Volume 76, Number 25 | November 8 - 14, 2006

Villager photo by Gerard Flynn

From left: Julian, McSavage, Morena Saenz, Melissa Leggieri and Peter Leggieri.

Block’s character erodes as sculpture store closes

By Gerard Flynn

For 17 years Peter Leggieri’s Sculpture Supply Store on E. 12th St. and First Ave. served as more than an important center for sculpting materials and tools to a Greenwich Village artist community in gradual decline.

It was also an intimate meeting point for many people from the neighborhood, artists and nonartists alike, who made many friends there, and talked art and politics as well as saving the block from drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes.

Recently, however, they were pouring in and out not to talk about the war in Iraq, nor the crisis they perceive in the New York art world, but simply to bid farewell to Peter Leggieri and share their feelings on what the store’s absence will mean for them and the community that once found cohesion there.

“When I moved in upstairs the door was opened and I introduced myself to Peter and it became my living room,” artist Morena Saenz remembered.

“My life will change dramatically. I live upstairs and would come in here to chat, meet other people and talk art and politics or go outside with Peter and do cloud watching,” she said.

Leggieri’s landlord broke the bad news to him last month that he would be raising the rent by 50 percent, modest to a business making money, such as a bar or restaurant Leggieri said, but hardly to a sculpture supply store with so few artists around anymore.

At the time the store opened in 1991, close friend Ann Moss recalled, the block was anything like its appearance today of swank market-rate apartments and college students with N.Y.U. baseball caps.

“When I got here in1993, we had murders on this block; it was incredibly dangerous,” she said. “There were crack houses everywhere. In my old building they would sell drugs out of the window to children going to school.”

But Moss credits Leggieri, who formed a block association soon after moving in, with fixing the street up, but added that, in retrospect, it has become something of a Pyrrhic victory.

“What Peter managed to do was amazing but after getting rid of the crack houses these rich yuppies moved in and Peter is a victim of that very process he started,” she said.

Following the announcement by Leggieri’s landlord, Moss organized a petition to try and save the store, getting hundreds of signatures and even sending letters to the Mayor’s Office and other city departments to pressure the landlord to reverse his decision. The city never replied, and the store closed on Oct. 15.

Leggieri, however, insists that neither he nor the closing of his store is the big story here; there is a bigger narrative, he said, and he intends to tell it eventually.

“New York is not the place it used to be; it’s as simple as that,” he said. “There were seven sculptors on our block in the late ’60s and they are all gone. I am not the story; the story is what happened to the artist colony, how it gradually disappeared, the serious loss in workspace for tens of thousands of artists who have been evicted to provide for real estate interests.”

After he has finished hauling what remains of his sculpting business to a warehouse in Pennsylvania, at 64 years old, he said he’s readying himself for his next calling: The “Renaissance Project,” his vision to persuade city government to restore a once defining feature of Greenwich Village — its bourgeoning artists’ colony— to an area roughly between Union Square and Houston St.

“There should be a way artists can exist on a bit of money and make art and not pay rent and not have to be part of the system,” Moss explained. “You may call that utopia, but that is Peter’s Renaissance Project.”

But considering the city’s prior record in its treatment of artists, Leggieri said he is not exactly optimistic about the prospect; although he added that the city owes the artist at least, crediting the Downtown art colony with helping pull New York out of the economic devastation of the ’70s.

“As far as city government sees it, the purpose of the artist and the arts is to increase real estate values; it is totally seen as an adjunct to the real estate industry,” he said.

“This view merges the portrait of the artist as a serf made to toil on the plantation fields of the landlord until such time as the landowner has been satisfied that land values have been increased, and then the artists are evicted,” he continued. “A trillion dollars was made and the city was saved and what did the artists get? Nothing.”

John Godfrey, a neighbor and longtime friend of Leggieri’s, describes Leggieri’s departure as leaving a “social vacuum in my head.”

Like Leggieri, Godfrey also arrived in the East Village in the mid-’60s when it was still gritty and dangerous. Although gentrification has cleaned it up, he said he still misses the block as it used to be — serrated edges, gunshots and all.

A poet who lived in an apartment right above Allen Ginsberg, Godfrey remembers the time when “pop, pop, pop” was not an uncommon sound and when he might turn the corner and witness the occasional gangster “curling up and going grey on the sidewalk.” He has fond memories of a dirtier but “more interesting” block.

“I wish it hadn’t improved this way,” Godfrey said. “I wanted to live here because the Village was a funky place. I don’t know most of my neighbors anymore.

“It is just not very interesting anymore,” he added. “Now you have an elite youth culture dressing in grunge and talking about advertising in the pizza stores. It looks like any college town. They aren’t bringing anything to New York anymore except a lot of money.”

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