L.M.C.C.’s “Access Restricted” provides insider’s insight



Lecture series to make seldom-visited spaces accessible

“Revitalization” has become the buzzword to describe post-9/11 Lower Manhattan. Amid the mushrooming high-rises and rapidly evolving technology, one Downtown arts organization is directing the spotlight on the area’s rich cultural history.

In a series of lectures this winter and spring (organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council; lmcc.net), humanities scholars will present histories of Lower Manhattan that slipped out of the pubic consciousness or were overlooked from the get-go. The lectures, based on archival research and local lore, span architecture, urban development, social justice and the environment.

“Looking back on the artistic historical material allows us to appreciate different historical layers present in our neighborhood and think about our changing neighborhood today,” said Erin Donnelly, curator of the lecture series and a special projects consultant at the L.M.C.C. — a nonprofit organization that secures grants, artist-residencies and other services for artists.

“Lower Manhattan Revealed,” the name Donnelly chose for the 2011 program, “had a nice ring to it — thinking about this year being 2011, a year when our district is being memorialized, and its future being discussed.” Another purpose of the annual lecture series “Access Restricted” is to make accessible Downtown spaces that are rarely visited by the public. Venues used during this year’s series include the Woolworth Building, 7 World Trade Center and 195 Broadway (the former AT&T building).

Next Wednesday, architecture and urban studies writer Jeff Byles will interview architecture professor Michael Sorkin (director of City College’s graduate urban design program) about the building boom that has occurred Downtown in the past decade. The discussion will also be about “rethinking open and green spaces…and what it means to reclaim the city from an environmental perspective,” according to Donnelly.

On March 9, John Kuo Wei Tchen — co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in the America (at 215 Centre Street; mocanyc.org) and an associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University — will be speaking about the history of the South Street Seaport. The lecture will take place in the attic of the Seaport Museum, the site of the former Fulton Ferry Hotel.

Nineteenth-century Downtown, stretching from Chinatown to the South Street Seaport, was lined with lively outdoor markets that bustled with activity. “It was much more intermingled in terms of different groups of people, different classes and all that,” he said. “For me, it’s an important example of the way in which the port itself created a port culture.” Tchen hopes to attract some longtime Seaport residents to the L.M.C.C. lecture who will be willing to share their perspectives on how the area has changed, and talk about aspects of its history that have gone under the radar (although he wouldn’t comment on the forthcoming redevelopment of the Seaport).

Tchen has also extensively researched the history of Chinatown. When he founded the Museum of Chinese in America (on East Broadway in 1980), Tchen uncovered cabinets and other relics of the past in dumpsters surrounding Chatham Square. “[The stores] had 99-year leases, they were coming to expiration, and their histories were just being dumped,” he said. “This kind of shocked me.” Artistic and historic community groups must be formed in Chinatown and elsewhere, Tchen said, in order to establish cultural diversity and help preserve the neighborhood’s’’ unique histories.

Tchen believes that business improvement districts (BIDs), such as the one proposed for Chinatown, are too narrowly defined and often lead to cultural homogenization rather than diversity. “Culture doesn’t emerge from monoculture,” he said. “It emerges from these vital mixes.”

On March 23, art critic Douglas Crimp will be showing four 1970s films shot in Tribeca and on the Lower East Side, that demonstrate how filmmakers utilize the city as performance stages and templates for their work. Crimp writes for a variety of international and scholarly journals, and teaches art history at the University of Rochester.

Crimp selected the films he thought were the most resonant with and representative of the era. The L.M.C.C. event, he said, is an opportunity to show a new generation of NYC artists a sampling of lesser-known artworks of the period. “It’s an example of how artists were able to use this neighborhood while it was undergoing transformation,” he said. Today’s generation of artists, Crimp said, can be inspired by 20th-century filmmaking. “There’s a way in which contemporary art is not only attentive to its present moment, but to earlier art.”

Artists continue to use the metropolis as a performance stage – for example, choreographer Trisha Brown, Crimp noted, is recreating Roof Piece, a dance from 1971, on rooftops in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District this spring.

Crimp plans to give a brief introduction about the exhibition he co-curated at the Reina Sofia in Madrid last summer, which serves as a wider context for the films he’ll be presenting at the March 23 screening. The exhibition, entitled “Mixed Use, Manhattan” focused on how artists from the 1970s to the present experiment with urban space.

“Lower Manhattan Revealed” will close with an April 13 lecture given by Native American scholar and curator David Oestreicher at Pershing Hall on Governor’s Island. Oestreicher will talk about the history of the Lenape, a Delaware Indian tribe that was reportedly the earliest group to inhabit Lower New York.

L.M.C.C. created “Access Restricted” in 2006 to satisfy the curiosity of those wishing to penetrate Downtown’s untold history. Participants of the series’ first season got a special tour of the old City Hall subway station, which is now closed off to the public, and the Surrogate’s Courthouse and the New York Hall of Records on Chambers Street.

This year, Art International Radio, a Downtown-based online radio station, is partnering with the L.M.C.C. to audio-record the events and store them in their online cultural archive.

The events are free, but RSVP is required since space is limited. For more information, visit lmcc.net or call Marisa Olsen, external affairs coordinator, at 212-219-9401, ext. 105. The first “Access Restricted” recording is scheduled to launch on A.I.R.’s website (artonair.com) on February 7.