Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Out and About in the East Village

In this weekly feature, East Village-based photographer James Maher provides us with a quick snapshot of someone who lives and/or works in the East Village.

By James Maher
Name: Jack Sal
Occupation: Artist
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.


Anonymous said...

"it doesn’t seem very self-nurturing or self-generating." Well said.

How is working yourself to death to pay $3000.00+ a month for rent good for one's soul or creativity? It isn't. Plain and simple.

I finally had to make a choice: leave and concentrate on my artwork or stay and find some banal job (on top of what I was already doing) and work all the time. I chose the former.

I read in another interview where someone said that New York's days as a creative force are numbered. That time has already come. It's atmosphere is now toxic to the creative spirit. Unless that spirit involves, as Mr. Sal mentioned, excessive drinking, or some sort of corporate career.

Anonymous said...

I say this every week, but this is my favorite interview in this series! I am out of the city for a few weeks, and I am seriously thinking about the future and whether the East Village is worth it anymore. This man made me think when he said that you need to be in New York but you don't need to live in New York anymore.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting chapter in this series. It seems he is saying in a much nicer and more urbane way what I have been saying for about 7 years now, the EAST VILLAGE SUCKS.
Of course, with my insanely cheap rent-stabilized apartment, I am willing to tolerate it.

Anonymous said...

I don't like being around drunks of any age and of course young drunks are the loudest and most obnoxious but I don't completely buy this point of numbness for it is nothing new. Great artists have battled drug and alcohol abuse going back to the late 19th century. Pollack, Kerouac, Toulouse-Lautrec, George Orwell, Van Gogh.... As a young artist and student with a rent of $130 per month I found it near impossible to survive in the EV in 1981. It is a hard life if you take this path unless you are the rarest of artists which can make a living selling your art. Inspiration comes from fellow artists and when they start to disappear so does a reason to remain in a place. The torturous changes in recent years are more apparent by the noise levels and staggering drunken gangs of 20 somethings blocking sidewalks and roaming the streets at night. New York has always been about extremes and if you were poor in the early 1980's the EV was not cheap enough. We that have lived here for 20 or more years have seen stores, businesses and restaurants created by immigrant families which made this place distinctive from other parts of the city, fade or be forced out. Nothing last forever and the next generation will probably want nothing to do with the EV in the future but for now we are the babysitters for those born in the 1990's.

Anonymous said...

I've lived in the East Village for over 20 years now, lived in the city for almost 30. A lot of the gentleman's views are spot on. I too have thought several times over the last few years of just folding my tent and getting the hell out of here. In fact, it seems to be on a lot of people's minds and we may be seeing another 'flight' of some kind out of the city, this time from people in the creative culture that defined the East Village from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s.

'You need to be in New York, but not live in it'...I agree but at the same time 'not living in it' means commuting, and who in the hell wants to do that!? If you have a job with fixed hours and live even an hour outside the city, the process of commuting would probably take 2 1/2 to 3 hours everyday. No problem in the summer when it's stays lighter longer, but in the winter when it's dark at 5PM? Ugh. No thanks. And in winter weather forget it, if you freelance and you're snowed in, no pay. The alternative? LOS ANGELES.

Anonymous said...

"Culture of numbness" is a useful phrase.

Anonymous said...

love, love, LOVE this interview. this guy is spot on and his eloquence is wonderful to read.

11:49 a.m. said...

anon. 9:40 am says: "Great artists have battled drug and alcohol abuse going back to the late 19th century."

The people who are getting drunk on weeknights, weekends, and on those unlimited drink brunches are neither artists nor are they here to create something, anything. They consume alcohol or get drunk just off the sake of getting drunk. As Mr. Sal's says: "why now are brunches advertised as all you can drink?". Nothing simulates them except alcohol, and I'd like to add sugar, hence the proliferation of the froyos, cupcakes, and now "new" snow cream -- for the non-depressed, joyous, happy and shiny people holding hands --, that's why. As someone has said about this 'culture of numbness': "beneath the thin veneer of mirth and bonhomie, it's not hard to see the emptiness/misery in these participants' eyes. It's a simulacrum of a good time."

And ditto on all these $1 million+ apartments on what was rent-stabilized place, and the gastropubs and trendeateries with their $20+ drinks and expensive foodie menu items: it's about the 'self-illusion of selectivity'.

Anonymous said...

I am a life-long New Yorker and he pretty much outlines what I've been feeling lately.

Anonymous said...

Annon at 11:49 AM

My point is there are plenty of artists that get wasted and always have been, I have know many. Over drinking is not something limited to the brunch drunks he mentions. He says he does not drink so I imagine he see those that drink as non creative types which is a big assumption. I detest the loud open facade bars and restaurants which look like they belong in Key West not the LES. He is shocked by the "spring break" binge drinking as am I. When I first came to NYC in 1981 I was shocked at how many people drank openly on the streets, beer bottles and can in their hands staggering around. Of course these were not usually the brunch setters but it seemed most people had a buzz going. There was a drastic change with post Koch mayors and at first beer had to be in a bag but a few years later zero drinking in public was permitted. Now that NYC is the tourist hell hole of the country getting drunk at trendy spots is promoted as it seems everyday a new bar opens in the EV.

