Beyond Beaver Street
Adventures south and north of Wall Street
As I continue poking and prodding into my life’s story to cull a few hard won lessons, I’m learning so much about my slippery and jagged-edged memory, delusions I’ve had about myself and others, and how the act of writing itself is sometimes threatening or concerning to others who are not anchoring themselves within a creative practice. It’s a good thing that I’m a combination of stubborn, curious, and desperate and that those qualities have become a magnet to the chair and keyboard. I ask for your patience as I continue to stumble through some flashbacks to set the scene for the present moment.
In the late summer of 1978, I made my way back to NYC ready to take on the challenges of finding work and a place to live. With money I had saved from my NSCAD teaching stipend, I could make a deposit on my first digs. After sleeping on a friend’s couch for a week, I found a cheap loft to rent in the Village Voice classified. This Beaver Street loft, 2 floors above the Kansas City Meat Exchange, was going for $335/month. It was a dark, barely finished,1500 square feet space with simple fixtures (a shower stall, a toilet closet, a fridge & a small stove); the smell of greasy hamburgers permeated the space. The only sunlight that entered the loft was reflected off an enormous office building across the street; we were in the canyon lands below Wall Street.
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A partial wall with no door separated the back sleeping area from the living area; the very front of the loft had a cozy nook, tucked away from the main area. I chose to sleep there and placed a large drawing desk at the foot of my bed. Some ceiling-high storage racks completed a sense of cozy. For privacy, I hung a big sheet over the huge window facing the offices of RCA Global Communications. When I looked across the street, I could almost see the faces of the office workers.
Beaver Street Loft Memory, watercolor/pastel/pencil on paper, 1985
Privacy inside the loft was also an issue, but I couldn’t carry the rent alone. A few days before I found the place, I had run into someone (a friend of a friend) who lived and worked on the Upper West Side and was dreaming of living in a loft downtown. She was an assistant editor of a fairly new, feminist journal then associated with Barnard College. I respected the journal, Signs; it was one of the first feminist scholarly journals, and my cousin, the late Rachel Kahn-Hut, a sociology professor had written for it. I thought it would be great to room with someone working in that context. I was very wrong.
Within a few months, I realized that my loft mate, MN, had qualities that made it difficult to share the space. To put it simply, she was mean, cruel, deceitful, and narcissistic, all qualities that lived under a veneer of charm and politically correct talk. There’s lots I could share about the dramas that unfolded while living with this person, but I’ve decided to keep this part of the story brief. At one point, I thought it might be the actual space we lived in that caused our tensions, but when she sublet her end of the space to another woman for the summer (mind you, she didn’t tell me this, in advance), I and the new roommate got along famously. That’s when I realized that the reality of living with MN was more complex. Decades later, after googling her name & photo, I learned that this loathsome person had risen in the publishing world to run major magazines and a global media organization; she was listed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world; I was not surprised. The psychopathology that ran and probably still runs her nervous system often yields all sorts of rewards in a system that is profoundly sick.
Living in a neighborhood that was not set up for residents had some challenges, but my former NSCAD advisor, the late Ann Wilson, had the great idea to introduce me to a lovely, older neighbor who lived just a few blocks away. Thalia Poons (now Criscenzo) and I went on a “blind date” for dinner in Chinatown during which we shared lots of stories. She had lived in the small community of artists on Coenties Slip, a neighborhood adjacent to the Wall Street area. Back in the late 50s and early 60s, they lived in derelict buildings with gerry-rigged utilities, offering each other support and camaraderie, and for the artists who were gay, a place of relative safety. Thalia’s best friend and walking buddy was Agnes Martin and as Agnes’s work became more known and valuable, Thalia helped her retrieve “failed” paintings from dumpster thieves. Thalia’s neighbors included Jack Youngerman, Barnett Newmann, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Chryssa, Lenore Tawney, Ellsworth Kelley, Robert Indiana, Ann Wilson, and her ex-husband, Larry Poons.
We walked as we left Chinatown for some late night espresso and dessert in Little Italy, while Thalia shared invaluable information that made survival easier in our non-residential area. A coin laundry was available in the basement of the Seaman’s Institute (where in-port merchant marines could reside) as well as $1 meals in their cafeteria. The Institute had a great library upstairs with a view of Battery Park and the NY Harbor. I spent a fair amount of time in that library to get away from the bad energy in my loft. Since my presence as a female in the space was unusual, I was sometimes asked if I was a navigation student. In reflection now, I would agree that I was then and continue to be, although the realms I’m navigating are not those that they were referring to.
Gathering provisions without local supermarkets or farmer’s markets (did they exist in the city back then?) required hiking or a subway ride. The closest supermarket, Key Foods, was a couple of miles away, next to the low income housing project just outside the South Street Seaport. Thalia biked there and filled her baskets; having no bicycle at the time, I traveled on foot and filled my backpack with essentials.
