Posts Tagged ‘New York Childhood’

(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


SoHo Playgroup Reunion, 2010

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

The SoHo Historical Society?

April 2, 2015
Loft For Sale - Copy for an advertisement, date unknown.  Sounds like a nice place.  And I think it was on West Broadway!

Loft For Sale – Copy for an advertisement, date unknown. Sounds like a nice place. And I think it was on West Broadway!

Ever wonder why SoHo doesn’t have a historical society or neighborhood association? I am forever grateful that we have the SoHo Alliance and SoHo Partnership. But I mean more like a place that preserves the cultural history of SoHo, what real loft living was like, what it was like to grow up in a loft not knowing that other children had doormen and elevators and carpeting, what it was like to raise a family while living illegally. Stuff like that.

Mike, Jane's husband, inspecting the installation of the first wall in the loft. (image: Cass Collins)

image: Cass Collins

Well, I have. I obviously think it’s an interesting story— I’ve been writing about it for the past 4+ years. And this blog will probably be around for years to come, even if I stop writing it today. But I think we need something more. Although there are archives throughout the world that collect the personal papers of significant artists and individuals who were SoHo pioneers, SoHo itself has no physical space dedicated to preserving its history as a neighborhood, nor is there any library or museum that tells its story. (more…)

The SoHo Memory Project Goes on The Line

February 17, 2015

logo_theline_small-343399d9e012f9840403744ed6171138medium_ED_CH_v1.72_SOHOHISTORY_YukieOhta  Last month, I was interviewed by The Line about The SoHo Memory Project. Read the article, and check out all of the great things happening at The Line and at their loft on Greene Street, The Apartment!

The SoHo Memory Project:
A Conversation with Yukie Ohta

Writing SoHo

January 1, 2014
Cover of the December 30, 2002 issue of THE NEW YORKER by Barry Blitt

Cover of the December 30, 2002 issue of THE NEW YORKER by Barry Blitt

Happy birthday to The SoHo Memory Project!  I began writing this blog on January 1, 2011.  As we enter year four, I thought I’d take a look back and tell you all the story of how this blog began.  Once upon a time….

I became a writer quite by accident, and I would not even describe myself as a writer, at least not in any conventional way.  I don’t sit in a room typing furiously while chain-smoking (do any writers do this anymore?), I don’t make a regular income from my writing, nor is it my main occupation.  But writing is a huge part of my everyday life, and I do not know where I would be without it.

I grew up in SoHo in the 1970s when the neighborhood was a derelict area where artists lived illegally in loft buildings that housed mostly warehouses and light manufacturing.  It was completely different from the SoHo of today, but in many ways, although it was dirty and desolate, it was a much friendlier, homier place to live back then. (more…)

Small-Time Crook

November 30, 2013
Grand Union on LaGuardia Place

Grand Union on LaGuardia Place (photo: Jaime Davidovich

Admittedly, the Grand Union on LaGuardia and Bleecker was not in SoHo, but it was such a huge part of my childhood that I feel I must write about it.  Now called Morton Williams, the Grand Union supermarket, built to serve the tenants of NYU’s Silver Towers and Washington Square Village apartment buildings, was the closest place (except for the bodega on West Broadway and Prince) to buy groceries for most SoHo residents.  A free standing-building, it is quite a behemoth for New York City standards, though no competition with the suburban hypermarkets of today.

For years and years, I would go “big shopping” there with my mother and sister.  We would fill up the shopping cart, spending (gasp!) upwards of $50.00, and have everything delivered to our loft.  It must have been not the worst way to make a living, delivering for Grand Union, because we had the same few guys bringing groceries to our house for ages.

My mother says I was about seven years old when she started sending me to Grand Union with my sister on our own.  Seven!  Children’s Services would be called if you did that now.  She would send us there to get, among other things, ten tubes of Crest Regular toothpaste, ten packs of cookies, and a ten packs of cigarettes (a.k.a. a carton).  My father used the toothpaste to polish the lacquer furniture he made (ancient Japanese secret), he served the cookies to his workers at tea time, and he smoked the cigarettes.  What must have they been thinking at checkout when two very little Japanese girls showed up, on a regular basis, to buy this strange assortment of groceries?  I guess they figured we’d need all of that toothpaste after eating all those cookies and smoking all those cigarettes!

tiger's milkThe first (and only) time I ever stole anything was at Grand Union.  A Tiger’s Milk Bar.  A strange thing for a kid to want, but whatever.  It happened almost by accident.  I picked one up and planned to ask my mother if she would buy it for me.  I wandered around the store for a while and got caught up looking at the Happy Days books, novelizations of the popular television series.  I realized that I needed to put down the Tiger’s Milk bar to turn the pages.  With nowhere else to put it, I stuck it in my pocket and then realized that I could just walk out with it, which is exactly what I did.  After I got it home, I felt so bad about having taken it that I never did it again.  Easy lesson learned, thanks to The Fonz.

