June 18, 2017

The Mulberry Gang and the Death of It All


In 1964, Bernard Stollman founded the Brooklyn-based ESP-Disk record label. At the outset, the idea was that ESP-Disk would exclusively release albums recorded in Esperanto. Well, there weren’t many of those, and Esperanto never really took off as the international language it was intended to be, so Stollman changed his focus. In short order, ESP became the country’s premier label for free jazz and underground rock, releasing albums by Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, The Fugs, The Godz, and many others. While priding himself on giving the artists on his label complete creative control over the music they recorded and released, Stollman, a notorious shyster, maintained universal rights to their work and rarely if ever paid any of them a dime. He died in 2015, three months after losing a suit filed by Sun Ra’s heirs, demanding he give up the bogus claim that he represented the estate, and that he furthermore pay the thousands in royalties he owed them.

            But that’s all beside the point, and part of another story I’m working on.

            Stollman’s brother Steve, meanwhile, is a real estate investor who owned a good deal of prime property on New York’s Lower East Side.

            One of his properties, 49 East Houston Street near the corner of Mulberry, was originally built in the late nineteenth century. For many years the ground floor housed a small side business in which Steve Stollman sold salvaged automat fixtures and other historical ephemera. The space also served as an unofficially official hangout for bicycle activist groups. According to the New York Times, in 2008 Stollman sold the site to developers for five and a half million dollars. The new owners’ plan was to raze the building and put up new commercial space. Part of the agreement stated that once the new building was up, Stollman would be able to move his operation back into the ground floor.

            Well, the building was indeed flattened, but then nothing else happened. The site remains an empty lot to this day. In 2014, Stollman sued the developers for a rumored nine million dollars, claiming a major financial loss given nothing ever happened with the site. As part of the settlement, Stollman has until mid-September to find a new investor, and will receive half of any sale price over eleven million dollars.

            But all of that’s part of the public record and, to be honest, fairly irrelevant, too. As first reported by the website Bowery Boogie, this past March, Stollman erected a couple of whitewashed plywood walls on the vacant lot and installed an exhibit that was free and open to anyone who might be passing by—much like guerilla art groups were in the habit of doing back in the Eighties. Inside, the curious will find the walls covered with portraits, news clippings and quotations related to five late-Nineteenth Century figures, each of whom was somehow connected with the neighborhood:  Theodore Roosevelt, who was new York City’s police commissioner back when NYPD headquarters were located a few blocks to the south on Lafayette; mad genius inventor Nikola Tesla, whose lab was once right across the street from the empty lot; American humorist Mark Twain, who was quite the man about town in his day; photographer Jacob Riis, famed for capturing images of the Lower East Side’s slums; and Puck magazine founder Joseph Keppler, whose satirical monthly was housed in its namesake building about a block away (later home to the New York Press). Collectively and informally, the quintet is being referred to as The Mulberry Gang.

            The homemade exhibit, Stollman claims, is designed to educate passers-by about the neighborhood’s rich history. It’s a history that’s far too often forgotten today, as a stroll around the area will attest. That old police headquarters building on Lafayette, for instance, has since been chopped up into luxury condos for celebrities and supermodels.

            But take a glance at some of the quotes Stollman chose to accompany and illuminate these luminaries, and you get the hint something a bit deeper and more subversive is going on here.

            “If voting made any difference,” reads a placard that’s part of the Twain section, “it wouldn’t be allowed.” Okay, so there’s no evidence Twain actually said that, and in fact it’s been attributed to several other people including anarchist Emma Goldman, but enough people believe Twain said it (and it sounds like something he’d say) that we’ll let it slide.

            More telling still, from Teddy Roosevelt we get, “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.”

            Add to that Stollman’s clear sympathy for the environmentalist bicycle liberation movement, as well as his inclusion of Riis (who called attention to the plight of NYC’s poor) and Tesla (who was destroyed by corporate and government interests after proposing crazy ideas like free energy for everyone on the planet)—even Roosevelt (who was known for rooting out police corruption)—and a picture starts to emerge of a man with anarchist tendencies and a less-than-veiled suspicion of the federal government. Not the kind of thing you’d generally expect from a New York real estate mogul.

            The kicker, though, was his inclusion of Puck magazine’s Keppler, and not simply on account of the magazine’s sharp and often brutal political satire. The Puck Building, which had once been home to SPY magazine as well as Puck and the New York Press, had always been one of the most ornate and gorgeous structures in town, both inside and out. A few years ago it was bought by the family of presidential advisor, son-in-law and fellow real estate mogul Jared Kushner. Despite the Puck’s landmark status, in 2011 the Kushners somehow got clearance to completely gut the building, turning the first three floors into a high-end chain clothing store.

            Adding insult to, well, insult, a couple of years ago Morgan and I were in the store for some godforsaken reason (mostly disgust and dismay), and as we were leaving we were stopped and asked if we cared to contribute to a store-sponsored fund to “help preserve the integrity of the neighborhood.”

            So put the pieces together. Given the damage inflicted on the neighborhood by corporate interests (from Starbucks to NYU) over the past fifteen years, and given the damage inflicted on the world by Kushner and his in-laws over the past seven months—damage neatly and allegorically encapsulated by what’s happened to the Puck Building—and you can understand Stollman’s drive to instill in curious visitors to his ramshackle exhibit both a better historical understanding of their surroundings as well as a healthy skepticism about the whole bloated and corrupt system.

            But of course the question still remains, if Stollman is really sincere about all this, why would he sell a Nineteenth Century building to developers who were clear about their intentions to demolish it in order to throw up another faceless corporate monstrosity? Maybe he’s just as slick and conniving as his brother was, seeking personal profit by shamelessly co-opting the work of others. He has admitted in the past he’s hoping the exhibit will generate interest in the lot and attract would-be investors. Or maybe he’s learned a little something these past few years. Or maybe the election just nudged him over the edge.


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