Illegal Living: 80 Wooster

illegal-livingGeorge Maciunas bought 80 Wooster Street in 1967 for $105,000, as an artists’ cooperative, sort of like an artist colony in the city. The building would contain apartments, art studios, the Jonas Mekas cinemateque in the basement, and most of it was illegal. Soho at the time was zoned for industrial space, so the apartments were not allowed. But thanks to a slogging city, the building inspectors didn’t try that hard to root the dwellers out. Thanks as well to a slogging city, the effort to rezone the neighborhood took another decade.

Like many artists of the era, Maciunas trained in architecture, later en tering the avant-garde Fluxus arts movement that included Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and scores of artists who would move into Soho. He would go on to buy 10 more buildings, turning all of them into artist co-ops, and I stress co-ops, because this was about profit. This was a time before the illegal-living-6th-flooreasy-credit loans, and Maciunas needed to line up buyers in order to close the deals. The upfront purchase of the floors, and the low monthly maintainance, would pay off the loans. By the 1980’s, many of the artist would cash out.

There were several more of these artist cooperative buildings in the area, including White Columns (which has since moved) and 112 Greene Street. Originally, the city allowed each factory building to have only two people living there, and the building had to post a sign that said A.I.R. meaning “artist in residence,” to let the fire department know if someone might be sleeping up there. But the new Soho buildings had many residents, and this led to years of wrangling with the city. I can’t really blame the building inspectors; the neighborhood’s police and fire service was meant for industry, not residents. At the same time, however, fires from stoves or space heaters are nowhere near as bad as the ones sewing machine oil.

Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street is divided into chapters, each about a succeeding era. Some of the artists had kids by the late 1970’s, and it was a fun place to live; you could paint a hopscotch grid on the floor, draw on the walls, and play in the street. There were few cars on the street, because nobody had any reason to go there, and less crime than some more affluent areas. The disappearance of Etan Patz did create illegal-living-bildinga climate of fear, but it was an isolated incident. There was little crime there, because unlike the residential Upper West Side, there were no SRO’s or transient hotels. The Bowery and St. Mark’s Place were a mile away, and the winos never walked that far.

This book, and an earlier one that I reviewed (112 Greene Street) tells us a lot about the Soho phenomena. While I was at NYU and studying art in the mid-90’, I used to come by the neighborhood all the time. The city’s Gallery Guide listed plenty of art spaces in Soho, but most of them were high-end by that point. The actual history of the neighborhood wasn’t mentioned in the museums or the history books, and all we knew was that Soho had the galleries. Up-and-comers, including a few of my instructors, had their work shown in Chelsea. The only ones who showed their work in Soho were the ones with a following, including Lisa Yuskavage, another NYU instructor. Her candy-colored paintings and sculptures of illegal-living-robert-wattslittle women with big boobs always sold out, so it’s no wonder she’d get a show in Soho. It’s kind of like the way George Maciunas financed his building buys; you have to convince the creditors that you can bring in cash. Everything boils down to the laws of nature.

80 Wooster Street would be home to Krishna Reddy, Shirley Davidson, Shael Shapiro, and countless others, some of whom remained, others moved on. One of the last original residents, Mel Reichler, became a sociology professor. His wife Judy, who divorced him and moved upstate in 1979, became a town judge in New Paltz.

She became notorious in 2004 after she cleared charges against ministers who officiated same-sex couples.

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101 Reasons To Leave New York

Woody Allen should work with Howard Jordan Jr on a screenplay. The first thing he writes is “the best thing about living here is telling people who don’t that you do.” The movie streets, according to him, don’t connect in the movies the way they do on the map, which is obvious, given that in most movies the chase goes from one neighborhood to the other in the wrong direction. In Hurricane Streets the boys ride from Tower Records on west 4th street, and minutes later they’re at the Greenpoint Waterfront.

Jordan gives lots of small chapters to the small things that can annoy in this city, so a good description for the book would be “sweating the small stuff.” Subway fares rise, everything has to be done on a schedule, and you can’t tell how much of the city gets gentrified. I recall the time my uncle, visiting from Vermont, said “I can’t believe how many stores are closed” and realized it was true, I just never noticed. On the other hand, gentrification brings good things too. Neighborhoods that used to have one food store and lousy restaurants are now full of them. Soho was “cool” in the early 80’s, but it wasn’t a place for foodies.

You quickly lose sympathy for panhandlers in this city. He describes how their omnipresence drains your patience, along with the “fundraising campaigns” stepping in front of you. They give you no choice but to sidestep them, and you have to restrain yourself from pushing them out of the way, and then you get fed up with all the people who use poverty/color/obesity as an excuse and you can’t say so out of fear that you’ll sound politically incorrect.

