.  Thank you, SoHo moms, for creating such as nurturing environment for us to grow up in!

If you attended SoHo Playgroup and wish to attend the reunion, please email me offline at yukie@sohomemory.org.

 

SoHo Playgroup Reunion, 2010

An earlier version of this post appeared on this blog in January 2011

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