BY SARAH FERGUSON | The dismantling of the legendary East Village arts salon A Gathering of the Tribes was a painful spectacle. All week, supporters young and old came out of the woodwork to pay tribute to the space and its founder, Steve Cannon, as they worked to extract the blind 79-year-old poet from the only home he’s known for the last 44 years.
Diehards wanted to occupy the place, at 285 E. Third St., to express their outrage at Cannon’s ouster by landlord Lorraine Zhang, who purchased the building from Cannon back in 2004 with the proviso that he and Tribes be able to stay on for another 10 years.
After three years of legal battles with Zhang, the rancor was deep.
But at the last minute, a handicap-accessible apartment was secured for Cannon on the ground floor of a former homestead building on E. Sixth St., just three blocks away.
So instead of occupying, friends held a two-night auction / moving party to pack up or sell off the myriad books, zines and art left over from 23 years of shows and performances at Tribes, which operated out of Cannon’s second-floor apartment.
According to the terms of a legal settlement, the place was to be empty and “broom clean” by midnight on Tues., April 15.
Monday night, the eve of his departure, was typically chaotic. The invite for the party went out the same day, and no one seemed to know what we were auctioning or when. Piled on a table in the front room were copies of the debut issue of Tribes magazine from 1991 and other archival materials mixed in with poetry chapbooks, photographs, paintings — even old pots and pans from the kitchen where Cannon never cooked.
The maestro Steve was where he always was — sunk in his living room couch — ensconced in conversation with an attractive young actress named Phoebe Halkowich. She and Cannon met two years ago when she answered a Craigslist ad he placed seeking people to read to him.
“We became instant best friends,” she joked as Cannon beamed. (Though blind, Cannon’s always had a keen eye for the ladies and remains a chick magnet, even at his age.)
Eventually, Cannon’s longtime ally Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, arrived to start the auction.
“Remember, none of us here has any money, so you can bid with things other than money if you want,” Holman told the sparse crowd of poets and artists.
He held up a pair of poetry books by frequent Tribes contributor Quincy Troupe, with the opening price of $2.50. Prices never climbed much higher.
“Think of the history of tonight,” Holman exhorted. “We started this thing in the summer of 1990, inspired by the reopening of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1989,” he explained.
“There was this great upsurge of spoken word performance — so many new faces and talent bursting on to the scene — and that caused Steve to realize we needed a magazine to document and preserve it. It was Steve, ‘Mr. Oral Tradition,’ who rescued the literary tradition by realizing there needed to be a written record. And then we had all these poets coming to our stoop workshop to prove their mettle. So that’s how we came to make Tribes,” Holman said as he fished out more items to sell from the hodgepodge on the table.
Someone unearthed a parchment painted with a pink cherry blossom and Chinese calligraphy. Could it be the work of famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, designer of the Olympic stadium in Beijing, who once contributed his art to Tribes magazine? No one was sure.
No less than three documentarians were on hand to capture every last filament of Tribes’ existence. But where were the heavy hitters — the folks like Tracie Morris, Paul Beatty, Edwin Torres and Darius James who found their feet at Tribes workshops or hung around drinking and schmoozing into the wee hours. Some, like composer Butch Morris, poet and comrade Amiri Baraka, and spoken word artist Maggie Estep, had recently passed away. So many others had moved on, part of the great Tribes diaspora.
Despite all the years of funding and recognition from groups like the Andy Warhol Foundation, Lincoln Center and the Whitney — a proclamation from Mayor Bloomberg! — and being cited by City Lore’s Place Matters as one of the New York City places that really matter — none of this could save Tribes as an institution from the ravages of New York real estate and the frailty of an old man who’d run into debt and squandered his hold on this historic 1800s row house.
In truth, the place felt like a dirty, hollowed-out husk, an old ship that had run aground with nothing left but a bunch of nattering poets sniping about the demise of the neighborhood as they sifted through the remains.
Steve seemed alternately buoyed and bitter about the situation.
“I think I made a grave mistake, starting this organization and helping people,” he confessed. “I lost a million dollars helping these people. I’ve helped over 1,000 f—— writers and artists, publishing them, letting them have shows here, and you think these bastards give back?” he demanded. “The best thing I could do now is go sit on my ass and write my memoirs.”
Just then, Miguel Algarin, founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, arrived and let out a big Boricuan howl.
“Get rid of it, Steve, move on,” he urged, advising him to assume the stance of no regrets.
“Yeah, plenty of s— happened here, most of it fights and thunder. F— this s—. He should move on. Steve is making a forward move,” Algarin insisted.
“I’m not here to cry, I’m here to steal things,” Algarin quipped as he pried a photo of Cannon from the wall to hang at the cafe in honor of the Nuyorican’s only “professional heckler.” Cannon seemed more than happy to have his visage preserved there.
For his part, Holman said he was greatly relieved that an affordable apartment had been found for Steve.
“If that hadn’t happened, it would have been everyone holding out here, going down in flames for an idea, and eventually we would have lost and he would have been off to New Orleans,” Holman said of Cannon’s hometown.
“The main thing is, Steve is happy,” Holman added. “Before, he would always be angry or concerned about having to oversee the event. Now he doesn’t have to worry about what’s going to be booked next and how is he going to pay for it.
“As long as there’s Steve Cannon, there’s gonna be Tribes, and that’s the truth. This doesn’t end here,” Holman added.
With all the videographers hovering about, Holman even joked about setting up a livecam in the new apartment to stream “Live from Steve’s Couch,” so we can enjoy Cannon’s every waking moment.
And it wasn’t all sad. The fact that so many folks came round to pack him up is testament to the love and respect Cannon has engendered over the years. What’s always been unique about Tribes is Cannon’s ability to attract new enthusiasts. At one point, a young Indian chanteuse, who’d taken the name Naima after John Coltrane’s first wife, stopped by to sing the blues. Though she’d only met Cannon three weeks ago at the last open mic, she sat down on the couch with Steve and sang Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” like they were soulmates.
The auction crowd was bigger on Tuesday, the final night, but things got hectic when word came down from Cannon’s lawyer that Zhang would be changing the locks the next day.
Instead of bidding on art, supporters began hauling boxes of books and stereo equipment through the sleeting rain to the new apartment.
Concerned about getting the piano out, Cannon got so upset he called the police to advise him of his rights, and whether Zhang could really force him out without an eviction order. Besides the piano, he still hadn’t figured out how to preserve the painting that conceptual artist David Hammons had installed on the wall in back of his couch.
A year ago, a German collector bought the rights to reproduce the piece, which originally featured coils of African-American hair, for $1.2 million.
But Cannon still owned the rights to the wall and didn’t want to leave it behind.
So Holman agreed to camp out with Cannon for the night to protect it, as more calls were made. Early Wednesday morning, a crew of art preservationists came and carefully sawed the whole wall out for safekeeping. (They put up a new wall in its place.)
Though Tribes as a destination is gone, Steve says he will keep publishing poets and hosting events at other venues. On Fri., April 18, Cannon will be performing with drummer Billy Martin at The Stone on Avenue C. And on Wed., April 23, there’s a big benefit at the Nuyorican to honor Cannon and Tribes, featuring many Tribes all-stars. (See tribes.org for details.)
In addition, last month, Cannon was named 2014’s poet laureate of the Lower East Side by the board of the HOWL! Festival. HOWL! had been slated to occur in Tompkins Square Park and around the East Village and Lower East Side on May 30 through June 1 but has been postponed.