Archive for the ‘SoHo Institutions’ Category

Keeping Watch: The SoHo Alliance and the Preservation of SoHo

July 1, 2014
An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post)

NYU 2031–An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post) The SoHo Alliance and other community groups lobbied against NYU’s expansion plan.

In a recent email regarding community opposition to NYU’s 2031 plan, Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance, announced:

In a stunning victory for our community, a State Supreme Court justice ruled that the City acted illegally in giving away parkland on Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place to NYU to be used as a construction staging-area for the university’s planned 20-year expansion program.  NYU had planned to squeeze 1.9 million square feet of high-rise buildings into the two super-blocks above Houston Street. (Read more about the plan here.)

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

The SoHo Alliance, with the tireless and fearless Sweeney at its helm, was instrumental in this victory. As a matter of fact, Sweeney and his associates who form the all-volunteer SoHo Alliance have been working for decades to preserve SoHo’s quality of life by actively monitoring proposed development and opposing developers who attempt to overreach the boundaries of regulatory laws.

In a profile of Sweeney in the now-defunct SoHo Life magazine, he states, “The SoHo Alliance strives for 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.” Without the SoHo Alliance, our neighborhood, believe it or not, would most certainly be far more commercially developed than it is today, with bars and nightclubs on every corner late-night revelers disturbing our peace at every hour.

Alliance members serve in key leadership positions on Community Board #2, providing our neighborhood a direct voice in City government. A few of their many accomplishments this past year (click here to see more) include: (more…)

Reading SoHo: Recent Books

February 1, 2014
Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via

Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via  From Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock.

I wanted to conjure New York as an environment of energies, sounds, sensations. Not as a backdrop, a place that could resolve into history and sociology and urbanism, but rather as an entity that could not be reduced because it had become a character, in the manner that a fully complex character in fiction isn’t reducible to cause, reasons, event.

—Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers,
in The Paris Review

While recently re-revisiting my SoHo book idea that seems forever stuck in Neverland, I was thinking about books of note have recently been written about SoHo.  There is, of course, Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of Soho (2010) by Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro, a history of the evolution of SoHo as told through the history of 80 Wooster Street and the people who lived there, as well as Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (2003) by Richard Kostelanetz, which is soon to be out in a revised edition, among other excellent books that have come out over the years (see list below).

There are two brand spankin’ new books, however, published within the last year, that merit particular attention in case they’ve been overlooked by my fellow SoHo memoriticians.  The first is Ann Fensterstock’s Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from Soho to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond that follows the evolution of New York’s arts hubs over the past fifty years.  There is also the novel The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, about a young artist who moves to New York from Nevada and then finds her way to Italy where she becomes involved in a radical movement.  Although neither of these books focus solely on SoHo, the sections that do are quite compelling and each do their part in shaping our collective memory of SoHo in the 1970’s. (more…)

All the News That’s Fit to Print, SoHo Style

February 9, 2013

SWN headThe other day, I was given a treasure trove of SoHo memory in the form of two boxes full of issues of The SoHo Weekly News from 1974 and 1975 (thanks, J and C!).  I remember seeing the paper lying around the house and probably used it for more than one paper mache project, but I cannot say that I was a regular reader.  I’m sure you older folk read it religiously for local news and listings, in the way that I read the Village Voice in the mid-1980’s when I was a young, single person looking for culture, high and low.

According to the SoHo Weekly News Online, “From October 1973 until March 1982 the SoHo Weekly News was New York City’s hippest paper and guide to what was happening in Fun City.”  (more…)

Ephemeral SoHo

January 26, 2013
Crosby Street, 1969

Crosby Street, 1969

This May, I will be traveling in Japan with my family, and while I am there, I will be having a SoHo Memory Project exhibition at my father’s gallery in his hometown of Okazaki.  I will display of photos and artifacts related to this blog and the story it tells about the SoHo experience as lived by its pioneers.  I think that the people of Okazaki, so far removed from The United States, New York, and certainly SoHo, will find the story of what my mom and dad, who disappeared 45 years ago only to reappear this year and build a house right back where they started, fascinating, if not incredible.  I will be putting together a catalog for the show that I will share with you, and I will most certainly be posting observations from the gallery in May.