Thalia became a beloved walking buddy who shared with me a particular view of the art world that catalyzed deeper thoughts about my ambitions. As we hiked up to the West Village to see movies (or even as far as Columbus Circle), stopping into favorite cafes along the way to catch our breath, we talked about how the art world was changing; though back in 1979, we had no idea how much it was about to change. She had witnessed her cohort rise from poverty to being hot commodities in a relatively short period of time, and the toll it took on some of them was harsh. Some of her favorite memories were not glamorous one, but rather sitting on the rotting, dangerous piers by Coenties Slip with Agnes Martin, quietly gazing out at the harbor.
One snowy night, Thalia enticed me to join her for a picnic in Battery Park. She brought cold fried chicken and hot red zinger tea with honey in a thermos. We made snow angels and kept our distance from the rats climbing into garbage cans. Although Thalia and I eventually became geographically incompatible once I left NYC, she, now at age 90, continues to be a favorite walking buddy via my headphones.
Having some deep thoughts, 1979. (photographer unknown) Those pleated men’s gabardine pants purchased at a tag sale in Halifax became my standard wear. The saddle shoes were also tag sale wonders. I wonder what book was in my lap.
On the work front, my NSCAD networks made me flush with offers when I arrived back in the city. The first job I took was working as a secretary at the NY State Council for the Arts in the Museum Aid Program. I had some fascinating experiences there although it was a very stressful job, especially for someone who was not used to typing and filing, with constant deadlines, from 9-5. My boss, Joan Rosenbaum, was kind and very smart. She mentored me into the pace and responsibilities of working for NYSCA. Another bright light in the office was the brilliant Diantha Schull who took me to see my first performance of Bread & Puppet Theater at St John’s the Divine Cathedral uptown. I was captivated by the masks, puppets, and the narrative, and had no idea then that B & P would become a very meaningful part of my life in a future chapter.
A major perk of the NYSCA gig was sitting in the grant application meetings, taking notes, while museum directors, curators and other cultural administrators, discussed and evaluated the value of each application. This experience alone, witnessing the white patrician Director of MoMA and the first Black female curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art go to bat for one project proposal vs. another, demystified a significant part of the art world for me and made me less intimidated by those in positions of status. I learned that there were a few thoughtful, ethical, and generous folks in these powerful cultural institutions, and that others had gotten their jobs through nepotism and connections, whose commentary demonstrated that they had little grasp of subjects at hand. Having this perspective guided me as I made choices about where to work next and where I wanted to situate myself in this art world.
Kitty Carlisle, the well-known actress and game show panelist, was the Chair of NYSCA while I was working there, and all of the staff were invited to her ritzy uptown apartment for the annual holiday feast and celebration. I remember being a bit awestruck by all the plenty on display - it wasn’t just the plentiful food & drink, the virtuoso live music, the display of tasteful art & books, as well as the fashionable people, but it was “the whole megillah” that got to me. Even though Kitty and her team were incredibly gracious, there was something off about the event. Most of us on staff were making low salaries (mine was $9500/year). We got a taste of a “candy shop” that was closed to us for the rest of the year. Whether I discussed what I was observing about the class system with my fellow staffers is not clear to me now. Many of them had come to NYC to prove their worth and move up the economic ladder, so it’s likely they would have dismissed my critical view.
What I learned about this particular experience of 9 to 5 life inspired my next audio installation. I vented my frustrations and stresses from the job into a script that included a bored and dissatisfied worker with one who was dreaming of escape. There were two rooms: one played the rhythms of a copy machine under the vocalized text, and featured a skeletal desk & chair, with an in & out boxes (yes, literal in & out boxes did exist back then). This room was painted totally white and had a view of the offices across the street. In the adjacent, very dark room was a line of lockers, with closet lights illuminating tools for escape. Muzak played in the locker room under the vocals.
I received funding from Artists’ Space (the Committee for the Visual Arts) to purchase an amplifier, slide projector, and the exhibition postcard. I sited the project in an unused storage space on the third floor beneath our loft. I did not ask permission from the landlord since the business below was not open on weekends; I saw no conflict with my use of the neglected space.
I was eager to hear stories from other office workers in the Wall Street neighborhood where I lived and hoped that they would take the risk to visit my site-specific project, Daily Reminder (please note that the once audible audio recording at this link has become muddier over the years).
Daily Reminder opened to a small audience, some folks who were friends or acquaintances from my NSCAD days and some who were office staff at NYSCA came to see/hear what I’d been up to. All of them found the work compelling or, at least, intriguing. A few of my fellow staffers suggested that my time working at NYSCA might be soon over, given how much 9-5 life was killing my spirit. In fact, it was the combo of my difficult living situation, the job, and the stresses of my long distance relationship that were assaulting my well being. I knew various parts of my life were easier to shift than the others, so I gave notice a few months later and began to look for a new living situation.
Daily Reminder was an experiment that offered many mistakes to learn from: The audience I wanted (other office workers) had not been sufficiently sought out via posters and advertisements, and getting them to climb the three flights to where the piece was located would have been daunting as well. I recognized that finding a good context for my next project would be essential. I was fortunate that an opportunity soon came my way.