I suppose Grand Union was your average supermarket in its day.  The National Enquirer up front and a deli counter in the back.  I still call it Grand Union, though you can’t get much there for fifty dollars these days.  They went upscale with the ‘hood, and now they carry imported pistachios and pre-washed salad in a box (both of which I admit I buy on occasion).  I hear that NYU plans to tear it down to build another apartment building.  If that happens, where, pray tell, will a seven-year-old be able to score a pack of smokes?

This post first appeared on July 30, 2011

SoHo State of Mind

May 18, 2013
The opening reception for the SoHo Memory Project exhibition.

At the opening reception for the SoHo Memory Project exhibition.

This is week three of my SoHo exhibition.  I think it has been rather successful thus far.  Not in the sense that it has drawn large crowds from far and wide, but it has shed a (dappled) light on the mysterious ways of my ex-expat parents in the eyes of locals.  My parents spent more than half of their lives in New York.  How could they not have brought it back to Okazaki with them?

First of all, everyone now sees that what they thought was my parents’ unusual and excessively large live/work space, is de rigeur in SoHo.  Japanese homes are small, cramped abodes with small cramped rooms that at first glance appear more spacious than they really are because everything, from the sofa to the plates to the people themselves are a few degrees smaller than in the US, thus everything is to scale, as if the whole environment were thrown in a dryer set on high.  But then you realize that the overflowing plate of food offered at dinnertime is in fact a Lilliputian feast and that you are starving as soon as you’ve finished your mini-meal.  Yes, even the pieces of sushi are smaller here.

In contrast, my parents have recently super-sized their living quarters.  While they were camping out in the back of the Blue Box Gallery, they decided to build a house on the lot next door that was being used for parking.  Again, instead of building a house like all the others in the neighborhood, my father designed a three-story “loft building” where he could have an entire floor as a studio and then a spacious living space above.  The ground floor, still vacant, is a commercial space that can be used for art or dance classes or as an exhibition space, TBD.  The building has exposed cement walls, wood floors, and high ceilings, a la SoHo 1975, but also includes all of the modern conveniences of Japan 2013, such as a bathtub with a digital control panel where you can set and maintain the temperature of the bath, shower, and air, all separately, and a pleasing tune plays throughout the apartment as a soothing woman’s voice announces that your bath is ready and is at your desired settings.

The control panel of my parents' bathtub

The control panel of my parents’ bathtub

Then there’s the more intangible SoHo ethos that emanates from The Blue Box.  Japan is not a country that generally celebrates difference.  People seem to work hard to blend in, to toe the party line in terms of behavior, dress, even how they pass their leisure time.  This is kind of a bummer for any arty eccentric types.  They must remain closeted or else risk ridicule.  Not anymore!  The Blue Box is a haven for the square pegs of Okazaki.  They come to hang out and chat and let it all hang out.  My father has a motley posse of “misfits,” who in New York would just blend in, but then, who doesn’t blend in in New York, save for a group of Japanese tourists?

I asked visitors to the gallery to share their impressions of the exhibition.  People mostly said what you would expect, “I never knew that SoHo had such a rich history,” and “I would like to visit SoHo now that I know something about it.”  One visitor wrote me a note reflecting on my childhood that said, “To bring a well-balanced, well-rounded child into the world is quite difficult.  It takes a broad-minded community, home, and family working together to achieve this.  You are very lucky to have had such a life!”  Lucky, indeed.  I will keep this in mind while raising my daughter, also a child of SoHo, with the hope that when people see her exhibition about the SoHo of her childhood, they will know that she, too, was a lucky kid.

And the survey says…

March 23, 2013
Jason Crum mural sponsored by City Walls at West Broadway and Houston (photo by David Bromberg)

Jason Crum mural sponsored by City Walls at West Broadway and Houston (photo by David Bromberg)

Thanks to all of you who filled out my “SoHo Survey” over the past two 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 about all of your memories of old SoHo.  I thought I’d share some of them here anonymously.  Although I 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.


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…)

Happy Birhtday to the SoHo Memory Project: Hello Year Three

December 29, 2012
This photo of me and my sister was taken in 1974 in the parking lot on Crosby Street between Prince and Spring, the current site of the Crosby Hotel, where we would often play.

This photo of me and my sister was taken in 1974 in the parking lot on Crosby Street between Prince and Spring, the current site of the Crosby Hotel, where we would often play.

Happy birthday to us!  January 1 will mark the second anniversary of The SoHo Memory Project.  I thought I’d take this opportunity to look toward year three by looking back to see how far we’ve come.

On December 5, Avi, my nephew, was born and is living in our building on Mercer Street, right next door, as a matter of fact.  He is the newest member of the THIRD generation of SoHo-ites to live here.  Not many buildings, at least in New York City, can boast that!  Back in the early 70’s, there were a total of four children from two households living in our building.  In 2012, the same four children, now in their forties, are still living in the building and are now having children of their own. We are now a dynasty.