Okay, that’s what this book is, lots of raving and ranting about the city. But I think that it’s wasted in book form. It might have done better as a column in Time Out NY or the Village Voice. Then again, the kind of people who’d want to read this book probably won’t be interested in The Village Voice. Maybe that’s another thing to rave and rant about.

112 Greene Street: The Early Years (1970-1974)

Image result for 112 greene street the early years112 Greene Street is where the Soho art scene began. It was the first “artist space” where you could use the rooms to do you artwork and show it, badly needed by artists who couldn’t afford studios. The galleries were still uptown, it would still be a few years before Soho became “galleryland,” but for an
artist with zero following, it was great to be able to make AND show your art in the same space. When I say that it was frequented by artists with no following, I mean the artists who did not have a gallery to show their work, nor a loyal group of fans. Much of the art shown at 112 Greene is now gone.

Jeffrey Lew, the original owner of the building, describes the 1960’s art galleries as being rather kitchy. The art was “doilies and bowls of fruit” and he wanted something a bit more raw. I imagine the art galleries were catering to the decorators, so 112 Greene Street, with its “old crazies in dirty clothes” would’ve been shocking even by modern art standards. Keep in mind that Andy Warhol, the city’s most iconic weirdo-artist, was the darling of the upper classes. His studio wasn’t in Soho either; it was at Union Square, and he and his crowd didn’t appreciate dirty, grungy types. 112 Greene Street would probably not have been on his radar. Lew, along with Gordon Matta-Clark, would also found White Columns to exhibit emerging artists.

Image result for 112 greene street the early years112 Greene Street is full of interviews with the artists of the period, most of whom I’d never heard of. There’s a 1970 photo of George Trakas, with his assemblage called “The Piece That Went Through The Floor” which I bet would NOT have been appreciated by the city’s gallery elite. Gordon Matta-Clark’s painting “Walls Paper” is a repeating silkscreened mural, similar in style to Andy Warhol, and I admit that’s what I thought it was at first. But Unlike Warhol’s celebrity pop culture fascination, Walls Paper appears to depict a beat up doorway. Kind of rough compared to Warhol, just like most of the artwork that survives from the space.

This book is the result of an exhibit at the David Zwirner Gallery in 2011, which I didn’t know of at the time. I take for granted that I loved going to Soho as a teenager in the early 1990’s, but I never learned about the history of the neighborhood. It was something of a wasteland in the early 70’s, with its shuttered factories and lack of amenities. The one thing it had on its side, which would become an asset to developers, was transportation. The neighborhood was well served by the subway lines, so when real estate values rose, Soho was converted into more expensive loft apartments. Lew’s White Columns gallery would move several times through Soho, eventually relocating to the Meatpacking District.

The artists depicted in this book are renowned in the art world, but not in the way that the more famous ones are. From the photos and the interviews, you can see the roughness of their world, which was, compared to others, independent. The book portrays them as having none of the financial patronage that other had, but at the same time they are free to do as they like. Kind of like Shirley Chisolm (a politician of the time) calling her platform “unbought and unbossed.” Yeah, she lost the Democratic nomination to George McGovern, but at least she did it her way. I bet she would’ve liked these artists, who were, in a way, homesteaders in a new land. Another factor in 112 Greene Street is that the artists were often self-taught. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Chuck Close all had formal training, and Warhol had been a commercial artist. These new “baby boom” artists were often self-taught,

Another book reviewed on this site, titled “In Love With Art,” explains the way of life in the area at the time. It was relatively safe compared to other areas of the time, because there was nothing to steal. Who would break into a loft if they knew they’d find only art supplies? I bet the most expensive thing you’d have found at 112 Greene Street was a radio, and even radios were becoming cheaper than ever (the area that would be taken over by the World Trade Center was known as Radio Row). There also weren’t any flophouses or SRO’s in the neighborhood, so you didn’t have alcoholics and junkies coming out at night. The Bowery, with its famous flophouses and dive bars, was half a mile away, and the winos and junkies rarely strayed that far from their haunts. Soho may in fact have been a safer neighborhood than the Upper West Side, which was notorious for muggings, thanks to expensive and cheap housing side by side. If Soho was safe, it was a food desert, and the only restaurants in the area were probably diners that catered to working men. The Soho food scene was over a decade away.

I think that I can sum up 112 Greene Street as an anti-thesis to Warhol and pop art. It’s all about risk takers in a formal industrial area, making art on a micro budget. Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, would become just like Soho by the mid 1990’s, with cheap housing, converted factories, and lousy eateries. Today it’s gentrified, like Soho in the 80’s. Gowanus still has something of an edge to it, and the Gowanus Art Space is open to artists who need studios. Even Gowanus is becoming more and more pricey for artists, so it remains to seen which neighborhood will be on the radar.