Excerpted conversations with the Denizens of Downtown
made during the Downtown Body Project

link to Downtown Body

Ward Shelley's introduction and disclaimer to the Downtown Body project

Laurie Anderson

People don't remember how dangerous it was downtown.

I had the top floor of a factory in the east village. It was a 6 floor walk-up, stepping over junkies on every floor. I went on a trip for a few months, during which time they broke a hole through my wall and moved in. All my stuff was burned or torn up. When I saw that, I didn't even go inside. I just left with what I had on my back.

In SoHo it was all about getting your space and fixing it up. Everyone rented floor sanders from the same guy - the sculptors all had pick-ups. The dancers did too. And we wore overalls. We all looked like farmers.

The art scene is all about real estate. Cheap rents. Without that you have no artists.

In the seventies the city went bankrupt. There were so many people living on the street. I remember the Daily News front page - Ford to City: Drop Dead

Dara Birnbaum

The Mudd Club is where we all hung out, at the end of the 70s into the early 80s. Wendy Clarke opened a series “Early Evening Mudd,” for showing video. We occupied an upper floor, with a bar, for these screenings. It seemed freer, more real. I remember even Benjamin Buchloh came for one of my screens! Lawrence Weiner showed work. Sonic Youth played, with an opening performance by Dan Graham. There was a sense of sharing that moment; one of passion.

I think it was John Sanborn who first introduced me to Electronic Arts Intermix, around 1980. “EAI,” started by Howard Wise, supported me when no commercial art gallery wanted to make room for video, or recognize its legitimacy in the arts. In fact, the manager of Leo Castelli’s video art collection told me how they were constantly loosing money through this type of work; she didn’t seem to see anything positive about it as an art form.

There was a thrill to being one of the very first “video artists” invited to show at The Collective on White Street. I loved mounting monitors in there for my screening, while also showing 16mm kinescopes of two early works. The audience was great - after all this was the cinema where I first I got to see the original two-screen version of Chelsea Girls by Warhol!

The late 70s brought perceptible changes to our neighborhood on Centre Street: near the old Police Station and Jovino’s gun store. A new pattern of Chinese immigration meant that many of the buildings in the area were bought from their previous owners, mainly of Jewish and Italian decent. Our new landlord purposefully left our building unprotected and the my mail was frequently stolen. This was, mostly, an attempt to get tenants out. While the others left, I decided to go to court to defend my registered “Artist-In-Residence” loft. However, when in 1979 I almost lost my life - in relation to someone who illegally entered our building with a gun – I decided to move.

Diego Cortez

Music was becoming artier, and art was becoming more like rock and roll. I thought we should come up with something to bridge the two – but with dancing. So we started the Mudd Club. We wanted to dance.

We rented part of Ross Bleckner's building. I told him it wasn't going to be very loud. He was furious at me for a couple of years after that, but then he started coming too.

In 1979, I curated a show of what was to document the punk and new wave music scenes. It was first to be exhibited in Bologna, but the venue fell through. Allana Heiss heard about the show and offered to present it at P.S. 1, and that became New York/New Wave show (February, 1981). 

Some ex-friends of mine in Colab, a downtown collaborative arts organization, got hold of my artist list, and probably after noticing that none of them were included in my 100+ artist show, quickly organized the Times Square Show (December, 1980) featuring themselves and some of my newly-discovered artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Theirs was a more 'seedy' looking show with mostly lousy art, and with a tired political thrust, which I felt didn't capture the specific radicality and style of punk and new wave, a boat they missed.

Another boat the downtown art world missed was the emerging Rap music scene which was built upon the foundation laid by the renegade New York graffiti artists. In 1978-79, a small group of downtowners (Edit deAk, Rene Ricard, Keith Haring, Fab 5, myself, etc.) used to go to regular meetings of the United Graffiti Artists in Harlem. Later we would also go to Disco Fever in the South Bronx, which was the genesis of rap and hip hop. Fab 5 Freddy was pivotal in making these connections between the art world and the emerging radical youth scenes of graffiti and rap. Fred curated the first graffiti show at the Mudd Club before becoming MTV's first rap show VJ. That is when rap and hip hop started to get big.

