Funkytown- Artist Bonnie Lucas Reflects on Life in 1980’s New York City

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Bonnie Lucas is a 66-year old artist who has lived and worked in Manhattan’s Little Italy since 1979. Within the walls of her rent-stabilized apartment on Spring Street, for nearly 40 years, she has been creating intricately crafted art —primarily paintings, collâges, and assemblages. Today, she shares her 400-square foot live/work space with over 600 (carefully stored) works of art that she has made over the decades.

Bonnie talked to the Urban Memory Project about the changes she has witnessed in her neighborhood (renamed NoLita by real estate developers in the 1990’s) and her joyful memories of living in “Funky Town” as a pioneer of the creative class in downtown Manhattan in the early 1980’s. She describes her artistic longevity as, in part, “buying time to dream” to make her art on a full-time basis, while teaching part-time to pay the bills. She reminisces about her first big break with a solo show at the Avenue B Gallery in the mid-80’s, and the full circle satisfaction of remaining geographically in the center of the art world once again with a solo show, Young Lady, at the JTT Gallery, 191 Chrystie Street, opening on Wednesday, January 25.

UMP: I’m curious what your impressions were of New York City, moving here as a young artist in 1979?

BL: I moved into New York City when I was 29 in 1979. I had been living in New Brunswick New Jersey getting my Masters in Fine Arts at Rutgers University. Starting in 1977, I would take the bus from New Brunswick into New York City at least once a month to explore the art galleries. At that time, SOHO was ascendant, SOHO was king– there must have been about 100 or more galleries, so I would take the bus to Port Authority and take the A or E train to SOHO and I would explore the galleries. I picked out a favorite place to have lunch called Food restaurant on Wooster Street.

I started dreaming about moving into New York City once I got my MFA. I started exploring Little Italy in the spring of 1979, and at that time, it was mostly tenement buildings, a working class neighborhood, and there were very few restaurants or shops. Most of the street level spaces actually people still lived in, as rental apartments, there were very few businesses. Someone had told me that the Mafia presence made the neighborhood very safe and this was the 1970’s, when New York was still considered a scary place.

I walked around and decided I wanted to live there. I wrote out on index cards “I need an apartment- call collect” with my name and number in New Jersey, and I figured out, kind of intuitively, that the best way to get an apartment was to just walk in the neighborhood and ask neighborhood people, store keepers, if they knew of any vacant apartments, and to make an end run around the New York Times listing. That was a big place to look for apartments.

So I set out one day. I was a little frightened, but I wore a dress and flats because I decided to tell people I was a school teacher- technically, I did have an MFA, so I had a teaching degree in Art—but I decided that the probably conservative people living in Little Italy would like a school teacher as their tenant, and not an artist. It only took me a week: I walked around and I finally asked the right person, who said there was an apartment for rent in her building for about $150 [a month]. I had to rent it sight unseen because the super didn’t have the key so they allowed me to go up to the top floor on Spring Street, and ask my neighbor what the place was like, and I knocked on the door and they told me, “Oh it’s fantastic. Rent it!”

So I signed the lease that day, within the week they gave me a key, and I opened the door and I felt I had just rented a little piece of heaven. It had four windows and the sun was streaming in. The man who had moved out was a neat person, it was spotless and I knew I had found a treasure. It was amazing. And I’m still there.

In my 400 square foot apartment for the last 37 years I’ve lived but also made hundreds of works of art, on a big dining room table I bought in Cambridge [MA] in the 1970’s for $4. We lugged it up the stairs five flights. I still have it and I still work on it.

UMP: What was the social make up of the neighborhood when you moved in? Was it predominantly Italian, were there older residents, families, young people moving in?

BL: Well, when I moved in the fall of ‘79, right away I was told, “The neighborhood is changing, it’s not as Italian as it once was.” Artists were moving in, young people. Actually, the big issue was that Chinatown was moving North and I remember I was told there was a group of Italian merchants who had decided to keep Mulberry Street totally Italian to preserve Little Italy.

Also the Bowery at that time still had a lot of challenged people who lived on the streets, a lot of alcoholism, and that spilled over to Spring and Mott streets, about two blocks away. I remember there was a group of disabled men that used to hang out, one was always in a wheelchair, he was missing a leg, and there were often people lying on the street.

There was a big population of working class and poor people that lived in very inexpensive apartments. There were types like me– artists, middle class people, single people, writers– who had started moving in. There was a pretty big Hispanic population that lived in Little Italy. There were virtually no businesses. There were a few tiny stores. There was actually a winemaking store on Spring Street, a huge space, for people who bought equipment to make their own wine.

There was practically no shopping in Little Italy. There was a very strange little market called the T-Bone on Mott Street. There was no great supermarket; I had to walk to the NYU area, to the Grand Union on LaGuardia Place. There weren’t even little businesses like rummage stores or second hand stores, it was really a working class [residential] neighborhood.