The show will feature an essay by my mother about her memory of the early SoHo days that I translated and posted here a while back, and I will display related photographs printed on several media including paper, canvas, metal and wood.  I would also like to include pieces of ephemera, such as newspapers, letters, flyers.  Basically, anything that would materially illustrate what life was like back then.  I’ve posted images of some of the items I have gathered below. (more…)

Peanut Butter and Matchsticks

September 8, 2012

West Broadway between Prince & Broome Streets, 1986 (source: wikipedia)

On January 20, 1971, the City Planning Commission voted 4 to 0 to recommend to the Board of Estimate that artists be permitted to reside in the manufacturing buildings of SoHo.  On January 28, the Board of Estimate made that recommendation law.  This law was ultimately passed due to the SoHo Artists’ Association’s two-year battle with the city for the legalization of loft living in SoHo and set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas.  Then, on January 29, the question on everyone’s mind was, what is an artist?  What are the criteria to qualify as an artist?  Who will decide who is an artist and who is not?  Parameters had to be drawn around an amorphous, murky area that defied confinement.

Because the law was meant to keep fine artists in affordable spaces in SoHo and to keep others, including commercial artists who could afford market rents, out, the definition of an artist for loft law purposes had to take this into account.  First of all, unlike in the art world in general, artist certification in SoHo was not based on the quality of work, but on commitment to work, on the seriousness and duration of one’s involvement, no matter what medium.  Certification was also determined by a need for space.  According to the February 10, 1971 SoHo Newsletter, one’s status as an artist was to be determined by the following:

  1. A description of the artist’s work.
  2. A description of the artist’s need for space.
  3. A biographical sketch including data the artist feels is pertinent; education, professional training, public exhibitions or performances, reviews, or grants.
  4. Other data.  If the artist does not feel properly represented by 1, 2, or 3, above, he can: a) present documentation of his work n the form of slides, photographs or other data which will back up his commitment and space needs—but not his aesthetics, or b) ask a few members of the Committee to visit his studio or working space to discuss his situation.
  5. The names of two people who are familiar with the artist’s work and who can testify to his commitment and his need for loft space.

The Criteria Committee that judged applications consisted of 20 people, 10 artists and 10 non-artists who have been active in an arts-related organization.   The non-artists were included to prevent decisions biased toward aesthetic considerations.  There was also an appeals committee, a de-certification procedure to “defrock” applicants who were wrongly certified, and a re-certification process, where artists needed to renew their status, as attrition in their line of work was (and still is) quite high.

These criteria were carefully developed to ensure that SoHo lofts were reserved for committed artists, including those whose work was not well-known, well-liked, or well-bought.  As the film and theater director Joellen Johnson, who was very active in drawing up the guidelines for artists, stated, “If you work big in peanut butter and matchsticks, you’ll be ok.”

No system, no matter how well-intentioned, is perfect, however. My friend, a SoHo resident since 1977 and lifelong composer and musician in multiple musical genres, applied for certification when the Loft Law was passed.   In the first go-around, his application was rejected because being a rock and roll musician was considered the equivalent of being a commercial graphic artist and rock music was not considered a fine art for the purposes of the application.  So my friend resubmitted his application, this time removing all references to his gigs in rock clubs, and asked a couple of established musicians to write letters on his behalf.  He played up the fact that he composed music for dancers and played jazz, which was considered a fine art.  And, lo and behold, he was accepted and has lived in the same loft for 35 years now.

Until the Loft Law was made permanent two years ago, however, my friend, like many others in his situation, was living in a kind of limbo  because there was a chance that, once expired, the Loft Law might not be renewed.   As a result, he and other long-time SoHo residents living under the Law never felt that they could invest much into their lofts because they could possibly lose them at any time.  Once the law was made permanent, they were able to breathe a sign of relief and finally begin settling in (after 33 years!).

