Archive for August, 2011

The Flower District

"Rhythm of a Corner" by W. Eugene Smith

"Rhythm of a Corner" by W. Eugene Smith

This week, Nick Carr‘s great film location scout oriented blog Scouting New York features the flower district on 28th Street, right around the corner from 821 Sixth Avenue.   It’s titled: The Jungles of West 28th Street – Exploring New York’s Flower District. Today, I heard Smith reference his loft space as a kind of jungle while I was cataloging a tape made from his first  guest appearance on the Long John Nebel late night radio talk show.

Here are some excerpts from Jazz Loft Project oral history work from retail and wholesale florists on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street. I’ve selected paragraphs where Sam Rosenberg and Mitchaell Vlachos talk about flower district history.  All interviews conducted by Sam Stephenson in 2006.  And visit their stores and check out their websites in the links below.

Sam Rosenberg of Superior Florist Ltd on 828 Sixth Avenue:

“And it was exciting.  The neighborhood was much more interesting than it is now.  It changed, and as far as I feel, it didn’t change for the best.  The neighborhood was full of furriers.  And furriers were predominantly Jewish and Greek, as were the florists in the neighborhood were mostly Greek.  And we happened to be one of the few Jewish florists around.”

They were wholesale, now.  They weren’t retail.  They weren’t artsy-type guys.  They were a bunch of tough guys that were here at three o’clock in the morning, and they went until about twelve or one o’clock in the afternoon.  And they were a tough bunch, really tough bunch.  And it was all Greek, Italian, a couple of Jews.

And at night, you’d come by and hear all the music coming out of these buildings.  They would practice at night.  There were a lot of hangouts here.  There was a luncheonette that was the busiest place around was called Sloppy Joe’s.  It was a filthy place, but the food was decent.  Then they had the Rainbow that you mentioned.  Sloppy Joe was owned by a Jewish fellow.  The Rainbow was Greek.  And they had Nedick’s.  Nedick’s was where you were able to get your doughnuts and coffee.”

“Yeah, there was a place on 27th Street.  What happened was a lot of farmers or farm-type people had tables in these big places.  The big place was on 27th Street and Sixth Avenue.  It was called – I forget the name of the building.  The building is gone.  But they used to ring – it was a few floors – and they would ring a bell to start selling the flowers.  The farmers would come in with their trucks and set up their tables and sell them.  But I don’t even remember that.  That was in the ’30s.

So, the flower market started on 26th Street, from 26th Street to 29th Street.  Now, it’s just a couple on 28th Street and a few on Sixth Avenue.  You couldn’t get through the street.  This was a two-way street; it’s now a one-way street.  And there was an elevated line running on this street.  It was a subway run.  And that came down in the ’30s, but I remember when a piece of it was up on 34th Street.  It turned in on 34th Street, and a piece was left up.  The elevated line – the steel was sold to Japan before the war.”

From Mitchell Vlachos, owner of wholesale florists Harry Vlachos, Inc:

“Well, you’d see in the photograph, you’d see Railway Express trucks, which we don’t see anymore.  There used to be a lot of Railway Express trucks that would come into the area.  A lot of flowers would come in from the West Coast and California on rail and Upstate on rail.  So, there were a lot of Railway Express trucks, which we don’t see now.”

“Well, many of the wholesale florists represented or were established by greenhouse growers in the area, in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York State, or Long Island.  And they needed a place for their product, so they opened up a wholesale house under their name normally.  And I guess that was where many of them came from.  And then lots of people just started.”

“My father first was a retail florist up on 207th Street and Broadway.  And then he decided, I think, at some point – I never really discussed it with him – that he would prefer to be a wholesale florist.  I think he thought that activity was more promising than being a retail florist.  So, he opened up on 28th Street; he opened up in the Market.  No, he worked with someone he knew in the Market for perhaps two or three years and then decided to go on his own.”

“Between – in one of those big – I guess it was in one of those – there are a few big buildings down in that area.  I’ve never gone and seen the particular building that they went, but the Market was on 16th Street for a few years.  It left 28th Street and went to 16th.  Then it came back to 28th.  I don’t know all the particulars.  I wasn’t involved in that one.  I don’t know whether my father – I don’t think my father ever left this area.  But they tried to establish – I guess rents were a significant factor.  It’s only in recent years that – the space between 30th Street down to 14th Street on Sixth Avenue was a kind of no-man’s-land.  There were lots of blank old buildings and small buildings and things.  This area wasn’t utilized at all.  It just seemed to be one of those dead spots, you know, that area from 30th Street down to 16th Street.  And I think that’s one of the reasons the Flower Market survived here as long as it did, because there was just no push in the area.  You know?

