BACK IN THE DAY WITH JUDITH HENRY
Walking the streets of New York, I often picture the city in a more antiquated setting, when "mom and pop" shops lined the streets and Manhattan had more edge and art instead of corporate money. Modern day media’s representations of New York’s yesteryear still pale in comparison to the vision of old in my mind and the one described to me by people who were really there.
Over the past five years of living here, I've talked to several old school New Yorkers who love sharing stories about when the city was actually "cool”. The risk of living here was a dangerous adventure, and long before SoHo was a haven for tourists and shoppers people like Judith Henry were living in the districts lofts as an artist, not a millionaire. I sat down with Henry in her studio in Williamsburg so she could share a glimpse of New York in the early 70's. After nearly thirty years, she has watched her neighborhood shift from a community of artists to a congested outdoor shopping mall.
Here's what she had to say about the city over the last fifty years.
JH: In 1973 there was all this talk about moving into Soho, which at that time was light industry. It was zoned for commercial, not for living. Some artists rented spaces in A.I.R. buildings (Artist in Residence) and soon some started buying the buildings because they were abandoned. The building we moved into was a doll factory and there were literally doll heads, arms and legs everywhere. For years there was a doll's arm and hand on the fire escape outside of my studio. Each loft sold for about $10,000 and my husband and I at the time, bought a 3,000 square foot space on Wooster Street.
WC: Crazy. So it was all artists in your building?
JH: All artists. George Maciunas, who was a Fluxus artist bought the first building in the neighborhood and called it Flux House Number One. It was an art piece. My building was the second in Soho to become a co-op and it was Flux House Number Two. We were these 30-somethings managing a whole building. We really didn't have a clue what we were doing, but we did it. The building is still there, and now the lofts go for 200 times what we paid for them. To this day, besides myself and one other person, it is all the original people that bought their lofts. I'm talking about artists now that are all in their seventies who moved in there when they were in their 20's.
WC: What was it like living there back then?
JH: When we moved in, there were no galleries, no stores, no restaurants... Just trucks, loading and unloading. Nobody was there, it was a deserted neighborhood. Like I said it was commercially zoned, so the idea was if somebody rang your bell, you didn't answer. Zoning didn't change until 1983 so we were living there completely illegally for a decade before it turned into a residential zone. It was interesting raising two little children in that environment.
In my building there was only one freight elevator for the whole building, so in the lobby, there was a big wood board that had everybody's name on it, with a nail next to your name. There was this big plastic ring, so if you took the elevator you had to put the ring on your name. The only way the next person coming in could get the elevator was by buzzing you. So, say you lived on the sixth floor and you used the elevator last, you would put that big plastic ring on your name with the nail. You would get buzzed and you'd have to take the elevator all the way down, and they would take you back up to the sixth floor, drop you off, and they would take the elevator to say the fourth floor, then the next person would come in and buzz the person on the fourth floor to get it.
WC: That's pretty communal of the building to share one elevator.
JH: Yeah, it was a known thing that if you had the elevator on your floor, you could be bothered anytime day or night. The building didn't get a regular passenger elevator until 15 or 20 years later.
It was an exciting time though. It was the beginning of alternative spaces where artists could show their work. They were bypassing these big New York galleries and showing in smaller spaces. On Wooster Street alone there were 3 alternative spaces: Anthology Film Archives, Artists Space and The Kitchen. You knew everybody in the neighborhood because they were all artists. The work I'm doing to this day, actually started there because as the neighborhood got more and more popular I couldn't stand it, I couldn't even go out and get milk without elbowing my way through crowds. One day I went out with my camera and decided I was going to use these people as my subjects. I just stood there and photographed everyone that walked by, and I started writing down things I'd hear them say, and that's how the "Overheard" series started.
WC: What was the art scene like during that time?
JH: The early seventies was the beginning of minimal art, so the big names like Carl Andre and Robert Smithson, and also conceptual art such as Ray Johnson. Before the seventies it was pop artists like Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns, but when I moved to Soho it was conceptualism, performance art, minimalism, and also feminism. Before that, women weren't really taken seriously in the art world. There was this group of anonymous female artists at the time, called the Guerilla Girls. They would stand outside of galleries all dressed up protesting at openings only showing male artists. It was an exciting time. Video was becoming big as well, it was the beginning of it becoming an art in the early seventies. It was really just experimental work.
WC: Do you think the arts in New York City have lost it's edge from what it used to be?
JH: In a way. What I have found right now is that the art community has turned it's focus on the rediscovery of what artists were doing in the early seventies. The work coming out back then was so advanced for it's time that I find more and more young people are talking about artists of that time. Which I think is fascinating. Nowadays Chelsea is primarily where most of the galleries are. It's so polished, and there are millions of galleries. It's just product after product after product they are selling.
WC: The city now seems so regulated, the streets are always riddled with cops. How was New York in the 80's?
JH: I always felt safe, but the 80's were horrible. There was no control. We had friends that lived on Chrystie Street. When we would go to visit them at their place, there would be prostitutes and pimps walking all hours of the night outside their building. There was graffitti on the inside and outside of every subway. Thompkins Square Park was the seediest place. When I walked home through Washington Square Park at least 10 people would stop me trying to sell me "smoke". There were no cops anywhere. It was crazy.
It's funny how now they say the city is in all this financial crisis, but looking around you see how they are fixing up parks and little areas. In the 80's when they said the city was brankrupt, you could see it was bankrupt. It has just turned into this shiny shopping mall. That's why I like Brooklyn.
WC: I agree about Brooklyn. It's just so much more chill here. When did you move to Williamsburg?
JH: Four years ago. It's quiet. I love being around young creative people in this area.
WC: Why did you leave Soho?
JH: The neighborhood was just too commercial.
WC: Do you think you'll ever move back to the city?
JH: I can't think of a neighborhood I would want to live in.
Judith Henry has been prominent in the New York art scene for decades. Being a self-confessed "outsider" her whole life, she became a watcher, and a listener of people and their interactions. From this some of her work has emerged such as the Overheard In... Book Series. She captures human interaction, with no critical judgment. She sees us as the same, but at the same time each being unique. "Patterns emerge, but each of us are different." says the artist. Her work includes video, photography and mixed media. Look out for her latest book Sexual Beginnings: Memories and Confessions.