When Artists Roamed the Land.

No one will ever question our loyalty and our life long love with SoHo, not only as a neighborhood but as a frame of mind as well. We long for the days when it was the wild, wild south and artists roamed the cobble stone streets and lived and worked in huge open spaces left for dead by defunct factories. Slowly the galleries followed the artists and then restaurants followed the galleries and the folks with money followed the restaurants and the stores followed the folks with money and soon the artists were gone and all that remains are our warm memories of a time gone by. The days when bohemians sat in Fanelli’s sipping whisky and discussing art and politics, (still our main theme here at SoHo Journal Magazine) may be gone but our Woody Allen like fascination hasn’t ended and at times the streets feel the same as they did; very early on a Saturday morning or very late on a Thursday night the ghosts of modern thinkers and revolutionaries still haunt the ragged cobblestones. 

If you really need an old time SoHo fix then rent Allen’s Hannah And Her Sisters, filmed all over SoHo, Allen captures the magic of the mostly deserted streets way back when, and even details the life of an artist as one of the films main characters. Another great look at the neighbor- hood is Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman with Jill Clayburgh and Alan Bates, filmed in 1977 and released in 1978 this movie perfectly captures the whole artists scene, from living conditions, gallery openings too single life and the allure of the artist as society outlaw!
Fortunately for us a handful of the original renegades still remain and we were lucky enough to pin them down for a chat about how things used to be! As part of an ongoing series we chatted with oldtimers Jim Stratton, Penelope Grill, and Mimi Smith about the glory days.
Penelope Grill
Occupation: Graphic artist, fine artist
SoHo resident since 1974.
SJ: Tell me a little bit about how you remember the era.
Penny Grill: It was a fun time. I had a fun here it was always an adventure. It was a lot less populated than it is now. Not as many stores to shop in. I used to bring groceries from 14th street. There were a few very small bodega type stores. [...] I went to Finelli’s occasionally. When I moved to the neighborhood Finelli’s was primarily an old man’s bar. And there were old time neighborhood characters that would frequent, and lurk about the bar.
SJ: What did you do when you first moved to SoHo?
PG: At the time I moved in I was on a medical leave from my job and very shortly after I began working at The Loft, which was an after hours and private club that happened to be in the same building that I lived in. In fact, I knew the disc jockey that ran the business, I knew him from before. We just happened to run into each other by coincidence one day as I was speaking to the landlord and I realized that David was also speaking to the landlord because he was looking for a space at that time. There happened to be a vacant space at the ground floor basement of the building. When David rented the space and opened it up I had a job there. I was the cashier and I did reservations for the Saturday night parties. It was opened Saturday night to about noon the next day. I did that every week for many, many years. I also worked for the city sporadically and I did artwork. I’m a fine artist.
SJ: Are you still a working artist?
PG: Yes I am.
SJ: Do you still fraternize with other artists of the era?
PG: I find that a lot of the artists I’ve known over the years are quite aloof and they have comradely with other artists sporadically. We’d meet up with them occasionally but not necessarily to socialize.
Jim Stratton
Occupation: Filmaker, reporter, author of “Pioneering in the Urban Wilderness”, bar owner
SoHo resident since1968.
SoHo Journal: Tell me a bit about your political life in SoHo?
Jim Stratton: Oh well I supported many battles that went on went on for years. I was in charge of the soho artists association in the late 70’s when everyone else quit. And I ran it for several years. Then became the first chair of the SoHo Alliance in 1982 and we fought building after building after building, just terrible, terrible ideas that would’ve destroyed the neighborhood; buildings that were intended to destroy the neighborhood, with very strong people behind them. Fortunately the city also had some honest, good-thinking people in power in spite of some of the phlegmatic natures of some of them. And we actually persevered. We stopped half a dozen major construction sites and projects. One of them on what is now the SoHo hotel.
SJ: The SoHo grand?
JS: Yea. That was going to be a 100,000 sq. ft. subterranean mall and high-rise with newly built lofts. The other one was going to be on the other side of the street. That was going to be a 240 feet straight up built on100% of the lot. In other words 20 times applicable zoning in the neighborhood. Sadly, today the mayor is letting developers do almost whatever they want. But back then it took a lot. And then the city wanted to rezone it because they claimed there were no artists. We had really good public support from representatives and a very good neighborhood organization.
SJ: Do you think the neighborhood is still worth fighting for?
JS: It’s not the SoHo I remember but I still support the SoHo alliance.
Mimi Smith
Occupation: Fine Artist
SoHo resident since the 1960’s.
SoHo Journal: Tell me a little bit about your time in SoHo.
Mimi Smith: I was lucky because I bought a loft when it was very cheap... When I first moved in, Soho was great. It was nothing like it is now. There were a lot of manufacturing businesses. There was a little bodega across the street on the corner of West Broadway. I mean there was really nothing...there were galleries. It was unbelievably quiet. One of the nicest things was that you could sit on your stoops and see everyone you knew. And the lofts didn’t look anything like what they look like now. They were mostly studios— no marble bathrooms, no decorated rooms. There were a lot of artist co-op galleries. There were a lot of non -profit type galleries, some commercial ones too.
SJ: What was it like to have a family in SoHo?
MS: Well I belonged to a group of woman and we sort of co-op’ed a nursery. My children grew up in SoHo. I always say that as an artist and parent we all moved here for the space. There was something really wonderful about the raw space. There just weren’t many people who lived here except for artists. My fondest memories were on Saturday afternoons. My children actually used to play downstairs in the parking lot on Saturday and Sun- day, which gives you an idea of how it has changed.
Editors Note: If you were an artisan of any sort
living in SoHo in the 60’s or 70’s please contact us,
we would love to talk to you. Write to mark@soho-
journal.com or info@sohojournal.com


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