Even in the beginning, there were non-artists who slipped in through the cracks and legitimate artists who were rejected, and as time went on, things began to get more and more loosey goosey until the present day, when the Loft Law is still in effect, but there are only a few hundred artists remaining in SoHo, at best.  Every non-artist who moves into SoHo could still be told to move out unless he or she can prove artistic legitimacy, but the probability of that aspect of the law being enforced is close to nil.  And what IS an artist these days anyway?  An investment banker could also describe himself as a financial expressionist, a book editor could say she is a literary choreographer, and a rock guitarist could claim to be a musician.  What has this world come to?

The SAA: Trash Talkin’ and Beat Walkin’

July 14, 2012

A flyer for a meeting of the SoHo Artists Association (click to enlarge)

Before 1971, SoHo artists, almost all of whom also lived in their work spaces, were living here illegally.  For a while, no one seemed to notice or care, the city pretty much looked the other way, but when non-artists looking for investment opportunities began noticing the profit potential of such spaces, artists, who, until then, chose to remain anonymous and hidden, came together to form the SoHo Tenants’ Association and then incorporated as The SoHo Artists Association (SAA), initially in order to legalize loft dwellings and fight to keep SoHo an affordable place for artists to work.  Without the community organization and activism of residents, SoHo most certainly would not have evolved as it did.  It would most likely have been taken over by either real estate developers looking to make a quick buck or the city looking to build new housing projects, or both. Luckily, the SAA and other groups willing to put in time and labor stepped up and fought for what they felt was rightly theirs.

On January 20, 1971, the City Planning Commission voted 4 to 0 to recommend to the Board of Estimate that artists be permitted to reside in the manufacturing buildings of SoHo.  On January 28, the Board of Estimate made that recommendation law.  This law was ultimately passed due to the SAA’s two-year battle with the city for the legalization of loft living in SoHo and set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas. (more…)

The Teachers Were Nice, They Checked Us For Lice (But Mostly They Gave Us Very Good Advice)

January 28, 2012

P.S.3 at 3:00 ca. 1979

My daughter will turn four this year, which means that she will be entering Pre-K (that’s pre-kindergarten).  Back when I was a kid, we didn’t have pre-K.  We just went to playgroup and then when we were old enough, we went to P.S.3.  I don’t think we even officially lived in the zone for P.S.3, but that’s where all of the SoHo Playgroup kids went when we turned 5, and school overcrowding and variances were never an issue.

My P.S.3 yearbook picture

Back in the 70’s, children who lived in SoHo and Greenwich Village were usually sent to one of two schools, P.S.41 or P.S.3.  P.S. 41 was known as an academically strong school that offered a traditional curriculum based on reading and math.  P.S.3, in comparison, was known to be a less academically rigorous school with a liberal curriculum that emphasized an arts-based open classroom.  P.S.41 and P.S.3 were often seen as “rivals,” although rivals in what, I did not know.

So it was a surprise to me to find out that P.S.41, in a way, begat P.S.3, back during the teachers’ strike in 1968.  According to Charles R. Simpson in his book SoHo: The Artist in the City:

A group of P.S.41 parents, a faction within the P.T.A. living in Greenwich Village, opposed the strike.  The dissidents broke the locks on P.S.3, a surplus school scheduled for demolition, demanded that it be reopened, and chose a staff from among substitute teachers.  The Board of Education, taken aback but interested in creating pressure to end the strike, paid the staff.  While the strike lasted, the parents got a taste of running a school; and when the strike ended, they demanded that P.S.3 be retained as an annex of P.S.41 in which experimental education could be carried out.  (212)

For the first few years, the parents had control over the school.  They decided, by a council of three teachers, three community members, and twelve parents, how the school was to be structured and which teachers would be hired.  The council was chaired by the school’s head teacher, who I presume was John Melser, a teacher from new Zealand who taught in the tradition of A.S. Neill, an advocate for personal freedom for children.