In the late 70s and early 80s, Hip hop and graffiti found a creative outlet when there were no other means. The artists took what they needed: whether appropriating a 'public' wall (or subway car), or stealing samples from other recorded artists. It ignored notions of property and ownership, but in its underground and independent origins, it created two viable industries: the largest-selling sector of the recording industry for two decades: rap music and hip hop, and the nexus of graffiti and graphic design as seen in the countless design products for the youth culture throughout the world today.

Ron Feldman

We were working with Joseph Beuys and he wanted a place to do one of his dialogues. So I rented the auditorium at New School. There was a lot of interest in Bueys and I realized just before the event that I better hire some extra security guards. It turned out to be a mob scene because so many people showed up. The guards closed the doors when the auditorium was full but people kept banging on the doors so we let them in, sitting in the aisles. That was against the fire regulations but we did it anyway. It was a great event, but I was banned from New School for years.

Beuys held a dialog at our gallery and he wanted to talk to anyone about anything. He said to the group around him it was his first "Social Sculpture. Can you feel it?" He did his blackboard lectures in English, which was very hard for him. Someone asked him how he felt about Jackson Pollock and Beuys said "He liberated me."

Our Gallery was uptown but we were interested in downtown and did some shows there in temporary spaces - it gave us a chance to do unusual projects. We did Chris Burden's "Big Wheel" in a storefront on West Broadway, a big raw space. This was an enormous spinning cast iron wheel, 12 feet tall, driven by the rear wheel of Chris' motorcycle.

Chris Burden wanted 50,000 little tanks for "The Reason for the Neutron Bomb". We found them, great little model tanks, but they cost fifty cents each, $25,000. I had to call Chris and tell him we didn't have the money to get them. He said, okay, let me think. A few minutes later he called back with "We 'll use nickels with the top half of a matchstick glued on top. Those will be the tanks. At the end of the show we'll just give them back to the bank and get our money back. No storage problem and we can re-do it anytime."

A few years after we moved into the downtown gallery, the developer told us he wanted to sell. I had no money - I was broke, except we had a home equity loan that we were using for operating expenses - and we had two Picasso's we were trying to sell (bought on borrowed money!) I asked Frayda, can we do this? She said okay. With those Picasso's for collateral, the bank lent us another $250, 000. I was so nervous about it I thought I was going to die, but when I signed those papers, I felt a calmness come over me and I knew we had done the right thing. We had secured the future of the gallery. It saved our lives.

Richard Foreman

My degree was in play writing, but when I got to New York, I didn't like any of the theater I saw. What really knocked me out was the Jonas Mekas screenings of underground film - Look what all these young people are doing all by themselves! My first wife, Amy Taubin and I started going to all the shows. Then Jonas and Flo and Ken Jacobs got arrested for screening "Flaming Creatures". We wanted to help and called to volunteer. Amy started working for him right away and I also got involved. That was the beginning of everything for me because a few years later Jonas suggested I start producing plays in his Cinematheque after he was legally prevented from showing film.  And that became the Ontological/Hysteric.

George Maciunas - who would have thought he would be so famous today? But he really invented SoHo. I watched him reclaim these buildings and turn them over to artists -- he was eccentric but great. Finally I told him I was ready to take the plunge, and he said, "Okay, we'll buy a building." So, we got nine other artists together. I had to ask my father for some money and I thought, when he meets Maciunas that will end that. but he really liked George and he helped us. So we all bought the building where I still live. Sometime later I told George I needed a theater.  He said "Okay, we'll buy a building."

Joe Papp of the Public Theater came to see one of my productions. At the end he came over and said, "Alright, I didn't understand it, but it was interesting and I think you have heart. That's what's important to me."

A year later Kate and I were vacationing in Corsica. The hotel told me, "You got a call from yo Pop."  I called my father to see if he was alright - no, he hadn't called me. Finally it dawned on me - it was Joe Papp! So I called him and he said, would I like to direct Three Penny Opera at Lincoln Center? I was so young and pretentious. I asked--can I think about it for 24 hours?