As I began looking for a new source of income, I bought my first answering machine. My mother was very annoyed that I was spending money on what she felt was a foolish purchase. Like so many things that my mom disapproved of, this investment yielded a reward almost immediately.
I had met with the Education Director at the Jewish Museum. She was one of the insightful people who evaluated applications for the Museum Aid Program. I was grateful that she was willing to talk with me about finding work as a teaching artist in local museums. I remember a wide ranging conversation in which some of my assumptions about her museum’s culture were deftly excised (a topic for another blog post). Overall, she was very warm and encouraging, and gave me some names of people to contact and meet. A few days after we met, I came home to my first recorded message on the new machine: “Beverly, we just received a grant to help students design exhibitions for archaeological artifacts, and since you are an installation artist, we thought you might be a good fit for helping us shape this program. We’d like to talk with you as soon as possible.” I called them back the next day and even though I felt it was a stretch of my skillset, I soon began my first gig as a teaching artist.
Like most museum work, it did not pay much, but it was a chance to learn and stretch. Thankfully, the Franklin Furnace received a grant at the same time and offered me a gig as their publicist and artist assistant. Back then, the place was run by Martha Wilson, and Jacki Apple as curator, and they needed someone to write copy to promote the exhibitions and performances. I could not believe that they felt I could write copy, but despite my very imperfect typing, I learned how to push a few luring paragraphs forward for each show.
FF was one of the many hubs in the downtown art scene of that time, with an international mix of artists doing all sorts of cutting edge work (performance, artist’s books, installations, etc.), many of them unknown outside of their own communities whether it was Milan or Los Angeles. The artists had a wide variety of life experiences, class backgrounds, and motivations for their art practices. The performance artists, in particular, took me on a journey into their therapy sessions, their attempts at self-liberation, their goofy senses of humor, and their desires to shift consciousness within the collective. The book artists were more often more cerebral, using copious research as material for their oeuvres, passionately political, or beautifully crafty. I wasn’t quite conscious at the time that I was receiving an invaluable, contemporary art education, and that some of the artists I was meeting would burn out early, others would suffer through the plague of AIDS; a few would go on to become art world celebrities, and others like myself, would go on to subvert as best we could in academia.
My long distance relationship, KW, and his well-cultivated social sphere, offered me intimate entrées into a world of artists who I might not have encountered otherwise. We shared meals with the ambitious duo of public artists, Christo and his wife, Jean-Claude, the conceptual word meister, Lawrence Levine, and the satirical Russian expats, Komar and Melamid. There were other notables who gave that year an aura of art world glamour, but my memory fails. As a 25-year old beginner, I was a bit in awe; I would sit listening to discussions about their frustrations with dealers & venues, their participation in international shows, their aspirations, and the concepts that guided their work. It was obvious that “who you know” and a pre-internet form of promoting one’s work made a huge difference in their ability to get funding and attention for their work. They each had a very pragmatic view of how to work the business of achieving their goals in the art world. On top of the sexism that was at play (Jean-Claude was unrecognized as an equal partner to Christo at the time), my delusions about any sort of meritocracy, where the best art rises to the top, began to slip away.
My cynicism was tempered by finding other artists who were rejecting the white box galleries. Some were wheat pasting posters, filled with poetic and political imagery, on the walls of city streets, and many of us began to form collectives so we could figure out how to respond to the many alarming social issues that others seemed to ignore. I will share more about those collectives in my next post.
I’ll leave you with two scenes from early 1980. As I stepped outside of the Beaver Street loft to the street, I discovered that I had to step over the body of a man sleeping on the landing. It’s my first memory of a close encounter with an unhoused person. I was alarmed to see this person so vulnerably in the elements, but I was clueless about what to do. My first desire was to acknowledge his presence and see if he needed help, but this human being was male, large, and snoring. I couldn’t override my training in urban hyper-vigilance, so I left him undisturbed. It did not take long to discover that there were many more unsheltered people sleeping in an unexpected places. This was an alarming indication of what was happening to the housing stock in the city, something that was confirmed by my own housing search. I could no longer find anything affordable or suitable in lower Manhattan, and was about to move to downtown Brooklyn.
Just before I moved out, the lights stopped working in the loft and I called an electrician to take a look at the problem. He opened the fuse box in the hall, and shut it quickly with a bang. He said, “this whole place is illegally wired. You are living in a fire trap. You need to leave as soon as possible.” And I did. As soon as I left, the landlord pushed the rent up to $1200/month. Mayor Koch’s plan to bring real estate investors into the city had contaminated him with the greed that is so common in NYC (and elsewhere). My nasty loft mate fled with her skinhead boyfriend for parts unknown. And I moved on to my Brooklyn adventure, one of a handful of artists who were finding more affordable digs in places that were not yet gentrified. Little did we know how our presence was going to impact the current residents and their ability to continue living where they were.
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