But one of the best parts of moving in then is you got some of the best incredibly great deals, the little luxuries. For example, there was a café on the corner of Spring and Mulberry that had been recently renovated in 1980 and was called the Primavera. It was a beautiful huge Italian café, it didn’t last long, but to entice people they had a breakfast special for $1.25 you got fresh brewed coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, and a croissant with butter and jam. I went there all the time, and that is where I met Jimmy Wright, still one of my best friends. He was a waiter there. He was an artist who had moved a few years before to the Bowery, to a loft, and he and his partner had bought a building on Rivington Street, an old shell of a building, it was an old tile factory, and he had many part time jobs. And we’re still friends 37 years later, and we still meet for coffee in the neighborhood.

The other interesting thing at that time, for my artwork, I bought inexpensive items I call treasures: little dolls, little odd things, everything new, in Chinatown, a few blocks away. But the corridor of Broadway from Canal to Astor Place was completely manufacturing, light manufacturing. There were very few stores, except for fabric shops, discount stores. That is where I bought thread and yarn and some of the places had discount dresses hanging on racks outside the stores. Actually, Broadway between Spring and Astor place was so dark at night, when I had something to do in the East Village, I was afraid to walk on Broadway. There was no street life at night after all the ground floor stores closed.

UMP: As an artist, do you still feel inspired by NYC?

BL: I love the city. When I moved here it was after exploring it for two years. But when I was little, I came here with my family. I grew up in Syracuse, and my parents took all the Lucas kids here was when I was 9, and I fell in love with it. Bright lights, big city, I guess you’d say, compared to Syracuse. My first year living here, this tune went through my head all the time: “Won’t you take me down to Funky Town. ” Because the Lower East Side where I lived in 1979 was so funky, it was so interesting, there were endless treasure troves of old buildings and old stores and in SOHO at night there was still light manufacturing and they would throw away bales of beautiful cloth all wrapped up. It was a treasure trove.

A great memory is of the summer right around when the World Trade Center was completed. The summer of ’80 or ‘81 they had a sculpture show called Art on the Beach before they broke ground on [Battery Park City] that I walked down to the sandy beach and there were these great sculptures, and I remember the great dress I wore. It was a little sheath of dark green cotton that tied around the neck, and it didn’t cling like the synthetic fabrics of today. It just fell!

UMP: Who were the people that would go to that event?

BL: At that time there was a true spirit of artists as pioneers. People could earn a living, part time, and pay their rent. We were a ragtag group of pioneers and some of the more ambitious ones bought and renovated whole buildings. We used to say, “What’s your space like?” “Your Space.” And at that time if you were smart and forward thinking you could get big spaces. Most artists thought: The bigger the better. I have friends of my generation with the most incredible buildings. My strategy was to keep my whole life small in terms of space and money. Which has worked for me!

UMP: In terms of your Space: how has it served you?

BL: It’s been the single luckiest event in my life. Because it’s big enough for me to live in and to make art. And I can afford to live in New York on virtually no money. It’s been my hobby or partially a game to see how I can live fairly well without working full time, because working full time would really not allow me to be an artist. I am not a juggler, I need lots of free time to think and to dream and to go forward without commitments and I made it work for me.

I probably can count on one hand the number of cabs I’ve taken in New York. I’ve travelled all around this city on public transportation for 37 years. At this point I do almost completely my own cooking. I used to get more ethnic take out food until the price started going up. But I shop on discounts and for sales, I lug it up my five flights. I love independence, I want to do it my way, I want to be able to be an artist. They call it “buying time.” I didn’t buy space, I didn’t buy things, I bought time. It’s what I did. I wanted time. I know my own brain and energy level, I wanted my brain to dream and flow, and it did, I created a life as an artist.

I love to outsmart the culture of money, of consumerism, also the culture that tells women the right and only way to live, I have rebelled against it. The line in the early 1970s [by Joseph Campbell] was “Follow your bliss” and the hippy generation kind of believed it. I followed my gut and my intuition and it wasn’t always easy.

I read in the early 70’s Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” and the key to my success has been to rent these two rooms of my own that I am completely in charge and in control of. I want to stick up for landlords, because I have been blessed with the kindest and most generous landlady. I have to put in a plug for landlords in NYC because there are some great people who own buildings. And I got lucky.

Her father bought the building for her in the 60’s or 70’s, her family had a big presence in Little Italy. She has only been nice to me. And also because of our fantastic New York City rent stabilization laws, I’m on my hands and knees, thank you. That’s great. That’s one reason we are such a great city. They’ve whittled [rental control] away, and it will eventually disappear, but it will take decades. And, boy, has it served me well.