Anonymous said...

I love this piece. A great read and one of the best so far.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from NYU Tisch a couple years ago for theater directing and it is truly a FIGHT to put together a production here. All my theatre peers are flying away to Berlin...I may be next. Had to put theater on pause to pay for my EV studio and work a corporate job. I could join some friends in Bushwick for a more manageable rent but they aren't able to sustain themselves either. NYC isn't the place to be.

yuppie scum said...

echo the sentiment above - this was a fantastic read and one of the best in the series.

seriously concerned with the future of new york as a center of creativity and forward thinking. the income disparity is quite literally on par with sub-saharan africa. a disney-land for the wealthy is not good for anyone who loves this city.

also us young types are not all bad and often share the same concerns and attitudes as some of you old timers.

thanks for sharing.

Ken from Ken's Kitchen said...

Bittersweet, but great, interview.

The city thinks otherwise apparently, but having guys like this around seems essential to maintaining NYC's soul as well as its credibility as cultural capitol/tourist destination. Did success spoil Rock Hunter? I dunno, I could never sit through until the end, but I hope NYC's High Commissioner of Culture does.

At this point I wish I could be here without living here but it doesn't appear in the cards financially.

Anonymous said...

I've been here 20 years - and I love my little spot (stabilized) - but I hate what is happening here. I am just trying to figure out where I can move to - Philadelphia? some town upstate? where is a good place to be if you want to be in a dynamic place with minimum corporate culture. It will take a few years to figure out - but I hopefully something will come up soon. It's sad when the most creative & dynamic people in a place are all over 40. At this point the outer boroughs are too expensive as well...

Anonymous said...

"where is a good place to be if you want to be in a dynamic place with minimum corporate culture"

if you don't like the culture of numbness, then move to...
Mexico City
Los Angeles
Portland, OR
Providence, R.I.
Memphis, TN
New Bedford, Mass.
Ridgewood, Queens

Anonymous said...

You people moved here and helped ruin NYC and now you want to move
Well good riddance. I was born here and Ill die here. Its easy to cut and run. So go to any of the places listed above
Been to most of them. Go buy a car you'll need one. And if like really high crime go to Memphis or Mexico City. Portland is 72% white and has no diversity. Poughkeepsie is a dump. Los Angeles is a car city a lot and.learn Spanish and LA is a chain store city.. Good luck in any of these places. You'll need it.

Crazy Eddie said...

“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.’”

I think we all know the place that Jack is referring to. On a cold night last year, I struck up a conversation with the doorman on an early Tuesday night. He looked cold and lonely so I offered to get him a cup of coffee. Anyway, we talked for around 10 minutes and I asked him if I could go up to see the joint. He said sure but he had call on the radio to tell them I was coming up. It was so silly. Anyway, beautiful, early 20 something hostess greeted me; she was nice, told her I was just checking the place out. Beautiful early 20 something bartender in residence. On an early weekday night, without the “velvet rope” bullshit, maybe I’d go. I also heard from someone in the food business trade last year that they were thinking of franchising their brand, opening up one in Vegas, etc. Of course, NY Magazine loves the place.

Anonymous said...

@4:13, Who said we were the ones that ruined NYC? I didn't ruin it. I payed rent, then property tax, was a good/considerate neighbor and contributed to the area businesses. I was also considered a "misfit" where I came from which is the reason why I moved to NYC. Now I'm happy to be out, as the city is as commercial/corporate and sterile as every other place. What's interesting about a bunch of people walking around glued to their iphones? Stay, just don't think that anyone who has a criticism here helped "ruin the city". I certainly didn't. And by the way, having a car now is actually really nice.

Anonymous said...

Don't take this wrong. I don't know you. Are you rich, expensively dressed, very physically good looking?
If not, guess what, they actually don't want you, or your $23.
They may, perhaps, tolerate you if you toe the line and kiss some ass.
Personally, I'll grab a pint of vodka at the liquor store and enjoy. But to each their own.

Anonymous said...

All very well said...and a sad reflection. Maher and the mix of classes, cultures, ethnicities, creative visions are what make the East Village interesting, and make enduring all the negatives worthwhile. Very sad that he is leaving.

His term "culture of numbness" is a perfect summation of the problem. Luckily, there are still people who choose to be alive, aware, reflective.

We've replaced down-and-out crack houses with entitled frat vomitoriums. Not exactly cultural evolution.

- East Villager

Anonymous said...

I lived on Ave A in the 90's and Thompson St in the eighties. My total years living in The City-20.
I miss NY and grow nostalgic, but I realize the NY I used to live in and not the way downtown has become is what I miss.
Gone forever those decades.
The world moves on and NYC moves on. I cherish the 80's and 90's. Best years of my life.
But they are done and so is my living in NY.
I guess it is fine if you are a trust fund artist, an investment banker or lawyer or a NYU student. But The Village has sold out.

