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A Soho artist’s plaint: Up against the city’s upzoning and a greedy co-op board

BY HARRY PINCUS | As a certified artist, who bought a space in an old harpsichord factory in 1975, I am concerned about the recent proposals to rezone Soho, and remove the protections for artists that the city promised us when we first pioneered a deserted and undesirable 19th-century industrial zone.

Indeed, our current mayor, as well as numerous other ambitious politicians, have now decided that our homes and our lives must be “reimagined” to “reflect modern live/work modes!” The exclamation point is mine.

So, alas, the mayor and his sponsors in the real estate business think it’s time to “reimagine” the Joint Living Work Quarters for Artists where I pulled etchings that I sold on street corners for 25 bucks, and where I labored, bent over a drawing board all night long, dosing myself with cheap instant coffee in order to produce nationally award-winning illustrations on deadline for the New York Daily News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Nation, The Village Voice, the SoHo Weekly News and Lincoln Center Classical Jazz.

Artists need protections, because we earn less than other professions. I never earned much, but somehow I managed to find a good wife and raise two kids here, and send them off to college. I never did become Andy Warhol, though he did once ask me for my autograph. After surviving blackouts, lawsuits, 9/11 and parts of two centuries here, I am the last certified artist who still resides in our JLWQA building.

Although Soho has become synonymous with vanity, greed, thousand-dollar sneakers and million-dollar listings, many of us struggled to create a home out of its old factories and tiny tenement walk-ups, and now find ourselves targeted by wealthy speculators as we shelter from a pandemic in our old age.

This is not just about artists. I speak not only for myself, but for my 84-year-old ex-Marine friend, the beloved Mayor of Spring Street, now too ill to come out and hold court. Another dear friend is 91 years old, and an inspiration of survival. She was relocated from her apartment of 70 years, not long ago, only to find herself in the midst of the new “proposed construction zone.” Even the brilliant young son of a radical theater legend is now living in the proposed “construction zone,” and had to ask me if he could borrow 20 bucks.

Of course this rezoning plan is part of a greater scheme, a vision which will bring massive and incongruous luxury condos to the narrow, 19th-century streets, and replace the hand-built factories where our grandparents once worked. Enormous glass condos will now sprout from the ethos of the old artist community, like new fake teeth, and throw shade upon the cobblestones where the Triangle Shirtwaist workers crashed to earth, and young Harry Houdini walked to work. Now the great University can feel free to “reimagine” Edward Hopper’s studio on Washington Square, and finally place their ATM machine beside his easel and his etching press.

The studios where artists such as myself foolishly toiled away in our anachronistic pursuits, must now be “reimagined” to provide new riches for the real estate developers, who, after all, pay off the politicians. How can anyone ever run for mayor, or even Brooklyn Borough president, without the beneficence of they that giveth the luxury condos?

The utter cynicism of this Trojan horse, which will open the gates of ruination for whatever is left of the old Lower Manhattan community, is best expressed in the city’s press release, which promises that this is all being done out of the goodness of their hearts! Indeed, it is promised that some so-called “affordable” apartments will be built as a small token of the developers’ appreciation for the Black Lives Matter movement!

European cities like Venice and Amsterdam preserve and cherish their historic districts. They revere and honor the craftsmanship and legacy bequeathed to us in the centuries-old buildings. This preservationism is not merely rooted in high-mindedness. After all, would tourists flock to see Rembrandt’s house if it were surrounded by a Nike sneaker store and a McDonald’s? If tax revenue is the goal here, how shortsighted it is to forever ruin the last untouched architectural gem of Lower Manhattan, which is Soho.

That which was lost when 150-year-old cast-iron and masonry buildings were destroyed in order to build the World Trade Center was detailed in a heartbreaking book by Danny Lyon called “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan.” Once these buildings are destroyed, they are lost to us forever.

The artists of my generation came to a dark and filthy old industrial sector, where no one wanted to work, let alone live. In my case, I was living in an old car that I’d bought for a hundred bucks from a bereft horse player in Brighton Beach. Even a darkened old factory pallet was a better place to sleep than that old Chevy once the windshield was busted on Avenue C!

Robert Moses had spent more than 20 years, trying to demolish the old factories, and “reimagine” the streets of Soho into a superhighway. The dank old architectural treasures had been left to slowly deteriorate as sweatshops closed and industry drifted away from New York City. The old windows were drafty, and doors flapped wide open in the wind beside old industrial straps and cables that were encrusted with grease. We scraped and sanded, and did without until these old lofts became homes, and studios. In so doing we “reimagined” and we rebuilt Lower Manhattan.

The artist protections extended to us by the City of New York in the form of Artist In Residence certifications from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and requirements that old factories were to be converted into Joint Living Work Quarters for Artists were part of a promise in exchange for our cultural contributions and the sweat equity that we provided to build “Soho.” Is the city going to withdraw this promise, and expel us at the dawn of our old age, now that we have created for them a Golden Calf?

I scraped and sanded every square inch of my loft, and spent weeks grinding the rust off of the steel beams with $3 roto strippers from Canal Street. I was one of the artists who waited outside of Zelf’s machine shop at 44 Greene St. on Saturday mornings, to rent a huge sander that could pull the splinters and the grease out of the old factory floors. Who can forget the tall and fully bewigged Southern gentleman that was Zelf, emerging from the Dickensian bowels of the 19th-century machinery shop as a white-coated aristocrat, accompanied by his jabbering and lovely assistant, a red-headed Auschwitz survivor he called “Chickadee.” We had a community, then, and we respected each other.

As an example of what has already been going on, a group of wealthy nonartists, and real estate profiteers are warehousing half of the building where I have lived and worked for 45 years, and they are trying to put me and my family out. Several of my older friends who live nearby have told me that their buildings are also almost completely vacant.

