BY HARRY PINCUS | Mary Rolland is a real estate agent, and she is speaking in her column in The Village Sun (“Rezone within reason: Remove Soho’s barriers to retail”) for those interests, and not for certified artists like me. Your lovely old black-and-white photograph may be “the past which no longer exists” but kindly remove us certified artists from your dustbin.
Those of us who first arrived in deserted old factory buildings with broken floors and doors that were flapping open in the wind, had little more than sweat equity, as well as our hopes and dreams, when we clawed homes and studios out of deserted factories in the 1970s. As we enter our old age, we are now endangered by Ms. Rolland and her ilk.
I for one, do not have a condo in Sun Valley to repair to, but I do have two lawsuits, one in New York State Supreme Court, and the another in the Southern District of New York, where I am fighting to defend the legal Joint Living Work Quarters for Artists apartment to which I have devoted my life. I pulled all-night deadlines for award-winning newspaper illustrations here, printed etchings that I sold on the street here, and my wife and I raised two children here. There is not an inch of our apartment that I did not scrape and paint and have to fight for.
My building is now owned by wealthy absentees, speculators who sublet illegally or keep entire floors vacant, and I am the only certified artist who still lives and works in my original Joint Living Work Quarters for Artists (J.L.W.Q.A.) apartment. Because of the ongoing litigation, I cannot speak about my situation with any specificity, but suffice it to say that all my wife and I are asking for is the right to remain in the legal home where I have worked and lived for nearly half a century.
Neither my original 1975 stock certificate, my 46-year-old lease, my certification as an artist from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, stamped work permits, a “letter of completion,” a passed Department of Buildings audit, nor basic human decency, mean a thing in the face of the mad stampede of greed that has swept through our neighborhood and taken possession of our co-op.
We all have to pay taxes, and we all hope that commerce will return when the epidemic finally subsides. In our building, a legendary restaurant closed, and the co-op needs to rent out the space. But it is not necessary to push out the last artist, or to demolish nearby buildings where people are living, in order to build enormous, out-of-scale condos.
My artist certification was earned by my hard work, and serving me with eviction threats or suing me because I still live here is not “progressive.” I’m happy to see that Ms. Rolland is able to earn a living as a real estate agent, if she couldn’t earn a living as an artist, but please have some respect for those of us who simply want to continue on as artists.
Artists certifications were intended as protections, offered by the City of New York for the good work that we artists were doing to reclaim Lower Manhattan, when it was deserted and worthless. After Robert Moses’ 22-year battle to demolish Soho and build a superhighway was defeated, the area that came to be known as “Soho” was thought of as nothing more than an undesirable anachronism. It was the artists who saw beauty in the old buildings, and lovingly scraped and painted and preserved them.
Tearing out what is left of the creative heart and history of Soho is both brutal and thoughtless. You will not create value by destroying one of the few historical districts that remains. European cities like Venice, Amsterdam and Rome are well aware of the value of their legacy, but we seem to be prepared to do what we did to Penn Station!
No one is demanding artist certifications anymore, and only about 3,000 were ever issued. Those of us who earned that certification long ago, however, were pioneers, and we have a right to stay here. Real estate agents like Ms. Rolland have no right to “gently usher” us out of our homes.
We deserve to keep the protections that the City of New York promised us, when we gave you the golden idol that you call “Soho.”
Pincus is an award-winning illustrator and longtime Soho resident.
It is hard to believe how NYC allowed the most vibrant art district in America to fall apart. The lesson learned is to take the financial incentive out of selling designated artist spaces.
Some cities have been successful in maintaining art districts by either owning the properties or putting in place strict rules that the artists can only sell the space back to the building owner for the price they paid, plus fixtures. This keeps the prices at the rate that actual fine artists can afford and maintains the integrity of the art district.
At the same time, NYC allowed art bootleggers and armies of illegal vendors to usurp and displace actual artists on the sidewalks of Soho making the scene untenable for fine artists while creating a rip-off vibe that repelled visitors and collectors.
Now, the real estate industry is set to feast on the carcass of the art district that could have been. I hope Mr. Pincus is successful in his struggle, but what a shame NYC allowed it to come to this.
Thank you for your good wishes, Professor White.
When I set out to be an artist, I was told that I would always be able to earn a living if I could draw. With today’s technology, that is no longer true. I also believed that I could live as a sort of bohemian, and get by on very little money as long as I was willing to eschew the bourgeois comforts that I didn’t really need. Also, no longer true. My children seemed to require college educations, and if I cannot pay my lawyer, I will be out on the street. The third tenet that I believed in, was that I should be as good as I could, both as a person, and as an artist. That idea is still the true, and as relevant as ever.
If as a society, we can simply identify what is good, and try to achieve that, we may yet survive.
Gordon Gekko was wrong when he said that, “Greed is good.” Incentives and rewards are good, but we need to reexamine our values, and find rewards that are not harmful to others. Donald Trump was wrong in so many ways, but to begin with, we need to simply be honest with ourselves and with others.
I’ve always tried to reflect these values in my art.
You tell ’em, Harry! Down with the greedsters and the banksters! Look at all the empty storefronts everywhere. Office towers will face huge occupancy problems as work-at-home trends continue beyond the pandemic. Non-commuting is good for the environment. The banksters and developers are already formulating proposals to make taxpayers bail them out (again!), according to published reports. Pincus is a genius artist! Leave him and his home in peace. Leave all creators in peace. Let the bank scum and the turnover artists and the real estate brokers (who create NOTHING) be the ones to take the hit. It’s time to stop underwriting their fancy clothes and cars. It’s time for REAL CHANGE, not more real estate and banking shenanigans.
Thank you, Stephen!
Thomas Eakins, who truly was a great artist, said, “My honors are persecution, misunderstanding and neglect. Enhanced, because unsought.”
Perhaps the truth will emerge when we finally remove our masks!
(And it would be good to see you again!)
You are so very right, Harry! It is just false that there are no artists in SoHo and NoHo anymore, and Mary Rolland knows it. I write this from a coop in SoHo that has only allowed artists certified by the Department of Cultural Affairs to buy in since its formation in 1973. Many artist friends still live in SoHo…some second generation, but most of us are aging in place, still creating, and don’t know what will happen should our neighborhood be upzoned and they be forced out of their homes in their 70s, 80s and 90s through increased real estate taxes, loss of protection of JLWQA units or constant construction of 20-story buildings for the rich and powerful. At the end, SoHo and NoHo will be richer and whiter than ever, and the City will have lost more of itself to greed and ugliness.