Peter Gordon of the Love of Life Orchestra and I wanted to do an opera together. I thought I should direct but not write it, but I had been reading some stuff by Kathy Acker that was pretty great, had he heard of her? He said, "Heard of her? I used to be married to her." So we approached Kathy and she was happy to do it.  The problem was where to get the money.  I had the idea that if we got a hot new artist to do the set, we could cut up the set and sell it. David Salle agreed to do it.  After a production in Holland, we went to Harvey Lichtenstein at BAM but he hesitated because It was so full of dirty language. Then David's gallery went to Harvey with $300, 000. So he produced it and it became the biggest scandal in BAM's history— "The Birth of a Poet".



John Giorno

One night in the fall of 1954, when I was 17-years-old and an undergraduate at Columbia College, Richard Kelly, a friend, said, "Let's go to Sammy's
Bowery Follies."

"Yes!" I had never been there. We took a taxi to the Bowery between Houston and Stanton. On the east side of the street was a bar with a green
gingerbread, triangular peak facade, remenants of which have survived to 2008, several doors down from Whole Foods. The Bowery was dismal. The elevated trains were a bleak canopy of dirty steel over the many homeless, derelict men, "Bowery bums", sleeping in their filth on the sidewalk.

The bar was packed with people having a good time. It had survived from the 19th Century, and featured vaudeville singers on a small stage with a piano. There were three 80-year-old women, former hookers, wide-waisted, ravaged by age with lots of makeup, wearing costumes from the 1890's, fancy velvet dresses and large Lillian Russell hats with big ostrich feathers. They took turns singing songs in shakey voices: "Sweet Rosie O'Grady", "Silver Threads Among The Gold". I was very taken by these fabulous creatures.

I went there a number of times. It was very chic. On any night, besides the ordinary alcoholics, you might see sitting at the bar an English duchess wearing a diamond tiara, drunk and slumming after a Park Avenue ball with a gay friend in black tie. I had only seen such things in Hollywood movies, and was very impressed.

It was the last moment of an era. Three years later in 1957, the elevated trains were demolished and the women had vanished. Little did I know that in 1966, I would move into a loft at 222 Bowery, near Prince Street, where I would live for the rest of my life; and now at 71, will probably die there.

Bob Holman

The Poetry Project at St. Marks -- we just called it "the Church". Here the stars were just poets – Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Jim Carroll. I was at a New Years Reading  there with my mother, a coal miner's daughter from Harlan, Kentucky. Allen Ginsberg came over and said to her "How does it feel to have a poet for a son?" I could see her reaction in her face ("Wow. If Allen Ginsberg says it, maybe Bob really is a poet"). This small kind act, to anoint the next generation, I call The Poet's Kiss.

The Poetry Project began as a New School for Social Research Project, funded by the feds, to understand the new urban poor - which was really the hippies. Why are these young people coming to the city and living like they are poor? The Poetry Project was started as a place to interview hippies! When the 2 year funding ran out, the paid administration (Joel Oppenheimer, first Director) pulled out. Anne Waldman stepped in (she was 22) and managed to keep the wheels turning. This was the period of the Mimeograph Revolution and we all started cranking out 'zines on a machine at the church.

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe was started by Miguel Algarin, Miky Pinero and Lucky Cienfuegos about 1975 and for years it was the other great place for poets.  When Pinero died in 1988, the cafe had been dark for 6 years, one of the East Village's many victims of AIDS, crack, and gentrification.  At Miky's wake I approached Miguel about starting the Nuyorican up again and in '89 we re-opened. But the world had changed; multi-culti was now a big thing and so was gender politics. Performance poetry was putting the orality back into poetry. Hip Hop was being taken seriously. We started having poetry slams and a whole new crew of poets began to emerge.

The most significant natural resource the city has is the artist. It is a cruel irony that as Broadway and the Big Museums re-create New York as a theme park and a beacon of culture to the world, the artists - who are the original source for all that is being lifted up and celebrated - are being squeezed out.  Off-Off and live performance spaces are being closed. The vitality and flow is being cut off at the root.  Capitalism is uninterested in this.
The ugly side of Non-profits is that formerly autonomous, anarchistic arts collectives are institutionalizing just in order to survive - at the cost of their spontaneity and outsider status. The poetic economy may be our only means of opposition because we don't have anything to sell anyway - except the beer to enjoy the poetry with! That's how we try to pay the rent at the Bowery Poetry Club.

