By James Maher
Name: Henry Hills
Location: Tompkins Square Park
Time: Saturday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m.
I grew up in Atlanta. I was in San Francisco for four years and I moved here in 1978 - 6th Street between A and B for the first year, and 9th between B and C for 6 months. My apartment was burglarized, I got mugged twice in the park, but I had a great apartment. Then I subletted a place in SoHo for six months, I lived on the first block of Ludlow for eight years and then I renovated a building on 8th Street with a group of people — an artists' building.
When I was here in the 1970s ... there were a lot of empty storefronts, especially on Avenue B, but most of the storefronts weren’t stores. There would be a lot of little artist spaces that would come and go. Ray’s was there of course. Leshko’s was there but I liked Odessa better. You could eat supper for about $2, and there was an old woman who knew the regulars, and she would always give you extra portions. The kitchen in my place was impossible to cook at home, plus you couldn’t possibly buy groceries and eat as cheap as Odessa’s or Leshko’s.
We started as a study group in 1981. We got a site in 1985, and we moved in 1988. I’ve been there ever since. It was an artist-housing program that the Koch administration had proposed. It was basically people who were being displaced from SoHo, and they were moving them to Forsyth Street, but the Community Board freaked out because they were giving low-cost housing money to relocate artists who were being pushed out of Tribeca to the Lower East Side.
I got an application, and it was clear that with the deadline you had to hire a development team to do this, so we formed a study group. We figured we were all college graduates – we’d figure out how to fill out this application ourselves. So we ... put in an application. It was defeated by the Community Board. We went and asked them to spell out exactly what they opposed, because they didn’t want to say they hated artists. They just didn’t want this funding for low-cost housing to go to middle-class artists. I mean, it wasn’t all middle class — none of us had any money, but most of us came from middle-class backgrounds.
I’m a filmmaker. I’ve always made short films. I show a lot at Anthology Film Archives on Second Avenue and Second Street. This filmmaker friend Peter Hutton died last summer, so people got some friends and former students of his to go out and shoot a camera roll in 16mm. I shot a camera roll of the Hare Krishna Tree as a memorial to Peter and showed it at Bard College a few weeks ago and out in Brooklyn two weeks ago. I was out shooting today. I’m just making a little short film on the Hare Krishna Tree for my wife Martina, who’s also a filmmaker.
I just finished a new film called HHHHH - my first 16:9 movie. All the images revolve around the letter H. It’s a kind of game planned to avoid narrative, but still make it entertaining and a lively movie. I made a movie called SSS, which is on YouTube. I shot it when I was renovating the building. It’s a dance movie, shot entirely on the street. I worked with a bunch of dancers, and if it was a sunny day I would just call them up and we’d find one of the gardens or some rubble-filled lot or something, and they would improvise movement. I composed this movie. You can really see the neighborhood during that time and also the 1980s clothing styles.
I love Tompkins Square Park. I come here and sit almost every day. I think it’s the nicest neighborhood in town – every block has a garden. It’s unbelievable. I live in the back, between two one-way streets, a dead end and the park, with a tree in the backyard and stuff. It’s very quiet.
When I moved from Ludlow Street I could not believe how quiet it was. Here there are lot of people in rent-control apartments, there are the buildings where the tenants took over or people renovated, and also there is a bunch of public housing. So when you walk in Tompkins Square Park you don’t feel like you’re in a neighborhood full of millionaires.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.