Posts Tagged ‘Soho’

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.”

Back to the Future on Mercer Street

June 4, 2018

The facade of 155 Mercer Street in 1856 and today

After a long and meticulous renovation and restoration, Fireman’s Hall, at 155 Mercer Street, opened as Dolce & Gabbana, the high-end Italian fashion brand, on April 11. As a retail space, the store is quite impressive. D&G’s designers went all out, creating curated graffiti-covered walls as a backdrop to (tastefully?) garish furniture.

Interior of the new Dolce & Gabbana store in SoHo

The façade of the building has been carefully reconstructed to (almost) what it looked like when it was built in 1855, including the carved sign above the second floor window that reads “Firemen’s Hall.”

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The Saint of SoHo

May 15, 2018

Razing the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori at 310 West Broadway, now the Soho Grand Hotel, Harry Pincus 1981

This amazing photo, part of a series of the razing of the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori taken by artist Harry Pincus in 1981, tells many stories. It tells us that there used to be a church where the SoHo Grand Hotel is today. It reminds us that the twin towers once stood downtown until they didn’t. It is proof that West Broadway was once home to a community of German Catholics and then at some point became a victim of urban decay and that it is now an affluent street with a high-end hotel. (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

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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. (more…)

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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(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

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!

 

 

 

The Old Kid on the Block: Mercer Parking Garage

February 4, 2017
The Mercer Parking Garage after it closed for good.

The Mercer Parking Garage after it closed for good.

As many of you locals know, The Mercer Parking Garage on Mercer between Houston and Prince, closed its door on December 31, 2016. The garage opened in the 1960s and had been continuously operating since then. So it was already a neighborhood mainstay when I moved in next door in 1974.

And it certainly was a mainstay in my life. The garage guys were there, year in and year out, when I came home from school, and later when I came home from college (all the way from Morningside Heights!). As an adult, I still saw the same faces from when I was a child. Morris, Junior, Willie and later, Jay, Pedro, Juvie (sp?), and still Willie. They were my security detail back when SoHo was dark and desolate, they saw me grow up and they’ve known my daughter since the day she was born.

Willie at the garage on December 30, 2016

Willie at the garage on December 30, 2016

I had a recurring dream (nightmare?) when I was a teenager.  I was being chased by a faceless someone.  As I turned the corner onto my block, I saw Willie standing in front of the Mercer Garage so I ran up to him and he said something like, “It’s okay.  You’re safe here.”  Since then, whenever I see the garage or Willie, who has worked there since 1983, I feel safe.

The famous PARKING sign. Where will it go? Perhaps it needs a home in the SoHo archive.

The famous PARKING sign. Where will it go? Perhaps it needs a home in the SoHo archive.

In 2011, spoke with Jay, the owner of the garage, and found out that his family has a long history in SoHo and on Mercer Street, WAY longer than my family.

The building at 165 Mercer Street was originally a factory but was converted to a parking garage when automobiles began to be popular.  During prohibition, there was also some bootlegging going on in the building as well.

In the 60’s, Jay’s father, Calman, an auto mechanic, bought the building. Calman and his brother, Jay’s uncle Morris, who had worked in an embroidery workshop down the street since just after WWII in what is now the Donald Judd building, ran the garage, which used to sell Getty gasoline.  Calman would work the morning rush at the garage and then leave to work at an auto body shop on Bleecker and Lafayette (where Pinche Tacqueria is now) all day and then he would come back to the garage to work the evening rush. He would take Saturdays off, and then on Sundays, when the garage was closed, Jay would come in to the city from Brooklyn with his father and mother. His father would go to the shop to work on cars he didn’t get to during the week while his mother would clean and sweep at the garage.  Jay would go across the street to the former NYU playground (see my post on the playground here) to play pickup basketball games and then in the evening the whole family would go to Chinatown for dinner. That was their Sunday ritual.

Morris Diamond worked at his family’s embroidery factory at 101 Spring Street from after World War II until 1969 when the factory closed. He then worked with his brother, Calman Batt, at the garage at 165 Mercer Street until his death in 1987. Jay Batt, Morris’ nephew, ran the garage until it closed at the end of last year.

Morris Diamond worked at his family’s embroidery factory at 101 Spring Street from after World War II until 1969 when the factory closed. He then worked with his brother, Calman Batt, at the garage at 165 Mercer Street until his death in 1987. Jay Batt, Morris’ nephew, ran the garage until it closed at the end of last year.

I did not know Calman, but I have only fond memories of Morris, who passed away in 1991.  He always greeted me and my family cheerfully, and on spring and summer evenings in the 1970’s, I would sometimes sit with a friend on the bench outside his garage and practice the songs we learned in our chorus.  Morris would come out of his office applauding and give us each fifty cents for our “beautiful” singing.  Fifty cents could buy us a slice of pizza, a subway ride, or a boatload of candy, so, to us at least, it was a substantial chunk of change.

An FBI photo of the Mercer Parking Garage when bootleggers and cars shared space upstairs

An FBI photo of the Mercer Parking Garage when bootleggers and cars shared space upstairs

Back then, the garage’s clientele was mostly comprised of commuters coming in to SoHo to work at the factories and offices. The garage workers knew all of their customers, as they were mostly monthly parkers who would come in every weekday.  They were Monday morning quarterbacks who would talk sports and chat and there was a real camaraderie, a sense of community, at the garage.

The enormous car elevator. I always wanted to ride in it.

The enormous car elevator. I always wanted to ride in it.

By the early 1980’s, most of the factories closed and the clientele began changing.  There are still some monthly customers, but Jay says that there are more and more “transients” who remain anonymous.  Lunchers.  Shoppers.  Weekend partyers.  The garage is open late on Saturday nights to accommodate the dinner crowd, but they still close at 7:30 pm on weekdays, which gives them just enough time to get all the cars out and the trucks in.

This sink has seen it all.

This sink has seen it all.

Business declined due to the recession. More and more people chose to just stay home.  But Jay said he would never sell, and he didn’t.  He knew just how valuable his enormous building was, but he liked running a business and he planned to pass it along, just as it was passed along to him. But things changed, as they always do.

The good news is, Jay will still be able to pass it along, as he did not sell the building. From what I have heard, after an extensive renovation and restoration, the building will house offices and retail on the ground floor. This will change the block considerably, but it will not be an anomaly. The building will feel right at home with the Mercer Hotel, Prada, Balenciaga, Zadig and Voltaire, Versani, Marni, Vera Wang, 45 RPM, and the currently-under-construction Tori Burch, Marc Jacobs, and a three story Dolce and Gabbana. As a matter of fact, in recent years it was the garage that was the anomaly on the block.

But the question still remains, who will protect me now? I’d better start getting cozy with the doormen at the Mercer Hotel…

Pedro in the garage's office

Pedro in the garage’s office

An earlier version of this post appeared on this blog on July 2, 2011.

 

 

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.


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