Jeremy's comical depiction of John, drawn at age 10

By the time I got there in 1974, the Board of Education had taken back control of the school, but it still retained the basic structure put in place by its founders.  John was now the principal (we called everyone, including the principal, by their first names).  The classroom had mixed grades, mostly either K,1,2 or 3,4,5, but there was one that was K-5 (taught by Fredlyn, I think), which allowed for different rates of progress and encouraged the younger students to learn from the older ones, who were in turn encouraged to guide the younger students.  There was also heavy parent involvement in the school. Many of the parents were artists who would come in to the classroom to lead art activities.  My mother came in and taught the class how to do origami.  Another parent, an actress, came in to lead improvisation exercises.  I even remember learning a little Italian.

At the core of P.S.3’s educational philosophy was an emphasis on individualism.  This, I am guessing, resulted in less cliquey-ness and more “kookiness” than in other schools.  But, all in all, I think I got as good an academic education as anyone else, with a strong sense of self and a penchant to think outside the box thrown in as a bonus (AND free breakfast—raisin bran with wheat germ).

My sister's class picture from 1977-78

I get the sense that over the years P.S.3 has become a bit more mainstream in terms of its approach to education but that it still holds its core character from back in the John Melser days.  I have only fond memories of John and my teachers (Lila, Edith, Annette, and Ruth) and am grateful for the strike that started it all.  Unfortunately, I do not have high hopes that my daughter will have the same privilege as I did of attending P.S.3.  As the school zones are drawn at present, the back of our building abuts the wrong side of the P.S.3 zone, and with the severe overcrowding of downtown schools, legacy or not, I cannot count on a variance.  We will not likely be starting a dynasty.  Alas, if only my name were Carrington.

P.S.  Here are the words to the P.S.3 graduation song, as I remember it, written by Lucy, sung to the tune of Sloop Jon B by The Beach Boys (please feel free to correct, amend, etc.!):

The first per son I ever drew
I said it looked a lot like you
And then we decided we would be best friends
I taught you to write
You taught me to fight
You called me up for the homework
Almost every night.

I’m graduating from P.S.3
I wonder how my life’s gonna be
It’s hard to leave so many memories behind
The friends that I’ve known
The ways that I’ve grown
P.S.3’s been a kind of a home.

I remember when I couldn’t spell
There were times I couldn’t wait for the bell
But then I learned how to read and write and sing
The teachers were nice
They checked us for lice
But mostly they gave us
Very good advice.

Repeat Chorus

(Was there another verse after this?)

If You Don’t Build It, They Will Still Come

December 10, 2011

Charles L. Low with drawings and models of his proposed sports complex (photo: The New York Times)

Did you know that the second biggest development project never to happen in old SoHo, after LOMEX, was a proposed sports complex?  In 1972, the real estate developer Charles L. Low asked the City for a variance to build a 21-story public sports center at 311 West Broadway, just north of Canal Street.  The complex was to have 15 tennis courts, four ice skating rinks, a 6,000 square foot gym with running track, six squash courts, two handball courts, a 25-meter Olympic swimming pool, a whirlpool, sauna and exercise rooms, lockers and dressing rooms, lounges, health food bars, pro shops, a nursery, and self-service parking for 225 cars.  The complex was to mainly cater to the Wall Street crowd and other white-collar types who worked downtown.  In 1972?  In SoHo?

Needless to say, this plan caused some controversy.  And, as you can guess, the complex was never built.  But for a while, when the plan was still a possibility, it caused a huge divide in the SoHo community and its environs.

Many but not all artists who lived in SoHo were against the plan.  The most vocal opponent was the SoHo Artists’ Association, who argued that the complex would spoil the character of the neighborhood, that it would be an eyesore in a neighborhood that was made up of low-rise, 18th century buildings.  They also argued that the complex would bring in more people and automobiles to the neighborhood than it could support and it would also lead to higher rents in an area whose rents had already doubled in recent years due to escalating property values.

