Long ago in that great, wild and creative urban wasteland that encompassed the area above Canal Street and below Houston Street, in a land called New York, there lived a scraggly, bearded rough-hewn individual bedecked all in black, shod in combat boots, with no visible means of support. A young man with no discernable attachments, except maybe to his art, who had, himself, some years before, kissed his mother goodbye, left kith and kin, and migrated North, from a warmer clime, to a cold and hard land–a land filled completely with strangers, millions of strangers, all in pursuit of a dream.
But it was HIS dream.
In those bygone days, as is still the case today, that area of the city was bounded on the East by Broadway and on the West by Sixth Avenue. Its main artery ran from South to North, just as the dreamer had run. It was known as West Broadway and forty years before he first trod its deserted streets, it had been the route of the Sixth Avenue Elevated.
It was a place dark and dank, of dusty warehouses with cast iron facades, streets with broken bottles and wind-blown paper trash, a place whose most numerous occupants scurried about on four legs or crawled silently on eight. Beady eyes glanced through dirty windows paying scant attention as elevated trains clattered past in both directions at all hours of the day and night.
But that was then.
And now, it was an area that was slowly opening its eyes like an abusive alcoholic grandfather after a long and drunken sleep. The workers who had climbed stairs to manufacturing jobs in its buildings in its heyday and drawn their meagre paychecks and gone home to dirty-faced children at the end of a long day all lay dead in the graveyards of the outer boroughs.
And in time, the rats and the spiders, they too, were driven out by creatures that walked on two legs. For the most part, these were the outcasts, society’s rejects, those who didn’t fit in and marched to the sound of a different drummer, or a drummer that only they could hear, or, in some cases, to no drummer at all. And there were also those that did not march. Some people called them bums, others called them “hippies” or “odd” or “weirdoes“, or worse.
They called themselves artists.
They had made a pilgrimage to this cobblestoned corner of the city, just a stone’s throw from the Hudson River, in the shadow of the nineteen-sixties, from all across the world. Most were running away from something. Some were running toward something. They all had something in common. They sensed something inside themselves that told them they were different. They wanted to find out exactly how they were different, who they were, why they were here, what it all, in fact, meant, and to do that they knew they would first have to discover what kind of artist they were. They would have to make art. And they might have to suffer.
And they did.
Many would show their work in galleries. A few would go on to great success. Some would fall in love and have children. Some would get drunk or stoned. Some would get drunk AND stoned. A few would kill themselves or die of A.I.D.S. and some would return home never having found out.
Painting was big in those days and so were the paintings. A painter needed a large space with high ceilings to make large paintings and enough space to be able to step back and look at them from a distance. And running water and a toilet. And heat of some kind. And the place had to be affordable, too, so that one need not have to work all the time as a waiter or cabdriver or at some other menial job just to pay the rent.
And so the old loft buildings with their high ceilings and flaking paint and cracked plaster walls and leaking pipes and hissing radiators and their ghosts of women sewing corsets or making gloves and their cheap rents became their homes.