By James Maher
Name: Jon Gerstad
Location: Tompkins Square Park
Time: 2 pm on Friday, March 21.
I’m from Midtown but I went to school on 11th Street and 2nd Avenue. I moved down here in 1987. Music and art attracted me to the neighborhood and I was working around here and all my friends were here, so it was natural.
I’m a contractor. I was working for a lot of landlords doing repairs and maintenance, plumbing and plastering, electrical, boilers and all of that. Being that I was working for landlords, the budget was never quite what I wished but it was work that I was proud of.
I was also in a rock band — several, actually. From that period of time, my favorite was the Fabulous Barbatones, with James Romberger. I played drums. Because I was working for landlords, I was able to rent places cheap, so I was able to get a basement on 3rd Street on the Hells’ Angels block and I built a recording studio.
I worked with a lot of bands and played a lot of places. It was always really convenient. If we had a gig at CBGB we wouldn’t have to get the man with the van, we’d just bring up the trap case on wheels, load stuff on it and wheel it around the corner. East 3rd Street was the safest block in the whole neighborhood and it still is. Right next to the 9th Precinct on 5th Street, somebody was going to steal the front wheel off your bicycle or take your seat. They’d strip your bike right outside of the police precinct but that would never happen on 3rd Street.
At the time there was a lot of drug dealing in the neighborhood and there was always the abandoned, stolen car out there up on blocks, and we’d use it as a dumpster. If you were doing renovations, you’d have to find someplace to dump your plaster and we’d just put it in the back of those stolen cars.
In 1983, I had this opportunity to rent a storefront for $250 a month. I had been thinking about it for awhile, so I started an art gallery. Since all my friends were artists, I thought it would be cool. I did a little art too and I went to art school, but nothing much. I felt that my friends, because they were really applying themselves much more than I was, were doing better work than I was. The first gallery was called Nolo Contendere and then a year and a half later I broke up with my partner, so I decided to use a name that nobody could take from me — my own. So I started the Jon Gerstad Gallery.
It was very vibrant when we first started. There was great artwork going on down here. People uptown and in SoHo had no idea what we were doing here. They couldn’t fathom it. Now easily a dozen of those artists, both dead and still alive, are famous. Maybe 20 galleries or 25 galleries moved to SoHo if they had the money, and you could get a sizeable loft in SoHo for like $2,500 or $3,000 a month, but that was never in my budget.
The gallery was open for five years, till ’87, until Michael Musto said on the front page of The Village Voice, ‘Downtown is Dead.’ I was one of the first six to open and one of the last six to close. It ran its course. It got the point where housewives from New Jersey would rent storefronts to show their friends’ bad art, which had nothing to do with the East Village. The scene just got overly diluted.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.