Why is preserving the history of the Lower East Side so important to you?
The history of the Lower East Side is such that numerous people who have lived or worked there have made significant contributions to the cultural and social history of America. The Lower East Side was a melting pot, a creative crucible. In this continuously bubbling and percolating cauldron many new ideas fermented and matured, and their influence changed how we saw the world. Yet, so often the area is left out of the history equation.
I am sure you could find 500 examples of different individuals who have made a considerable contribution. The list is long- just a quick sample- Madonna- Jimi Hendrix- Charlie Migus- Keith Haring- John Zorn, Allan Ginsberg, Jack Smith, Reb Moshe Feinstein, Houdini, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Judith Melina, Philip Glass and so on. The LES was not only about individuals, but groups and collectives also formed, whose combined influence lead to contributions to the social and cultural fabric of America- unions- affordable housing- first public houses- workers rights and so on. Yet so few are identified with the Lower East Side of New York.
Once you’d arrived in New York, did it feel inevitable that you’d end up in that district?
I terms of the old community- I would say yes. If not inevitable, then I would say I was blessed that it worked out that I ended up here.
Since you arrived, how would you say the NY art scene has changed? Do you ever see any similarities with artists today or see people doing things that remind you of that time?
In many ways SoHo, by the early 1980’s. although fresh and invigorating with much going on, felt the same as today. It became the focus and so much of the scene became only about ‘making it’.
The main difference between pre-extreme gentrification and now is that before, it was possible for so many different kinds of creative people to live here. What made the LES community exciting and nourishing for the creative minds was not just the other people, but the wide range of affordable ethnic food, the diversity in products the stores sold, the exotic old school neighbours and the sense of freedom that existed. The simple fact that one could find what they needed for a project they were working on at a price they could afford.
The LES was more of an urban community- a dry cleaner, a book store, a butcher, a shoemaker, a cap maker, a sports store, a baker, a paper supply, and so on. And all this diversity was affordable. The commercial establishments were mostly family run and the owner was behind the counter. Then you had the 99 cent breakfast, affordable rent, and places like Canal Street that had a seemingly endless number of job lots and places that sold almost every kind of material one could imagine using to add to their creative project.
This kind of diversity builds connections between people. For example- I could go the Pyramid Club and meet a filmmaker, a musician, a drag queen, a clothing designer, a chef, etc. Because there were so many creative people the mixing in the melting pot was invigorating and the cross-pollination that took place produced different combinations of creative expression that you would never have been capable of thinking up on your own. Nor would you expect the combinations.
Today- gone are the endless coffee refills for 50 cents- now it’s a $4.00 latte. 99 cent breakfasts are now a $9.00 brunch. So there’s less hanging out in a coffee shop meeting other people. The expensive rents means people have to work and can’t afford to hang and work on their craft like before. The high rents have made the population in the community mobile - people come for a few months and move on. The take over of neighbourhood land by colleges like NYU means dorms and a migrant population with no connection to the community. The diversity of community means residents have been forced out and there is this move towards conformity. The high rents killed off so many cultural venues- for example experimental theatres- places to screen movies- workshop spaces and so on.
I think it’s harder today. So much of the genius that came out of NYC and especially the LES was connected to cheap rent and the fact that it was affordable to live here. So many of the people who made great contributions came from obscure places, the working-class, the newly arrived immigrant and so on.
In the movie Captured, it is like Koch says- “there comes a time when a place becomes a proper place.” This proper place is not the place to make great art. It is a civilized place for people who can afford to be here are there. Just like the muse left Paris after WW2, the muse has now left New York. It seems like all the amazing creativity is coming out of China now.
Not to say that it is not possible to do great things on the Lower East Side - for example the computer has opened up all kinds of unimaginable opportunities- a music studio- everything a filmmaker needs to make a movie and so on. But it’s just not the same- for the most part it is boring.
And it was not just the creative LES that suffered from gentrification- - look at how many artists came out of Soho and Greenwich Village.
To discover the key to this kind of death by gentrification all you have to do is to follow the money- first to go was Greenwich Village- mostly stopped in the 1960’s early 70’s. By the early 1980’s SoHo became too expensive for a new artist to live there. By the end of the 1990’s the LES was basically cooked, fired, and burned.
Do you feel like a community like the Lower East Side of the 1980's could exist today?
No, but if it did it would probably be in China. Beyond cheap rent and an affordable living environment- you need the energy- the excitement- the feeling of no limits- the chance to live there. Is there anywhere in New York where an artist does not have to spend a large percentage of their waking time making money? I’d say ‘no’. You also need the people with the money who support the scene. Art used to be inexpensive and the rich, the movers and shakers, love to buy cheap. The cheap factor is over.
And it is not Europe- here is a recent sad note I got from the artist/musician Peter Missing. Pete grew up in the Bronx- was a squatter on the LES- eventually lost his home - became homeless, moved and was forced to move to Germany where things were working out - but because of politics that too became a nightmare for an struggling artist. This is what his note said:
“whats new? how are you
still i think having a place of your own is a godsend we are still on the run all the time i will open a new gallery in denmark dec 1 when i get stopped and deported then you will see me again in ny until then i enjoy the euro zone life
same garbadge food here
occupy denmark still going
new mf track on humanityrecords you tube occupy wall street”
Was there ever a defining moment where you knew things were going to change or was it more of gradual?
A gradual change- by the mid-1990’s I felt it was mostly over.
In your film Captured, you seem to get a lot of trouble from the police. I know how these things tend to get dragged out for a very long time, are there still any cases going on now?
As of about 1 year ago all my cases finally wound up- after over 20 years of different court battles.
Aside from police, did you ever find yourself in trouble with other people?
Not often- just the odd typical situation that arises from being alive.
And were there ever situations where you wanted to pull out your camera, but knew you couldn’t?
Yes of course- BUT- today one is not just suppressed by the circumstances that quell or impede ones desire to pull out the camera- we are suppressed by the circumstances at hand- for example- the police and those in power are trying to eliminate and make illegal what one can document- even though the power that be- has so many different parts of society locked down with their camera’s and documenting tools: elevators- street lamp posts- outside buildings- police towers- subways- busses- stores- and so on.
Do you ever see yourself leaving the Lower East Side?
The problem is where to go- that is the big question- where is another LES? So far I have no idea.
Finally, do you have any more projects coming up?
Lots of them- finishing off a 3 volume Jews: A People’s History of the lower east side anthology. And a Legends of the Lower East Side colouring book. Trying to finish a tattoo history book. Working on the archives. Getting out the film Captured. Looking at helping start a radio station. Working with other artists to make animations. Talking to people about writing a film script. Looking at opening up the storefront. Doing art shows. Writing for the Villager. Taking photos. Pushing forward the NO!art Movement. I have not died but the community has and I’m still struggling along.