Becky Howland

In the 70's, the country was in recession and the city was close to bankruptcy. I had a job working for Nancy Graves. $3 an hour was the going rate for artists' assistants!
Downtown was a ghost town: "For Rent" signs hung from  buildings, whipping in that cold Hudson River wind – that was downtown. If you were late getting to Soho, you had to live in Tribeca. It was wild and open. All the dirt from digging the WTC foundation was dumped onto a landfill. It became a big marsh with cattails and red-winged blackbirds - I drew there. I made  guerrilla public sculpture, and sculpture in my studio on Franklin Street. Now Tribeca's the most expensive real estate in Manhattan. Now it's a ghost town for artists.

FOOD, in Soho, was an important place. The changes in Soho were reflected in the changes at FOOD. Raw in the beginning- vats of soup, like "bubble bubble, toil and trouble", witches' cauldrons in five flavors. Soup and a big chunk of bread, served by dancers. FOOD went from being the fuel stop for working artists, to an after-opening place, to a let's do lunch place. The business was sold, and then the building and then there was no more FOOD.

Young artists showed their work in their studios, Artist's Space, White Columns, Fashion Moda, the streets, nightclubs, wherever. Alan Moore had the idea to do a show about real estate. He'd found a little blue building on Delancey St., abandoned by the city, but he got no response from contacting them. Somehow we hatched a plan - Alan, Peter Moening, Ann Messner, and me. We snipped the lock and replaced it. The next week we went in, set up the Real Estate Show, and had a New Years's Eve party. The show was open for 2 days. Then the city changed our lock - "Art Held Hostage! ". Peter knew Joseph Beuys, who was in town, lecturing at Cooper Union, and got Beuys and Ron Feldman to come to our press conference. Journalists and police came too.

This publicity resulted in a series of meetings with HPD (Housing, Preservation, and Development). They told us "You can't have that building, but here's a list of others you might like." We picked a place on Rivington Street, which became ABC No Rio.

There was a place on Walker Street called Magoo's. The owner traded artwork for food and drink, so it was packed with artists. Ron Gorchov and Bill Jensen held court there, in a friendly way, most nights.

Alison Knowles

George Maciunas was an activist. He wanted street art, and put us up to that early on, in the 60's. I am a silkscreen printer by trade, so I made a small screen with a Fluxus sign. I would walk down the street carrying it in the hook of my arm, loaded with ink and squeegee. Every so often I'd kneel and make a print of it right on the sidewalk. The police caught me and asked me what I was doing. I convinced them the print would wash off in the next rain. It was actually oil based ink and could only gradually degrade by being walked over.

In 1960 we had loft studios on Canal Street. A lot of those spaces were empty. Joe Jones had a music store on the street level and he used to electrify musical instruments with little motors and a leather strand attached that played when they were plugged in. Magical toys! We did a lot of things there on the sidewalk and on the fire escapes.

I was a student at Pratt and we knew all about the abstract expressionist painters at the Cedars Tavern. We'd go there sometimes but we didn't dare go in. We'd just watch through the window - it was like watching a movie. We could see Pollock, Kline and De Kooning drinking together imagining we could hear their conversations. Once I saw Jackson Pollock throw a glass of whiskey across the room.

The students from Cage's composition class all went in different directions. But it was George Brecht's idea that stayed with me. He thought of actions as events. It could be the simplest mundane thing, or something unusual and absurd. George would transcribe the event into a score - usually just a description - and it would catch the moment and something special about it. The score was saved and could be re-played, and as such, it brought back that special awareness of things. It's hard to over emphasize how influential this was. I'm still performing scores from 40 years ago.

James Tenney told us that we needed to learn about computers - now, this is still the 60's so he was talking about Fortran. Anyway, he held a class on Thursday nights and I remember at least four of us: Dick Higgins, Philip Corner, Paik, and myself. We didn't learn programing but we gave him our ideas and he would run them off and bring us the results. One of mine became the House of Dust and it won me a Guggenheim.

Richard Kostelanetz

From 1968 or so I thought about moving to SoHo but didn't like the buildings. With old wooden floors you could hear the people above you, and you worried about fire. Then in 1974 Amy Taubin, whom I'd known since high school, invited me to join the solidly concrete coop where she had already settled. I'm still here. So is she. A floor below me was the Heiner Friedrick Gallery that later became Dia's New York Earth Room.