One thing is for sure, Avi’s SoHo Memory Project will look far different from my own.  My sister and I reminisce about the good old days when SoHo streets were empty. We remember that there was no need for traffic lights, as there were no cars in the streets and we could play ball in the middle of Crosby Street in the summer and make snow angels in the middle of Houston Street in the winter.  Avi’s SoHo memories will be peopled with tourists and shoppers by day and finely dressed drinkers and diners by night.  He will remember that parking was a nightmare, unless you could pony up the $20/hour to park in one of two lots in the area (not that he’ll ever learn to drive, as he is a native New Yorker!).

By 1985, the original children of SoHo were already mourning the SoHo of their youth. As Kathleen Brady writes in her 1985 New York Times article:

Theirs was the pioneer SoHo of doorless bathrooms and buzzerless buildings. When outsiders visited, they had to announce their arrival from the corner pay phone. …Now SoHo is chic, and the babies of the late 1960’s and 1970’s are in their second decade. Already they are nostalgic. Rachael Mason, 13, said: ”It’s changed so much! All these modern things are moving in and taking the place of Italian butchers and candy shops. They are being replaced by clothing stores that are very expensive. But the nice thing is there’s always a lot going on.”

Twenty-two years later, in 2007, the selfsame Rachel Mason, writes in a post about growing up in SoHo on her blog Superfree:

SoHo was once the domain of cool artists and young families. When we moved in nobody had lived there prior to us: there was minimal plumbing and three inches of dirt on the floor. There were no walls and rats came up through the pipes. I remember sleeping on the floor on a mattress in a sleeping bag and getting dressed under the covers because we didn’t have heat. We were living there illegally and the city turned the heat off (they finally had to relent because it was freezing and the pipes would burst, which would have pretty much destroyed the building). We would boil water on the stove and then pour it into the bathtub in order to bathe. It was a pretty crazy existence.

LOFT LIVING   This is the front half of our "glamorous" $125/month floor-through loft on Crosby Street with sooty windows on four sides, plastic stapled to the ceiling where it was falling down, furniture mostly found in dumpsters, and, of course, no C of O.  But oh so much space!

LOFT LIVING This is the front half of our “glamorous” $125/month floor-through loft on Crosby Street with sooty windows on four sides, plastic stapled to the ceiling where it was falling down, furniture mostly found in dumpsters, and, of course, no C of O. But oh so much space!

We just re-lived that crazy existence for four days after Hurricane Sandy came through New York (except for the part about the rats).  Avi had not arrived yet, but my very-pregnant sister stoically made her way up and down our dark stairs and walked miles to get fresh food and other provisions, just like in the old days. But those four days were an aberration that only reminded us how much our lives have changed.  Although we still live in the same building, Avi will never have to sleep in a cold room or make friends with rats.  Our parents, the first generation pioneers of SoHo, made sure of this.  They worked hard to pass on to us a more comfortable existence with smother edges and more heat, and we, in turn, will pass on, to Avi and his peers, an even more comfortable existence, with the luxury of convenience that includes doors on all bathrooms as well as three Duane Reades within spitting distance.

This is the way it should be.  Progress is always preferable to stagnation.  Many of you may ask, at what cost?  I do not know that it matters anymore.  I have my fond memories of youth, thanks to my parents. That SoHo is long gone.  Avi and my daughter will have their own SoHo memories, thanks to us.  They will be very different memories from my own, yet, one can only hope, fond nonetheless.

The Way We Were

November 3, 2012

Mercer Street, November 2, 2012.  It could almost be 1972.

Sorry, folks, to be so brief this week.  I am actually writing this in the dark and hoping to do a driveby posting a Starbucks.  No telephone, no heat, no electricity.  Reminds me of the old SoHo days, actually.  We’ve been trudging up and down the stairs, walking what seems like miles to get groceries, and schlepping everything in the dark.  No streetlights, no cars, not a soul around.  This used to be a typical evening on Mercer Street, but I’m certainly not used to it anymore.  It’s very Escape from New York around here after sundown.  Quite unsettling.

You’ve got to admire the resiliency of New Yorkers, though, in times of crisis.  A power outage sure brings out the McGuyver in everyone.  I saw someone charging her cell phone from a work light on a scaffold. That’s what old SoHo was all about, wasn’t it?  Making due with what we had.  Didn’t we used to pirate electricity, phone service, and then later cable, through a maze of wires hanging out our back windows held together by tape?  The difference now is that we know what we’re missing.  When we were kids, sleeping under a mound of blankets in a cold loft was life as usual.  Today, my daughter is wondering why she has to wear her fleece jacket to sleep.  She’s wondering why she can’t watch Feist and the Muppets on YouTube.

They say that we’ll finally get power back Saturday night at 11 pm.  And none too soon.  It’s one thing to be nostalgic about the good ol’ days.  It’s a whole other thing to have to relive them…

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