On the opposing side, community members, most of whom lived just west of West Broadway, most of whom were Italian-American, and most of whom were not artists but laborers and merchants, supported the plan, arguing that the complex would raise the profile of the neighborhood, bring much needed jobs to the area, and would provide a place for residents, especially children, to exercise (the students in the nearby Catholic school were promised free access to the facilities).  In addition, NYU supported the plan, as the complex would improve the quality of life of their faculty members who lived nearby.

Both sides had compelling arguments.  It was a bit of a surprise, though, when the complex was defeated.  As Donald Tricarico explains in his book, The Italians of Greenwich Village: The Social Structure and Transformation of an Ethnic Community:

The SAA was persuasive.  The planning board adopted its position and advised against the complex.  Italians were quite angry and taken off guard by the artists’ assertiveness in the matter.  The community broker felt that the sports center was “none of their business.”  He also felt betrayed.  He insisted that “if it wasn’t for the Italians, there wouldn’t be a SoHo.” (p. 130)

In hindsight, I suppose I am happy that the complex was never built.  One less aesthetically questionable behemoth building to look at.  Yet, all of the things that the SAA said would happen to the neighborhood if the complex was built happened anyway.  And pretty soon thereafter.  On the very same plot where the complex was supposed to be, we now have the SoHo Mews, a sprawling luxury condo complex where the likes of Oscar de la Renta own property, and across the street is the majestic SoHo Grand Hotel.  And neither the Mews nor the Grand serve the youth of the neighborhood (though I don’t 100% believe that the sports complex would have in the end, either—lesson learned from the whole Coles experience).  To the west of the Grand, we have the even more majestic Trump SoHo Hotel.  If the names “Trump” and “SoHo” can be found proudly emblazoned on a marquis, I think we can safely say that we have crossed the Rubicon.

From Rags to Riches

October 22, 2011

An A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) sign. These signs were often posted at the entrance to industrial buildings to indicate to the FDNY that someone was living in the building and on what floor.

By the time my parents had arrived in the US in the mid-1960’s, aside from die and mold manufaturing, SoHo was dominated by the rag trade.  Businesses would collect fabric scraps, separate them by type of fiber, and send them out to be recycled.  But then along came synthetic fabrics such as nylon and Dacron, which cannot easily be reused, and the rag business died out, leaving landlords with empty lofts that were too small (about 2500 square feet) to be used for manufacturing.  Many lofts remained empty for quite a while until artists, desperate for studio space, began moving in.  The catch was that the neighborhood was an “M” Zone, permitting light manufacturing and commercial use, but not residential use.  The artists, almost all of whom also lived in their work spaces, were there illegally.  For a while, no one seemed to notice or care, the city pretty much looked the other way, but when non-artists looking for investment opportunities began noticing the profit potential of such spaces, artists, who, until then, chose to remain anonymous and hidden, came together to form the SoHo Tenants’ Association and  incorporated as The SoHo Artists Association in order to to help legalize loft dwellings and fight to keep SoHo an affordable place for artists to work.

Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance explains:

Since artists were living here in violation of the zoning, and theoretically depriving manufacturers of cheaper manufacturing space, thus depriving the city (and unskilled workers) of manufacturing jobs and a manufacturing-based economy, many manufacturers and law-and-order types at the Buildings Dept, sought an enforcement of the laws that prohibited living in an M zone.  However, they could not stop the influx of folk wanting to live here, even illegally, despite the harassments and fines and eviction threats.  So, the SoHo Artists Association, the forerunner of the Alliance, was formed in 1968 to reach a compromise and to get artist-living here legalized. The construct or the conceit used to justify their living here was that artists do manufacture — they manufacture art!    So, the only ones who could live in SoHo/NoHo were manufacturers of art, i.e., artists basically, although musicians could live here if they composed (manufactured) music, but could not live here if they solely used it as a rehearsal space. Same with dancers.  Choreographing enabled you live in your loft. You manufactured dance. Using it just for dance practice did not.

