Looking for the Soul of SoHo


SoHo is to Richard Kostelanetz what Montparnasse was to Gertrude Stein. Ever since he bought a 1,850-square-foot loft at 141 Wooster Street in 1974, for the too-incredible-to-envy sum of $6 per square foot, the poet and critic has made SoHo the center of his social universe and the base for his wide-ranging literary operations. He gave the New York neighborhood an entry in his highly opinionated and surprisingly useful Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, and he edited a now forgotten anthology called The Literature of SoHo. He’s even given his own home and castle a name. He calls it Wordship.

So why is Kostelanetz, age 63, moving to the Rockaways, in Queens? The easy answer is that he’s cashing out, as Wordship is currently on the market for around $1 million—enough money to make a down payment on a house in Queens and have serious pocket money left over. Another reason, the one he gives, is that he needs more space. As an indie academic, without the resources of a university, he has built an extensive personal library: some 20,000 books and videos that cut across various fields—American history, art history, cultural studies, poetry, and fiction, books he’s read and books he’s written. This kind of library, you can imagine, is a monster from a Roger Corman movie; it needs to be fed, and it eats up real estate.

But if you really want to know a die-hard’s reasons for leaving home, you should read Kostelanetz’s new book, SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artist’s Colony (Routledge), an openly nostalgic history of a neighborhood in transition. He remembers the “off-the-map” SoHo of the 1950s, when the blocks between Houston and Canal Street, bordered by West Broadway and Broadway, were still considered an industrial wasteland. He remembers the creative fireworks of the following decades, when artists as diverse as Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Foreman, Meredith Monk, and Robert Wilson began to colonize the area zoned for “light manufacturing.” And he recalls, in decidedly less detail and with a manifest lack of patience, the gallery invasion of the 1980s and retail explosion of the ’90s, what he collectively dubs “the merchandising of taste.”

To hear more about the SoHo long gone, I met Kostelanetz for dinner at a second-floor Chinese restaurant on the corner of Wooster and Houston, a few doors down from Wordship. He’s a bear of a man with a Papa Hemingway kind of look, thanks mainly to a deep tan and overgrown gray beard. He also has a somewhat grizzly disposition—which, I haven’t quite decided, either comes from, or contributes to, routine neglect from the academy and other cultural gatekeepers. “The literary world considers me a true radical; the art world considers me marginal,” he says, adding, “At one point I tried rather systematically to land a university teaching job, but I don’t have a Ph.D., and I don’t have a field.”

What he has, in spades, are projects (which typically become books), such as exposing the radical poetics of seemingly affable and accessible writers (the latest being Carl Sandburg). Or assembling an anthology of anarchist and libertarian writing in America. Or giving a talk about the rise of downtown culture.

When I asked him about the heyday of bohemia in SoHo, he was at first a touch prickly. “Well, it wasn’t really bohemia,” he says, glancing out the window at a cluster of NYU buildings. “The East Village, that was bohemia; Soho was an artist’s colony.” The difference? “Politics. Bohemia has a radical left element that was largely missing from SoHo.”

Soon, though, over a plate of grilled trout, Kostelanetz warmed to the subject. “I don’t know exactly how it compares in size to Montparnasse, but this concentration of artists is exceptional in American history. Think about Williamsburg today, which also grew up without government planning, but on a much bigger scale. We’re not talking about a few hundred people but a few thousand.”

The man behind it all, he explains, was George Maciunas. A small-boned and thick-accented Lithuanian who came to New York to study art, Maciunas was the founder of Fluxus, a neo-Dada movement that made an art out of science experiments and children’s games. As Kostelanetz quips, “his eccentric mannerisms were more disaffecting than reassuring, even to other artists.” In other words, he was a character among characters.

He was also, most improbably, a real estate developer of extraordinary skill. More than any other figure in the history of New York, he succeeded in organizing artists to pool their money and buy buildings from the city, which he then dubbed Fluxhouses. By 1968, 10 years before his death, Maciunas had used nearly 17 buildings to create 11 co-ops for artists, not yet including the Wooster Street co-op where Kostelanetz has lived since 1974.

His problem was the police. “He did every transaction in cash, commingled funds, and basically broke every rule in the book. The authorities were after him for years,” says Kostelanetz, whose book relates some of Maciunas’s most inspired escapes—from chasing a city building inspector away with a samurai sword to building a getaway tunnel leading from his basement apartment to an upper floor.

If this is all beginning to sound like performance art, you’re in the right time and place. As Kostelanetz writes, “SoHo was particularly hospitable to the art forms that were new in the 1960s and 1970s: video, holography and book art (aka Artists’ Books) among others.” Performance art, while hardly new, was one of the most striking hybrids of the period. While so many artists today seem focused on making tangible products, if not profits, the previous generation was bent on tearing down the walls between art and everyday life, or theater and unscripted living. Soho gave them the stage and audience.

Kostelanetz remembers performances by Hannah Wilke, who bared her body in performance and photography, and Tosun Bayrak, who worked with blood, rats, and excrement. Bayrak’s pieces inspire some of his most colorful prose. “Recognizing in the early seventies that SoHo itself was an art gallery,” he writes, “a Turk named Tosun Bayrak, scarcely young at the time, did radical performance pieces—’actions’ they could be called—whose audacity remains unrivaled. When his wife was evicted from a West Broadway building that was sold to a new owner, Bayrak embedded bags of bovine blood and entrails in the walls and ceiling of her loft and replastered them. Inviting people into the loft one Saturday afternoon, he chopped at the walls with an ax to ‘free’ the gore, so to speak. White pigeons, very much a symbol of peace at the time, were released from beneath the floorboards. This piece he called The Living Loft.”

This is, of course, a far cry from Mary Boone’s champagne-popping openings of the 1980s and Prada’s private-shopping parties of the 1990s. When exactly did the ax fall—or Bayrak’s ax get confiscated? As Kostelanetz remembers it, the first sign of commercial growth came relatively early, with the opening of Dean & DeLuca on Prince Street in 1977. He was struck not just by the wealth of gourmet foodstuffs, but also by the long lines of limousines that formed outside.

He didn’t, he says, feel a real sense of cataclysmic change until 1985, when a travel magazine asked him to write about the neighborhood. As he reported on the thickening crowds of Saturday tourists, and the spreading web of furniture and clothing stores, he realized that SoHo was less in the market for selling art than in the business of selling taste—”the accoutrements of conspicuous high-class taste.” Sure enough, the art galleries would soon decamp for Chelsea, leaving behind what he derisively calls a “lipstick emporium.”

There goes the neighborhood. So what about the neighbors? Some, like Robert Rauschenberg and Nam June Paik, hit it big. Others have fled the art world altogether to become, among other things, real estate agents. Others yet, cash poor but rich in property value, continue to paint, perform, or write in a community that has largely moved on to other things. It’s the great paradox of the starving artist in SoHo, and reason to think that the Rockaways just may be the next big thing.