Yiddish theater survived on Second Avenue into the1970s. In 1974 I took a girl friend who had lived in Germany and spoke German very well.  She said she could understand 5 lines. Then there would be a 6th line that she didn't get and everybody laughed.

When I went to elementary school on 11th Street I used to go to the Loew's Commodore movie theater down 2nd Avenue and 6th. In '66 this palace with over 2500 seats became the Village Theater where I heard John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Albert Ayler. A couple of years later the venue became the Fillmore East, where I saw most of the great rock performers, about which I later did a book. While the theater itself was torn down, now only the front lobby survives as a branch office of a New York savings bank.

Alana Heiss knew where all the vacant spaces were and found ways to pursuade the landlord city to make them available for arts use, sometimes for exhibitions, other times for concerts. The Philip Glass Ensemble played in 10 Bleecker and someplace on Reade Street.

The most important move I ever made in my cultural life was back to downtown Manhattan in 1966.  I went to live in the East Village, in an apartment on Fifth Street, both geographically and symbolically very much between avant-garde poetry a few blocks to the northeast and avant-garde visual art a few blocks to the southwest.  This was a different land, with a culture scarcely understood by the people who lived uptown. 

Arto Lindsay

I used to go out almost every night. At the Purple Grape I watched hoodlum looking guys dance with transvestites and missed Brazil; at the Continental I danced with Grace Jones for an hour but she didn't take me home; at Jackie 60's I danced with Alba Clemente.

The kindest thing I ever saw on stage was the entire Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, with a big horn section, switch keys frantically trying to help singer Cory Daye who couldn't find hers. They managed.

Audiences used to talk back. At cbgbs during a DNA set, a tripping light man took to inserting blackouts between songs. Someone threw a chair on stage during one of the blackouts.

As I entered a João Gilberto show at the Bottom Line I saw Jackie Onassis coming out. I remembered that when she was Jackie Kennedy she had said her favorite song was "Maria Ninguem".

One august I saw Jack Smith carrying a heavy ladder down 1st street. I offered to help and got to see his fantastic apartment. He had punched a hole in the ceiling and decorated it like an oasis.


Alfred Leslie

I had read all of Kerouac's writings but I could never find the concept that would work to make one into a film. The problem with making a movie with Jack's books is that all the characters have one voice, they are Jack Kerouac with a different name.
Well, Jack made a tape of of himself reading his play. Hearing him read all of these parts, I realized, okay, that's my concept. Make the film silent and have Jack read the play.

When those of us who were in the service came out of it, we were greeted by a world that looked to us like the epitome of moral squalor. Everyone felt betrayed, everyone felt the essential corruption of the politicians. As the rest of the world was picking up stones and sweeping out their cities, we had to, in a sense, sweep out our souls. --We had to make a new art that was consequential. We had to be outsiders, and risk failure and believe that doubt was a positive thing - not make an art that would service the middle class.

My first studio was around the corner from a cafeteria, the Sagamore. I would go there to use the bathroom because my studio had no toilet. I'd go around there and there were all these guys sitting around with coffee. I then met some of them posing as models at the Hoffman school around the corner. From there on it was just a matter of casual association; people recognizing each other. Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Clifford Still, they were all on hand. I happened to be there also.

Pat Oleszko

Before Tribeca was a brand name, it was the dairy and eggs district. 36 years ago I moved into a place above a garage for street corner hot dog guys. My 'penthouse' was eco long beore its time. When it was cold out, it was cold in, when wet outside, wet inside. I had a doorman to boot, a bum who slept on my steps with such a sense of ownership that the UPS man would give him my packages. The bums from the neighborhood had created lean-to's and shacks in an arc around a shoping cart where they built fires for their removable feats (sp).

Marty the Seltzerman delivered ten classic bottles of bubbly up four flights of stairs and brought gossip about the other artists on the route, another way the community stayed in touch. If you saw two people conversing on the street who weren't delivery men or artists, it was an occurence worth noting. Now of course, of curse, when I see two artists in my neighborhood chatting, I bet they're talking about eviciton issues.