(Sam Stephenson):  Why was it a dead spot?

“I don’t know.  Just because it was too far from 34th Street where the action was, and it was – you know, there was some action on 23rd Street.  Then there was again, I think, more action on 14th Street.  But that spot in between just happened to be a low-demand section.  Is that the way to put it?

(Sam Stephenson):  Low demand?

Yeah, low demand.  No one wanted to rent there.  So, wholesale florists wanted space, and they probably found it.  There were wholesale florists in all of these buildings along that side of 28th.  Even in that big building, they occupied the downstairs floor, a wholesale operator.  And then they were in the big building over here.  There were wholesalers in this one, going down a little bit, you know.”

“I remember there were a lot of wholesalers.  They were interesting people in the flower business at that time.  I think back, and lots of them were pretty capable individuals, the employees, the people that were employees in houses and things.  They probably worked because it was – you know that was during the Depression times and everything else, and work was hard to find.  But there were some very bright capable people in this business.”

Some interesting items from Bill's Flower Market. Photo by Dan Partridge

Some interesting items from Bill's Flower Market. Photo by Dan Partridge

We don’t have a transcribed interview from the folks at Bill’s Flower Market (pictured above) but they’ve been very helpful to the Jazz Loft Project and they run a wonderful business. Also, check out a brief history of their store and a cool photograph from 1946, also on their website.

It was a pleasure to meet each of these people who work in New York’s flower district. And profound to hear some of their history and stories. Do check out the Scouting New York blog and pay a visit to these flower sellers’ websites, and especially to their stores if you’re in the market.

-Dan Partridge

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Chaos Manor Press Release


August 24, 2011

ANNOUNCING:  CHAOS MANOR, a theater installation at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, September 16-17, 2011, and an official Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend event.  Shows at 8:30pm each night.  Duration: 35 minutes.  Free Admission.

Co-Conceived by Christopher McElroen and Sam Stephenson, based on Stephenson’s 2009 book, The Jazz Loft Project, CHAOS MANOR is a live multi-disciplinary performance installation that seeks to capture the visual and sonic event of W. Eugene Smith’s 821 Sixth Avenue “jazz loft” endeavor 1957-1965.  In keeping with the raw creative spirit of Smith and the loft scene, CHAOS MANOR will be performed at The Invisible Dog, a raw space in a vast three story converted Brooklyn factory building with an open-ended mission to create, from the ground up, a new kind of interdisciplinary arts center. CHAOS MANOR is produced by the american vicarious, in association with the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, The Invisible Dog Art Center, A Public Space magazine, the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Boerum Hill Association, and the Reva and David Logan Foundation.

Using the building itself as an instrument, CHAOS MANOR will render the story of W. Eugene Smith, and his particular American moment, by sampling from his 40,000 photographs and 4,500 hours of audio recordings from 821 Sixth Avenue.  The workshop presentation of CHAOS MANOR will be staged within the twenty-two exterior windows of The Invisible Dog and digitally mapped and projected onto the building’s façade with the audience on the blocked-off street below. Layers of recorded sound and live music will be woven through the windows, and the expanse of brick façade will be a canvas to video map both live and archival imagery.

The story will begin with the slow hoisting of a piano from the sidewalk up through an open window where a pianist will be waiting to play it.  From there CHAOS MANOR will evoke a space that is both an inspiring creative refuge from the outside world, and a locus of obsession, alienation, and isolation. As the event continues, CHAOS MANOR will chase the arc of Smith’s own internal chaos of isolation and identity, while simultaneously tracing the chaotic American moment that was 1957 – 1965 and the revolutions that were taking place in the music as well. By experiencing the past life that teemed within 821 Sixth Avenue, it is our hope that CHAOS MANOR will, among other things, reveal the creative life that newly invigorates community spaces such as The Invisible Dog.


Co-Conceived by Christopher McElroen & Sam Stephenson. Created with:  Dan Baker from Arch Production and Design; actor Brian D. Coats; photographer Jason Goodman; musician Levon Henry; publisher and editor Brigid Hughes and A Public Space magazine; actor, writer, and painter Jaymes Jorsling; photographer Kate Joyce; producer Conrad Kluck; video production designers Alex Koch and David Tennent from Central Service; actor Lucy Owen; Jazz Loft Project archivist Dan Partridge; and actor and producer Julia Watt. Directed by Christopher McElroen.
Based on the book The Jazz Loft Project by Sam Stephenson.  Archival materials are courtesy of the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

September 16 & 17, 2001.  The Invisible Dog Art Center.  51 Bergen St.  (b/w Smith and Court).  Brooklyn, NY. 11201.  (347) 560-3641.