I still feel happy because I have the same [building] super I’ve had for the last 30 years, and he’s wonderful, I depend on him. I’ve been really lucky with my building’s super and the owner.

I’ve had a wonderful young woman, Marie Catalano, a curator, who helped me discover that I have about 600 works of art living with me in 400 sq. feet. Many of them are very small, but they are very intricate. Marie agrees I have stored them incredibly well! I own most of my own work, which may turn out to be a blessing, because I have a big show coming up.

UMP: Talk about some of the specific changes you’ve witnessed in your neighborhood.

BL: I had a terrible problem with street noise in the 1980s and early 90’s. Kids would sit out in the park [across the street from me] with boom boxes and play music at night. There was a big drug trafficking site at the corner of Spring and Mott, it was bad. It was a drug emporium, lots of noise, music, people kicking garbage cans. In the 80’s there was a horrendous firecracker problem, until Giuliani came and made it illegal, for a week before and after July 4th there were endless firecrackers being set off so you could not walk in the streets, it was frightening. Some people would put hundreds of firecrackers in a garbage can, and then explode it. Most of my neighbors would leave town around July 4th, but I would stay. It was unbelievable.

Approximately 20 years ago, they renamed my neighborhood from Little Italy to NoLita, meaning North of Little Italy, and I heard it was real estate people who did it. And that’s when the neighborhood started changing. And in the last 20 years it has become one of the chicest and most expensive neighborhoods in New York. Every single space is either a restaurant or a boutique or an eye brow parlor and in the last five years the neighborhood’s even getting more expensive because of all the old giant brick garages that have been bought and turned into luxury apartments and lofts. And my neighborhood is now filled with tourists on the weekend because of its great restaurants and shopping. Pizza tours come in to tour the Italian remnants of Little Italy and there is a Pizza tour group that I see every day in the summer. They talk about the history of pizza in New York and they end up at Lombardi’s probably. Lots of shoppers, shopping bags, so many restaurants, a lot of young people eating out at expensive restaurants, I just can’t believe it. It’s hard to walk [on the sidewalks] sometimes on a beautiful day.

In the last few years, I’ve lost the businesses I depend on. My grocery store just closed a week ago, Met Foods. My hardware store closed last August and my favorite café, Celi Cela, closed, they actually moved, but too far away for a casual visit for me. My favorite restaurant Spring Street Natural that had been there for 30 years moved further away. And also there are many now vacant luxury rentals in these big new buildings, that can’t or don’t want to rent out their first floor spaces. The apartments in the neighborhood that are not stabilized are now renting for thousands of dollars a month. The old timers, my guess is they are fewer. The street life is very different. Fortunately the alcoholics are gone. The street life is shoppers and tourists and a lot of young people looking around.

There aren’t little family businesses anymore. There are chic restaurants and boutiques, and there is also a high turn over of these businesses, some of these just don’t make it.  But the neighborhood is a tourist neighborhood now: a chic, moneyed, beautiful fun neighborhood you need money to fund. The little funky restaurants are long gone. The Spring Street Natural at the corner of Spring and Lafayette: you could sit in the window and have a total view of street life, I used to take the window seats. Then in the early 80’s, there was a little sit-in Chinese restaurant on Lafayette where I would get my soup and my pork buns. There was a Korean deli on Spring Street, they would have those long food and salad bars, and you could get your dinner. And then when things started changing, in the mid-90’s, there was a restaurant called Rice on the corner of Mott Street. You could get little take out containers of rice with different toppings, like ratatouille, or chicken wings, they were $5 each. I loved it! The neighborhood was still funky. Around 1996 a fantastic real restaurant called the Kitchen Club opened at the corner of Prince and Mott, and they had interior filled with her little tchotchkes and dolls, and she had a great menu. I went there with my boyfriend so many times. It was a wonderful restaurant that opened right before the big changes, and she had to go out of business after 15 years.

There was a place on Elizabeth Street, called Parisi Bakery, I think it’s still there, but they did all the baking in a big brick building, now it’s a luxury loft building.

UMP: What’s your outlook on New York today?

BL: I still love New York, I love my neighborhood. I have a friend who lives a couple of blocks away, and there is still one old restaurant we go to once a week for coffee and eggs, and we joke: how long will it be open? We take little bets with each other. But not to worry, we’ll find another one when this one closes—there’s another place like it a few blocks away. Basically I still can shop a great old-fashioned supermarket- I have to walk about a mile to get there- but I am going to always make do. And the great news is that my show coming up is in a big beautiful gallery [JTT Gallery] four blocks from where I live.

UMP: The art world has come around to you, Bonnie! You have always been in the center of the world.

BL: Yes, my gallery came to me. It just moved a few months ago. And I’m thrilled!

 

 

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