Meet Yukie Ohta, Founder of the SoHo Memory Project.
Yukie is an archivist, collage artist, and SoHo native who was born and raised in SoHo, and she still lives here with her family! She’s known as “SoHo’s memory keeper” and has spent over ten years documenting SoHo’s past. “As SoHo’s memory keeper, I look after traces of our neighborhood’s past, to keep them from disappearing forever. By remembering, by repopulating the past, we become closer to our cities. By preserving artists’ SoHo, by understanding how artists created a community within these 26 blocks, the neighborhood becomes a character in its own story,” she says.
You can walk around SoHo listening to Yukie’s free audio tour anytime via the Gesso app. Here’s a peek at just a few of many neighborhood secrets she’ll share…
Forrest Myers created The Wall in 1973 through City Walls, a not-for-profit organization that worked with artists and communities to revitalize New York City through public art. In 1997, the building’s owner wanted to take The Wall down, and replace it with an advertising billboard. Lawsuits ensued over the next decade over who had the right to decide what the wall could be used for. It resulted in a compromise in 2007, where the piece was reinstalled using new components and raised 18 feet higher on the building’s façade, thus making room for advertising billboards underneath.
Housing Works Bookstore
Located at 126 Crosby, Housing Works is a volunteer-staffed, non-profit thrift store, bookstore, and cafe. All proceeds go to help unhoused people living with HIV and AIDS. Yukie used to volunteer here, repairing rare books in the basement. That job inspired her to become an archivist, to preserve things from the past so that they last into the future. Step inside and look in the glass encased cabinets up front. These are the kinds of rare books Yukie used to repair when she worked here.
Ken’s Sidewalk Carving
Walking near the NW corner of Prince and Broadway, see if you notice any patterns etched into the sidewalk. You should see a pattern formed by one continuous line - this is the work of Ken Hiratsuka.
Back in 1984, when SoHo was still a gritty and desolate area, Ken thought this lonely corner needed some life. Inspired by the graffiti he saw around the city, he decided to chisel a design into the granite, creating the first work, in a series of what would become his signature style of stonework. Afraid to be caught by the police and deported back to Japan, Hiratsuka made the piece bit by bit under the cover of night, always bringing a lookout. You can hear directly from Ken in the free audio walking tour.
After loft living became legal for artists, many creatives such as painters, dancers, and musicians began moving here in greater numbers to create a tight-knit community. Many of them hung out at Fanelli’s (94 Prince), one of the few places open at night in SoHo.
Known by a variety of other names before 1922 when one-time boxer Mike Fanelli bought it and ran it for the next 60 years, Fanelli’s has been serving food and drink to the public since 1847, making it one of the oldest restaurants in the city.
160 Prince is one of the most photographed storefronts in all of New York City. “From the outside, Vesuvio Bakery looks exactly like it did when I was growing up. It was an old-fashioned bread-only bakery. The bread was baked fresh each day and on sale until they ran out,” says Yukie. Tony Dapolito, the original owner, was the unofficial “mayor of Greenwich Village,” serving on the community board for over 50 years, working tirelessly to improve the lives of the Italian- and Portuguese-American families to the west of his bakery, as well as the artists to the east.
Donald Judd’s Studio
101 Spring is the only single-use cast iron building left in SoHo. It’s the former home and studio of artist Donald Judd, and now home to Judd Foundation, who has meticulously restored the building’s exterior back to its 1870 origins. The Judd Foundation has also preserved the interior, including the furnishings and works of art, to reflect how Judd lived and worked in the late 1960s and early 70s. Entry is by appointment only, check their website if you're interested in visiting.
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