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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