Anonymous said...

"self-illusion of selectivity"
that's why people line up for or get excited about cronuts, cupcakes at Magnolia bakery, latest Apple products, shopping at Trader Joe's, brunch (esp. at Cafe Orlin and The Smith), that newly opened "coffee shop", "bakery", or "eatery", Citi Bikes, etc., because those are all for them, about them, and make them feel special.

Please have Maher publish a book about this series. It would be a good historical account of the East Village and New York City today and how it hyper changed form the previous years.

Anonymous said...

I've lived in the EV since "Ford to City: Drop Dead" time, and IMO Mr. Sal has absolutely nailed the situation, and done so very eloquently.

I have seldom read a more coherent exposition of how things were, how they've changed, and why "now" pretty well sucks.

Crazy Eddie said...

Anony 4.45 PM. For my age, I am remarkably well preserved and in good shape (I know the sudden drop is coming). When I went to visit this bar,I was wearing jeans. Anyway, maybe I would have gone there with my wife, ordered one round of the cheapest drinks that they had, leave a nice tip, always my MO, and hung out at the one of the tables that faces Avenue "X" on a Monday night for a respectable amount of time. Yeah, I know they really don’t give an F about me. I am a native New Yorker who has been here forever, who knows very well how “scenes” are created in this town. It truly sucks that we now have a “scene” on Avenue "X". Thank God for Josie's and Mona's although buy backs seem to be an endangered species these days anywhere in the EV. I may be wrong on this. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

@2:48 corporate culture is everywhere these days, and is impossible to a avoid. I moved back to Richmond, VA, where I went to college, and am very happy with it. Rent is cheap(about $700_800)for a one bedroom in the Fan district, and even cheaper in Church Hill, and Jackson Ward. Google the neighborhoods. There is a pretty decent art and theatre scene due to the VCU school of art, and the music scene isn't bad either. Plenty of locally owned restaurants and shops in Carytown and in the neighborhoods above. I haven't owned a car in about 8 years, and get around just fine, even though bus service is average at best. Biking is safer and more practical here than in NYC. We have crime and drugs and poverty and racial issues like everywhere else. We also have the James River park system, which is freaking amazing. We are two hours from DC and the ocean, and an hour and a half from the mountains. The slower pace takes some getting used too, but hell, you'll live longer too.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece! Yes, as one commenter wrote, New York does move on. That's it. It's sad, though, to think of what it's moving toward -- just this characterless, empty corporate / frat / drinking / "Sex and the City" wannabe scene. Where Lincoln Center is today was once a very tough neighborhood, which my Mom remembers, you didn't even want to walk or drive through -- but it was a real neighborhood, and it was the inspiration for "West Side Story." Neighborhoods do change. But all the frat guys -- they walk in a pack, they all wear jeans, they all wear long-sleeve button-down shirts, with the shirttails hanging out just the same way -- and they basically look (and probably act) like clones. Can't anyone even dress a bit differently? Where is someplace that hasn't been homogenized? Red Hook is cool -- but a little far away from Manhattan.

Anonymous said...

I read Jack Sal's interview several times, finding his responses, as others here have said, thoughtful reflective, fair, and spot-on from a man who has lived and thrived in Manhattan for many years.

I've lived in the city for 40 years, in Soho (70s), Little Italy (80s), Tribeca (70s and then again in the early 90s), the EV (late 80s, mid 90s) and - finally - the LES (1994-2014). I'm currently waiting for the finalization of the sale of the building I live in, and then the fun will really begin.

My personal decision, made months ago, is 'to be in New York but not live in New York', a choice which can have many variations, depending on your assets.

Mr. Sal's observations about the changes in these parts is something I think many long-term New Yorkers are grappling with. We weigh our histories, memories and love of the city against its current transformations - especially living downtown. Even rent-stabiized tenants that I know who are not in danger of eviction, are uncertain about staying, except that the rent is cheap, or that they bought an apt or a building early on, and can stay or sell for a price that allows them alternatives.

Stories of crime and grittiness float around as evidence that New York is 'better' now. But that was only ever part of the flavor of that old NYC - there was much else to love about it that's harder to capture in words and images.

I still love NYC for the many reasons I came here, which had nothing to do with transporting my college lifestyle to my adult life. Not that we didn't do our share of drinking, smoking, overspending, and getting bailed out by parents (rare but it happened), but something in this town is changing irrevocably.

Thanks very much for posting this interview - it really gets to the heart of the conflict of staying in NYC for many who have been here a long time.

Unknown said...

One type Mr. Sal in his precise eloquence omitted was the trust fund artist. One who has his bills paid for and never had to 'work' a 'real' job. The snarky pretenders who look ragged while thinking themselves so cool. They are part of this new NY.