The Invisible Dog Art Center opened on Bergen Street in Brooklyn in October, 2009. The Invisible Dog is a raw space in a vast converted factory building with a charmed history and an open-ended mission: to create, from the ground up, a new kind of interdisciplinary arts center. Over the last year, over 32, 000 people have attended our events: visual art exhibits; dance, theater, and music performance; film screenings; literary; arts and poetry; and more.

W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) quit his celebrated well-paying job at Life magazine in 1955 at age thirty-six. A freelance assignment in Pittsburgh – a job expected to last three weeks – turned into a four-year obsession that he ultimately described to Ansel Adams as a “debacle” and a “failure.” In 1957, Smith moved out of the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, New York and into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City’s wholesale flower district. It was a late-night haunt of musicians. As his ambitions broke down for the epic Pittsburgh project, Smith found solace in the chaotic, somnambulistic world of the loft. He turned his documentary impulses toward his offbeat new surroundings. From 1957 to 1965, Smith exposed 1,447 rolls of film at the loft, the largest body of work in his career.  He photographed the nocturnal jazz scene as well as life on the streets of the flower district, as seen from his fourth-floor window. He also wired the building like a surreptitious recording studio and made 1,740 reels (4,500 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes, capturing several hundred musicians, among them Thelonious Monk, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Paul Bley, along with underground figures such as pianists Eddie Costa and Sonny Clark, drummers Ronnie Free and Edgar Bateman, saxophonist Lin Halliday, bassist Henry Grimes, and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart. Also dropping by were the likes of Doris Duke, Norman Mailer, Diane Arbus, Anais Nin, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Salvador Dalí, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, drug dealers, thieves, cops, photography students, building inspectors, and others.  Smith also recorded an array of programs from radio and TV, including figures like JFK, MLK, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Long John Nebel, James Baldwin, Yukio Mishima, Katherine Anne Porter, Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Mr. Magoo.

Sam Stephenson is a writer, instructor, and consultant at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.  He has researched the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith since before he can remember, authoring three books: Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project (W. W. Norton, 2001), W. Eugene Smith 55 (Phaidon Press, 2001), and The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue (Knopf, November 2009). He curated a 400-piece exhibition of Dream Street for the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the International Center of Photography in New York City in 2001-02, and a 300-piece exhibition of The Jazz Loft Project at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2010.  He co-produced the The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series with Sara Fishko at WNYC: New York Public Radio.  His writing has appeared in the New York Times, A Public Space, Paris Review, Tin House, Oxford American, and DoubleTake, among other publications. He has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition, as well as NBC’s Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN, and the BBC-TV’s 2007 series The Genius of Photography.  He won a 2010 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for the Jazz Loft Project.  His biography of Smith, Gene Smith’s Sink, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and he is publishing pieces from the book regularly on Paris Review Daily. He is directing a new project, Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark, about the AAA baseball team, Durham Bulls, in 2012.  He lives in Chatham County, N.C.

Christopher McElroen is a New York based theatre producer/director. Selected directing credits include Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show, which received four 2003 OBIE Awards and was named one of the ten best Off-Broadway productions of 2003 by The New York Times, Sekou Sundiata’s 51st (dream) State, a multimedia exploration of American identity and citizenship that premiered at the BAM/Next Wave Festival, and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot staged outdoors in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly communities of post-Katrina New Orleans.  The New York Times listed the project as one of the top ten national art events of 2007.  The archives from the production have been acquired into the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art and will be on exhibit through September 2011. In addition, Christopher has directed or guest lectured at Stanford University, Duke University, Purdue University, New York University, Dartmouth College, The Contemporary Arts Center Boston, The Walker Arts Center and The Museum of Modern Art, among others. His work has been recognized with the American Theatre Wing Award (Outstanding Artistic Achievement), Drama Desk Award (Artistic Achievement), Edwin Booth Award (Outstanding Contribution to NYC Theater), Lucille Lortel Award (Outstanding Body of Work), and two Obie Awards (Sustained Achievement and Excellence in Theatre). Christopher recently founded the american vicarious whose inaugural projects include Living in Exile, presented at the 2011 Under the Radar Festival, and the world premiere stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, opening Chicago January 2012.

