By James Maher
Name: Jack Sal
Location: New York Public Library, 10th between A and B
Date: 5:45 pm Thursday July 31
I’m from Connecticut. I moved to the city about two years after graduate school. I lived in SoHo from around ’81 to ’83. People would go to the local bars like Puffy’s in Tribeca or Fanelli’s – Fanelli’s only if you were a figurative painter. I remember at Puffy’s the idea was that you’d learn how to drink whiskey, smoke Camels and show your slides. There was only one local place where you would get food, and if you didn’t make it by 6 p.m., that was it — you’d have to walk all the way to Chinatown. There were a lot of artists but it was a mix of people. There were the wives and husbands of the artists and there were still factories.
I got bought out. I was a SoHo refugee. Someone bought the building and I had to leave and then I ended up buying a building in the neighborhood. It was affordable.
On 6th Street, when I moved in, all the storefronts used to be small shops, like aluminum, metalworkers or upholsterers of furniture. You used to be able to go to Canal Street and buy surplus equipment, surplus materials, and now you can’t find a local metal cutter or welder. Then the galleries happened. Literally it was like mushrooms. People were using storefronts. The galleries went with the boom and bust of the late ‘80s.
It got pretty rough down here with crack and all of that. When I was renovating the building with my partners, two of whom were photographers, William Wegman and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. We would renovate and at night they’d come and steal the tools and you’d go back on the street in the morning and buy them off a blanket and get back to work. We had the lot line windows bricked up because they would just break through all the time. I remember if you left a pencil on your dashboard you’d find your window smashed. I had a friend who would leave his car open because he said it was easier to get a guy who was sleeping in it out than it was to buy a new window or lock, although after awhile I wouldn’t drive in his car because it was smelly.
I’m an artist. I do conceptual, installation. I began as a photographer tied up with The ICP. I’m one of the founders of the education department in the ‘80s. I often do work where I do research about the place and use that within the context of the work. I often use photographic materials or materials that change with time.
We’re actually leaving now. It has more to do with personal and building situations. I mean, there are still very interesting restaurants and places here, but it just doesn’t feel the same. Not that I’m not being nostalgic for finding crack vials, but you used to be able to discover a place, a restaurant or a store, and it would be interesting because someone was trying something, but now it feels like someone is just trying to find a formula.
New York is no longer the source place that it used to be. It’s essential to be here but it’s not essential to live here. I thought I’d never say that about New York. Now it’s very different. It’s very expensive. I don’t know how someone without a significant income, or who is not accumulating significant debt, can stay here. Anyone.
I have in the past rented some of my spaces out and there are young people who come and they work I don’t know how many hours a week and then they sort of blow off steam and then they go on vacation. That seems to be the cycle. I mean, everyone for their own, but it doesn’t seem very self-nurturing or self-generating. It’s not like a moral view but why now are brunches advertised as all you can drink? I don’t drink myself but I can imagine having one or two Bloody Mary’s at lunch, but the idea that you’d go out to get drunk on Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon is indicative of this culture of numbness.
Now there’s a bar next door to me that makes $23 dollar drinks. They have created this self-illusion of selectivity by not letting people in. They call you when they’re ready, so you feel even more like, ‘Oh I got in.’ It’s always full other than Monday night. There’s always a crowd outside waiting. As my girlfriend is saying, ‘What are these young people going to be like after years of drinking.’ What kind of effect physically and mentally is it going to have and also in terms of what their expectations are going to be, because if you’ve been numbing yourself for a long while, when you stop it’s not necessarily going to get better.
It says a lot about America. New York is and always has been a kind of experiment for the United States because unlike the rest of the country, by default it’s been a kind of forced mixed, immigrant, old, established, rich, poor, it has all the defects of American culture with all the benefits as well. So you get this kind of hotbed of both the triumph of what’s good and the hell and horror of what’s bad. You get people who are buying $1.3 million apartments in what used to be a $300 rent-stabilized place. That extreme is not healthy.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.