There have been myriad instances here on Flaming Pablum wherein I’ve pretty much written off SoHo. Sure, once upon a time, it was an amazing hotbed of underground art and bohemian cool that was largely undiscovered and rarely disturbed by the rest of the city. My favorite anecdote about that period comes from a graphic designer friend of the family, who remembered that, on weekends, people used to string a volley-ball net across the expanse of West Broadway and hold pick-up tournaments, being that there was practically zero traffic to contend with. Suffice to say, that’s no longer the case.
SoHo these days is a pricey and congested mall, rife with sidewalk-clogging crowds of insufferable affluents and spartanly-appointed, bespoke shops. No, `twas not always thus, but it shows no sign of reverting back to the old ways of its old days. That same incontrovertible fact can be applied to many a celebrated neighborhood here in Manhattan.
So, yeah, that SoHo — the legitimately cool SoHo of Laurie Anderson and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Spalding Gray and Glenn Branca, etc. — is gone. Even by the time I first started exploring it in the 80’s, that character had already started to erode. But I still have vivid memories of those (formerly) endearingly grungy, rust-colored and graffiti-slathered streets.
As I mentioned back on this ancient post, I had a part-time job down in SoHo in 1989 as a gallery-sitter on Mercer Street (captured above circa 1975 by Bevan Davies). Don’t bother looking for the 55 Mercer Street Gallery now. Sure, the building itself is still there, but it was all converted into an uproariously expensive condo in the past few years. Here’s a quick snippet of how I described working at 55 Mercer…
I stayed on at 55 Mercer Street after that artist's show came to a close, and gradually became the regular sitter for a while. Shocking art notwithstanding, the job itself was low on thrills. Between the two main rooms, I sat at a squeaky metal desk. The only phone was a pay phone (this was well before the era of cell phones), and I had to bring a roll of quarters with me every morning if I planned on calling anyone. Unless I brought my own, there was no radio. Beyond that, it was just white walls, art and a claustrophobic little bathroom in the back.
So, as boring as it often was, I still kinda dug it. I loved being down in that neighborhood. I loved the feeling of being involved (however tenuously) with the fabled "SoHo art scene" (as detailed in my favorite movie, "After Hours"). I loved the weird smell of the old building. It was easy to imagine it being the sort of place where The New York Dolls or the Velvet Underground might've hung out (however unrealistic that may have been). I'd often sit out on the fire escape overlooking Mercer Street in the roiling Summer heat. It seemed like the quintessential Downtown New York moment.
Long after I stopped working at 55 Mercer Street Gallery, I still used to frequently stop in, just to re-experience its musty smell, its tenuously operational elevator and its endearingly slanted and creaky stairs. I guess it closed up shop sometime in 2008, or so and moved to another borough, but I believe that, too, may have closed by this point.
These days, I’m spending more time walking around SoHo than in recent years (when I’d basically renounced it). As it happens, my new job is situated way the Hell downtown, so I find myself strolling through the southern end of Greenwich Village, SoHo and TriBeca every day whilst going to and from the office. And as I do this, the former sights of the many places I used to frequent become harder to recognize and ever harder to reconcile. And one of those locales, of course, is 55 Mercer Street.
Prompted by a recent walk-by, I found this video of what’s like on the inside of 55 Mercer now. Everything I liked about it is gone.
For a more detailed and authoritative take on all things SoHo, of course, be sure to check out Yukie’s lovely SoHo Memory Project.