A Public Space is an independent magazine that was founded in 2006 to support a new generation of writers. Why write fiction? Marilynne Robinson asked in “You Need Not Doubt What I Say Because It Is Not True,” an essay in the debut issue. And why read it? What does it mean? Why does it matter? These questions have continued to invigorate the magazine. Work from A Public Space has been selected for Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and Pushcart Prize anthologies; and A Public Space contributors have been honored with Whiting Writers’, Rona Jaffe, and Lannan Awards, as well as MacArthur Fellowships.

Brigid Hughes is the founding editor of A Public Space. She received the 2011 PEN/Nora Magid Award for Editing. Previously, she was executive editor of The Paris Review.

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JLP into Baseball: A New Pilot Project


Announcing Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark and Beyond.  The pilot project is hosted by The Independent Weekly.  Kinks are still being worked out on the page.  But here’s a link to my introductory post.

-Sam Stephenson

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Report from Elliott Bay

elliot bay

Elliott Bay Book Shop. August 22, 2011.

Today on my iPhone, up popped a text message from friend Jocelyn Arem who is on vacation with her partner Kate Kyle in Seattle.  They were visiting the great Elliott Bay Book Shop and found the JLP book displayed like the picture above.  Jocelyn and Kate are so kind I wouldn’t be surprised if the Elliott Bay security cameras caught them rearranging the shelves to make the JLP book face out.

But the story gets better.  Recently I’ve been in search of Junichiro Tanizaki’s book, “In Praise of Shadows,” which Roland Kelts suggested to help me understand Gene Smith’s identification with Japan.  (“In Praise of Shadows” wouldn’t be a bad title for my next book on Smith).  It’s an obscure book, out of print, and I’ve struggled to find it locally. But Elliott Bay had it for $9.95 and Jocelyn and Kate picked it up for me.

Fifteen years ago, there’s no way that friends would pick up a book for me (or anybody) on the spur of the moment 3000 miles away.  The digital world is awesome sometimes.

(By the way, Jocelyn is directing a major documentary project of her own).


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Zoot Fest, November 13

For more Information, click HERE.

Zoot Fest_Final Poster jpg

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The 1962 Ford is Still There

A Public Space offices, Dean St., Brooklyn. Chris McElroen at the table. August 17, 2011

A Public Space offices, Dean St., Brooklyn. Chris McElroen at the table. August 17, 2011. Photo by Sam

There’s talk of having the owner of the green truck drive it over to the Invisible Dog for the Chaos Manor performances on September 16-17.

The workshops this week have been different from the roundtable discussions of before.  This time, detailed decisions are being made on particulars:  AV needs (enormous), live music (from in to out), script (22 windows and three stories to map digitally, inside and out, plus characters), logistics (too many to name), etc.  All for a 35 minute experiment that may or may not ever happen a third time.  The big team will convene again September 6.

We got word today that pianist and loft alum Dorrie Woodson will be attending those performances with her son.  We like that.


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Late Night Sports Radio: Homage to Terrence Malick

My latest piece for The Morning News on late night sports talk radio.

Homage to Terrence Malick. Pamlico River near Bath, NC. August 2011.

Homage to Terrence Malick. Pamlico River near Bath, NC. August 2011.

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Chaos Manor, Time Lapse Photography by Jason Goodman

This time lapse movie was shot by Jason Goodman at the workshop at A Public Space in Brooklyn in July.  HERE and HERE and HERE are previous blog posts about those sessions with photos by Jason and Kate Joyce.

Chaos Manor / week 2 @ a public space / from Jason Goodman on Vimeo.

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Concert and Gig Attire

There’s a minor furor in the blogosphere about the dress that classical pianist Yuja Wang wore at a recent concert at the Hollywood Bowl.  You can link to the pertinent posts from Alex Ross’s blog, The Rest is Noise.  I’m with Alex and Anne on this:  Who cares?  Maybe Yuja can help draw more people under age 60 to classical shows.

The debate made me think of fashions in jazz over the years.  At mid-century a dark suit was the hippest thing you could wear.  Roll out of bed, put on a suit, and go to work.  Dave Frishberg sings about it in his classic homage to the old days “I Want to be a Sideman.”  (I tried to find a link to that tune on youtube but surprisingly couldn’t).  Monk and Overton always wore dark suits at 821 Sixth Avenue, in the wee hours, with nobody around but them, walking around on wood planks dating to 1853.


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Chaos Manor Update

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