The Pryramid Club and King Tut's Wah Wah Hut were bars that embraced the eclectic. Huge shows were presented on a stage no larger than a grand piano. No prop was too large, no story line too complicated; the audience was raucus, appreciative and money was literally no object. Culture also played out on the street. You could plaster the walls of Soho and the Village with posters for your show with impunity.

The art community was really pretty small. Everyone sort of knew everyone else, in both the gallery world and the performance scene, and the audience was almost as familiar as the performers.

Mark Russell

Joe Papp started his Shakespeare company out of his own pocket in 1954, plus what he could raise - he was pretty charismatic. The Shakespeare Workshop, as it was originally named, held performances in the basement of the Emmanuel Church on the Lower East Side, and then they started performing at the East River Ampitheatre. And they drove the plays all over the boroughs in this old truck. The Mobile Shakespeare truck finally broke down in Central Park near Turtle Pond, where the Delacorte is located now, and they just unloaded everything there and sort of squatted. That's how Shakespeare in the Park got its permanent home.

The city more or less abandoned PUBLIC SCHOOL 122 in 1976. For a short time there was an "informal arrangement" and it was occupied by miscellaneous culture groups and a day care operation.  - Then in 1979,  Alan Parker decided to film "Fame" there and they moved everybody out, into loft spaces.
Some of the displaced persons and their friends, people like Eric Bogosian, Karole Armitage, and Charles Dennis, did some performance parties in Charlie Moulton’s space. When they were able to move back into PS, they just sort of kept the party going and the scene moved with them.

I think that sometimes, as a scene runs its course, a piece comes along near the end that is sort of a summation - a little sanitized, perhaps- of the scene it's coming out of.  Like the show "Hair" was to all the cathartic theater work of the 60's. And Blue Man Group was to the 80's performance art scene. And for the downtown boho lifestyle we get what- "Rent" on Broadway?

New York may be on its way to becoming like Paris. No thriving indigenous art scene, but plenty of museums to see the stuff that they used do.

Magdalena Sawon  

I always wanted to open a gallery but with poor English and not knowing anybody I had to break in somehow. I took a course given by Estelle Schwartz through the New School.  It was nominally about getting a behind-the-scenes look at the gallery world, but it was really taking Scarsdale women to Look-and-Buy. It was an incredible experience. We went to Patty Astor's and saw the first batch of Basquiats, the mis-stretched canvases, and they were being snapped up at $2000. We went to Mary Boone and saw the new Immendorffs, and very early Terry Winters at Sonnabend. I was the fly on the wall watching all this business go down. And that was quite an education.

It was  possible to open up a gallery  in the East Village for very  little money. We were in a real neighborhood and it all felt big and friendly and fun. The relationships between galleries were like that too. No one had yet learned about the cutthroat way of doing things. The first time I was selling something I called Meyer Vaisman from International with Monument, because his parents were merchants and knew how to do the sales tax and invoicing.

The East Village began to form itself into conduits for different kinds of art, including art that one doesn't easily identify with the East Village look. This had a lot to do with an active pair of curators, Collins and Milazzo. For a time they were very central to the scene, putting together group shows, writing impenetrable texts, and having a salon style open house where I met a lot of fantastic people. I first met Peter Fend at one of these marathon night sessions of drinking and discussing global conspiracies.

I do assign a lot of value to that East Village experience - not out of sentiment or nostalgia. There was a real communal spirit there, the bohemian lifestyle was a possibility and our aspirations were high. What came next was something else.  Some  realized that it was time to get out of the kiddie pool and join the grown-up scene in SoHo.  We missed the early signs  and stayed a year  longer amidst the ruins of the art scene. It worked out in the end because we found that wonderful loft above Blum Hellman and had 10 great years there. And - lesson learned -  we were not late for the move to Chelsea when Soho became the "food, fashion ,furniture" tourist emporium.

Carolee Schneemann

I was sitting at the bar at Max's Kansas City having a drink with Janis Joplin and Rauschenberg came over to me and whispered: "I love her music, invite her back to my table for a drink." Bob bought us her favorite whiskey shots, telling Janis, “I am a great admirer of your music and you know, we are both from Port Arthur, Texas!” Janis looking skeptical asked me, "Who's this dude and what's his deal?"