For the past several years, and throughout the pandemic, I have been fighting a Notice to Cure, which demands that I turn over my lease if I do not cure the violations in someone else’s apartment!

When the effort to evict me and my family first began, our attorney asked me to find my 1970s Artist Certification, which I had misplaced. When I learned that the Department of Cultural Affairs had kept it for me, I was almost moved to tears, because that certification is a protection and a validation. It tells everyone who I am, and who I was, during a great historical experiment that “reimagined” how we can live and work together in a city. It certifies that I paid my dues, and belonged to a hardy and courageous group who took chances to create something that has proven to be lasting, and meaningful. I can only hope that it will continue to protect us as we move forward into the uncertainty of litigation, against the well-funded and callous agents of “reimagination.”

I was first included in this experiment back in 1974. I was 22 years old and had already lived in an old flower truck for seven months, and gone cross-country to write a book of poems with photographs for a college project. A group of real artists, much older than I, invited me in, as they explored the radical new idea of creating an artists co-op.

Only a handful of artists lived in old factories back then, and no one knew if an unlikely venture such as a co-op could possibly succeed. That original group included a painter who had exhibited with Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Rothko at MoMA in 1952; the sculptor who went on to create the large shawarma-like sculpture outside of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn; and a member of a seminal rock band that arose from the poets and Beats on the Lower East Side. We didn’t know what we were doing, and none of us had much money, but living in an old factory certainly wasn’t going to be about money.

These days, the son of the late Beat poet and rock legend — who was a Downtown exemplar of bohemianism — has ironically declared that he only cares about his own best interests, and is subletting an illegal and dangerous apartment that is the source of 15 open Department of Buildings violations, including the most serious, Aggravated Class 1. The little boy who I once taught to catch a baseball is now subletting the uninhabitable apartment next door, which D.O.B. describes as a “threat to human life…and property.”

With full knowledge of this, and from his large Westchester home, the son of the heroic bohemian went ahead and listed his illegal apartment with Sotheby’s for $2.4 million. Cash only!

The “illegal occupancy,” which belonged to his parents, has no fire escape, no work permits and insufficient light and air. Our building’s 1979 Certificate of Occupancy depicted it as a “Studio/No Sleeping” next door to my legitimate “Living/Work” JLWQA apartment. I was working as an illustrator in Paris when the documents were filed, and upon my return, the C of O was tossed on my desk as a fait accompli. Curiously, the filings for that C of O are now “missing.”

Although D.O.B. has issued a summons stating that his apartment is an “illegal occupancy” that must be “discontinued,” the Ivy League attorney continues to sublet from Westchester. So he is collecting thousands of dollars a month, while the wealthy nonartists and the real estate moguls who now comprise the co-op board are holding me responsible to cure the violations in his apartment.

I am now the last of the original artists still living here and half of the current co-op board are lawyers. The attorney for the co-op, who promoted the Notice to Cure, was a childhood chum of the former president of the board, who once told me, “I will destroy your children’s education,” if I didn’t sell out to him. The two of them actually marketed our building for sale a few years ago, without the board’s approval. But they weren’t able to serve me with a Notice to Cure until a new arrival bought out the Barclays Center sculptor, who had been subletting her place for 30 years. The new owner, a Downtown performance artist favored by the Whitney, arrived with several million dollars from her husband.

This performance artist never even came up to visit us, and soon voted for the Notice To Cure. For this, she was rewarded with the presidency of the board. And although she told me that artist certifications are very easy to obtain, it seems that she somehow cannot obtain one.

So, thanks to the incurable violations in someone else’s illegal apartment, now profitably sublet, my family and I have been dragged through the courts for many years, and are fighting what amounts to an eviction notice. The renowned restaurant on the ground floor that supported our co-op for 24 years closed during the pandemic, and the co-op is now just months away from going broke. I can only suppose that this is the “reimagined” plan of the attorneys and wealthy owners, who no longer live here.

On June 1, after we were up all night listening to looting, the shattering of glass, helicopters and sirens, I ventured out to get our mail, and was accosted on the street by the maskless gentleman who used to be our co-op president. This fellow, who maintains a vacant floor in our building, and recently gutted a nearby townhouse, has said, “I own 180,000 square feet of loft space in Brooklyn, and I collect millions every month.” He had already told our building’s former commercial tenant — the now-closed restaurant — that he intended to “buy out the poorer ones and take over the building.” As we stood among the broken glass and the shattered storefronts of Soho, he called me a “freeloader” and told me that I would “soon be out on the street.”

This is why the artist protections are so important: not just to protect me, but as a marker for creativity, and a bulwark against destruction and greed. What are we as a society, as a people, if the few who control all of the money, can just have their way with us?

If Soho is rezoned, and artist protections removed, people like our former co-op president will be free to throw out the remaining artists, as well as the actual human beings who have managed to survive this maelstrom.

I hope the great City of New York will not break the promise it made to protect us. We have given our lives to this city. We saved Lower Manhattan and built a world-renowned destination. So are you now going to throw us out, and tear down our beautiful old buildings?

The promises made must continue to be honored. They are too real and important to simply be “reimagined.”

3 Comments

  1. Daniel Shier Daniel Shier October 19, 2020

    Amen, Harry.
    ‘Magna Est Veritas et Prevalet’

  2. Sonya S Sonya S October 20, 2020

    Who is your City Councilperson? Seems they must be called to action!

    • Harry Pincus Harry Pincus October 20, 2020

      Margaret Chin.

      She is a co-sponsor of the rezoning proposals, which include the loss of artist protections.

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