Now, who was an artist and who was a bullshit artist? That was to be determined by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, who were pretty arbitrary in their criteria, leading to much frustration.  Further, there was a general amnesty in 1987 to those non-artists living here prior to that year. But, again, no one enforced the JLWQA (Joint Live/Work Quarters for Artists) requirement, so more “illegals” continued to come into SoHo in the 80s and 90s and today.

This is just a primer for a long and complicated history of zoning laws, power struggles, and “gentrification” that spanned the second half of the twentieth century.  The evolution of SoHo set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas.  Community-building is an ongoing, open-ended struggle.  Many of those who arrived here in “rags” were forced out of the neighborhood, by either necessity or choice, before they could enjoy any “riches” that resulted from their valiant efforts. Although SoHo has changed almost unrecognizably over the past decades, I nonetheless feel lucky to still be here and salute those who came before me.

P.S.  The SoHo Alliance is staffed entirely by volunteers, but, like all non-profits, it has expenses to meet: lawyers, consultants, computer maintenance, office charges, etc.  Please visit their website to find out more and to donate funds to help keep SoHo the neighborhood you want it to be.

The Two Towers

October 1, 2011

The Silver Towers, back when they still had those globe lights (photo: Pei Cobb Freed & Partners)

The other day I was sitting at the Silver Towers apartment complex watching my daughter ride her new scooter when I realized just how large a presence that Picasso statue is in my personal landscape.  The Silver Towers was (and still is) a world away from SoHo, with it’s unadorned, uniform buildings guarded by doormen set around a large open public space with manicured lawns and “keep off the grass” signs (those signs have since disappeared).  Yet it was just across Houston Street, on my way to the supermarket, on my way home from the school bus stop, and the closest open-air plaza to my house.  It was the first place I ever rode a bike outdoors (after learning how to actually ride in my living room).  It was the first place I ever built a snowman.  It was the first place I ever went trick-or-treating.  It was where many of my friends from P.S.3 lived.  In the winter, the buildings form the fiercest wind tunnel imaginable, but it is also the shortest way to get home from the Village, so I brave it anyway and always swear to myself I’ll never do it again.  During summer, because there is almost no shade there, it gets so hot it makes me want to weep (I’m a wimp when it comes to heat).

Picasso's sand-blasted concrete bust of Sylvette at The Silver Towers

Completed in 1966, the three towers, designed by James Ingo Freed and I.M. Pei, are part of a 5 1/2 acre complex that was part of Robert Moses’ ambitious “urban renewal” program.  The tower that faces LaGuardia Place is a Mitchell-Lama middle-income cooperative building for area residents while the other two, owned by NYU, are faculty and graduate student residences.  The large concrete abstract bust in the center of the plaza sculpted by Carl Nesjar was inspired by Pablo Picasso’s small metal sculpture “A Portrait of Sylvette,”  and built in consultation with Picasso himself.

In the early-1970’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted to wrap the Sylvette sculpture in brown fabric, but this never happened.  In the early-1980’s, the towers were cited as part of I.M. Pei’s accomplishments to date when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize.  In 2008, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the complex, including the sculpture, a landmark.

I never understood why they were called “silver” when they were really a drab beige color.  I guess The Drab Beige Towers just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  Actually, I think they were named for Julius Silver, a major NYU donor, but I’m not 100% sure.  What I do know is that I used to think the Silver Towers were just about the ugliest buildings around.  Why would anyone build anything, not to mention a whole residential complex, in concrete, I would wonder.  But sitting there the other day, I realized that I actually dug it.  The beige.  The concrete.  All of it.  I love it.  There is a soothing, earthy quality to the blandness that pervades the entire “superblock,” especially in stark contrast to all of the shiny glass and metal used to build the towering towers of today.  Is it nostalgia?  Longing for childhood?  Maybe.  Will I feel this way in forty years about the Time Warner Center?  Oh boy, I hope not.

Yukie and Mimi playing in that little playground on the Houston Street end of the Silver Towers complex (now called Rocketship Park)

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