Jim (James Tenney) was unexpectedly hired as experimental computer music programmer in residence at Bell Telephone Labs.  We were thrilled to leave the University of Illinois and move to New York.  Jim immediately met Billy Kluver (who later founded Experiments in Art & Technology).  Billy suggested to me, "Why don’t you go see my friend Claes Oldenburg?  He's doing events in a storefront."  Suddenly I was performing in the hallucinatory Store Days, wearing a sparkly purple dress while stabbing a wall over a mantle with a knife.  Lucas Samaras crawled around on the floor below me for hours.

My darling Charlotte Moorman created the Avant-Garde Festivals and sometimes invited artists to participate in unusual locations. On one such occasion I was offered one of many filthy freight cars stationed in Grand Central where I performed an 8-hour version of Up To And Including Her Limits. That was in 1973.

As a composer/conductor, Jim joined with musicians Philip Corner and Malcolm Goldstein to organize the amazing Tone Roads concerts of contemporary music.  Through them I met the dancers experimenting with new movement forms.  They were rehearsing at James Waring’s studio on St. Marks Place until Yvonne (Rainer) proposed that we work in the downstairs gym at the Judson Church and this became the Judson Dance Theater!  I was their first visual artist-choreographer. My idea was to create movement that evolved from action painting. 

By the late seventies, the Women's Movement was really dynamic.  In NYC, we held endless meetings and conferences.  The best art of that period remains hugely influential.  Heresies Magazine was a central publication whose contributors became a who's who of women artists.

Lynne Tillman

Even flawed accounts of the past say something about it. People have wildly different interpretations of the same events. “Downtown” was not a coherent movement with a single aesthetic, but it was resolutely urban. That’s significant, I think. It was an aggregation of people at a certain time in their lives, starting out, exercising their freedom to do what they wanted – rents were cheap, you didn’t have to take full-time jobs. We were primarily American; mostly middle class; Protestant, Catholic, Jewish; female, male, gay, bi- and straight; and almost everyone was white. We weren’t ahead of our time, we were right in the middle of it.

My first reading was at the Ear Inn in the summer of 1978. I’d sent “Weird Fucks” to the poet Ted Greenwald, who curated its reading series, and one day he phoned and asked if I wanted to read at the Ear. It was my “Mr Goldwyn is calling” moment. I was terrified for months and took Valium every day. At the Ear, you read under a huge mounted swordfish, which could sever your skull if it fell. I remember feeling ridiculous sitting under it. Lots of friends were there. Terrifying.

Downtown was a geographical space, as well as a metaphorical one, and relatively small in area, so you could walk from one place to another. The boroughs didn’t have any play then, so you didn’t have to cross bridges and take subways. I liked being able to know I could always get home.

Alan Vega

In 1971 we got some money from the New York State Council on the Arts to do this thing, the Project for the Living Artist which was just a big space and an office at Broadway and Waverly. We were open 24 hours a day and I was like the glorified janitor on the night shift. A lot of things happened there; great Jazz guys came in, like McCoy Tyner, and an early version of the Woman's Artist coalition met there. We were even raided by the FBI.

I had some sculpture in a group show at the Project for the Living Artist. Ivan Karp came to see it and said, can you have a show ready in 3 weeks? I said yeah! And I did. That was my gallery for 6 or 7 years.

You could get murdered on Broadway at night, even around NYU. But it was cool, you know? You could walk around outside with a joint. The cops weren't bothering you. There was crime - and we were piss-poor - but it was still good. That was the city I loved.

I don't know how many places I've fixed up to live in only to loose it in a couple of years to higher paying tenants. I kept getting pushed south. Now I'm down in the financial district and that is as far south as I am going.

To get Suicide a gig at the Mercer Arts Center we had to get our foot in the door. Literally. The guy tried to close the door on me and I had to push my way in. When he finally gave us a contract, Martin started to read it. I said, come on, just sign the damn thing. It was good for us. We eventually got a record deal too, when they ran out of other bands to sign. They didn't really love the name Suicide.

I remember when the Mercer Arts Center collapsed. You could see from Mercer Street right across to the other side of Broadway. All the people standing over there looking and the building was just gone, flat. And it was a really big building, with a hotel in it - well, that's all folks.