This blog is primarily about the history of the buildings the Grateful Dead played in. Why? I don’t know except I’m a fan of old buildings and especially how they’re transormed over the years for various purposes. These old buildings speak to me of people, places, culture and ideas from long ago. So the Dead are just the springboard for talking about these places.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Cafe au Go-Go


Cafe au Go-Go, 1969

From the west coast to the east. As with the my other posts, this one is more inspired by, rather than focused on, the Dead’s shows at the Café au Go-Go in the basement at 152 Bleecker St, in New York’s Greenwich Village. The GD played the Café Au Go-Go from 6/1-10/67 during their first trip as a band to the east coast and from 9/29 – 10/1/69. Audience recordings exist for 9/29 and 9/30/69.

The Café’ au Go-Go also hosted many other great bands in their early days such as Hendrix, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, Stan Getz, a high-school age Springsteen and Zappa and the Mothers had a 6 month stint in ‘67 at the Garrick Theater upstairs. But this has already been written about extensively before so I shan’t repeat it here. For a tremendous amount of information on the Dead’s shows there, a listing of most of the bands that played there along with dates, and the club in general hie theeself over to the Rock Prosopography blog. Also check out the excellent It's All the Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago blog (and if you grew up in the NYC area between the 1960s and 1980s you MUST pay a visit to the "All the Streets" blog!)

The Cafe au Go-Go was located at 152 Bleecker St. and although the building was strictly commercial in nature it had rather prestigious beginnings, having been designed by an architectural firm that became quite prominent in later years.

But first, a little pre-history.

As the initial population center of early Manhattan grew from the southern tip of Manhattan Island people started moving north into what is now known as the South Village. A great deal of construction occurred between the 1810s and 1830s and resulted in blocks of Federal-style rowhouses (multi-story single-family residences). The economic and social conditions of the new residents varied quite a bit but in general these blocks of rowhouses were considered to be elegant places to live. One such four-story rowhouse was at 152 Bleecker. You can see part of it on the left-hand edge of this photo from the late 19th/early 20th century, not looking so elegant by this time.



(photo from the NY Times 3/25/07 Streetscapes column, courtesy http://www.nyhistory.org/ New York Historical Society).


According to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation (GVSHP, 2006), “Both sides of this block of Bleecker Street (between LaGuardia and Thompson Streets) had rows of red brick houses like what 146 once looked like. 145 and 149 (built in 1832) which are substantially intact, show the best evidence of what the row looked like…This block was once known as Caroll Place.” Although you can’t see much of 152 in the photo above there’s enough of it to see that it was the same kind of building as 149 (across the street from 152), see photo below.




text and photo from http://www.gvshp.org/south_village922.htm


In the next block over, the first row of French style of dwellings in New York was built on the South Side of Bleecker between Thompson and Sullivan (152 Bleecker was two doors east of Thompson). For an excellent overview of these buildings see the Streetscapes link above (but note that the Streetscapes photo caption is wrong – the hotel that replaced the French homes is not the small building with the hotel sign on it at 154 Bleecker, but rather the huge six story edifice across Thompson).


By the mid-19th century this area of Bleecker Street was a center of wealth and fashion. However, by 1870 this area had deteriorated significantly. In the late 19th century the Bleecker Street area was notorious for its rowdy nightlife. In 1890 the newspaper The Press wrote an article about the area describing it as “a long lane of corruption and drunkenness. On both sides of the street are low dives where men and women of the lowest order are received as welcome guests.” Across the street in the basement of 157 Bleecker was Frank Stevenson’s Slide, a saloon characterized as not only the “lowest and most disgusting place on this thoroughfare,” but “the wickedest place in New York.” (GVSHP, 2006)


By this time most of the buildings in this area were tenements. Tenements were multi-family buildings without then-basic amenities such as indoor plumbing and gas lights. When 152 Bleecker was built in the 1830s obviously such amenities didn’t exist. I can imagine that when they became more prevalent in newer buildings the generally well-off citizens of Bleecker St. would have moved out of the older buildings so as to enjoy the delights of them new-fangled gas lamps and pissing indoors. Without the basics the older buildings would not have been very desirable except to those who could only afford to rent such ill-equipped buildings. And to make up for lowered rents landlords would have rented out each floor as a separate family unit. But note: I could be talking out my ass here. I’m not a historian by any means – this analysis of the downfall of a neighborhood is all just supposition (or is that suppository? Like I said, talking out my ass)


Anyway, this lack of basics combined with the small lot size (25 ft wide x 125 ft long) and relatively large building size led to intolerable living conditions in the neighborhood and elsewhere. In an effort to relieve some of the squalor the first Tenement House Act was passed in 1879 which primarily banned windowless interior rooms in new tenement construction. Further reform came with the 1901 Tenement House Act. In addition to requirements for new construction it also required changes to older buildings such as new lighting and addition of one toilet for every two families.


Based on NY City public records the 1830s building at 152 Bleecker was demolished in 1903. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps the owners of this building were unwilling to make such changes and decided to replace it with a newer non-residential building (for the building that housed the Café Au Go-Go was strictly commercial in nature). The new building, the one that eventually hosted an amazing crop of musicians, was built in 1904, was six stories tall and was designed by the architectural firm Buchman and Fox. Buchman & Fox later went on to design many prominent NYC buildings that still exist, such as the Times Square Building at 229 W 43rd and the World's Tower building at 110 W 40th St. (and there's your "prestigious beginnings" which ain't a whole lot really but still kind of interesting).

There is scant information on what sorts of businesses operated at 152 Bleecker between 1904 and 1960, though newspaper articles hint at a jewelry shop in 1926 and a sign manufacturer, a glass and mirror novelty shop and awning manufacturer in the 1930s.
The photo below shows 152 Bleecker in 1940 (next building in from the corner). Note the hotel sign in both this photo and the 1969 photo below.




photo courtesy of NY Public Library Digital Library


However, in 1963 the New York Times reported that the landlord of 152 Bleecker would be building two “cozy playhouses, one on top of the other” there. The basement theater was known as the Baby Broadway and the upper theater was called the Little Broadway. But in less than a year the Café Au Go-Go opened on Feb. 7, 1964, with a performance by the comedian/actor/left-wing activist Professor Irwin Corey. At some point a screen or facade with the cafe's name was put on the front of the building.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

A 1969 Certificate of Occupancy indicates that the cellar (the Cafe Au Go-Go) was licensed as a theatre, cabaret and toilets. The first floor was the Garrick Theater, site of Frank Zappa's infamous 6-month, 2-shows/night, 6-nights/week stay (see the Rock Prosopography link above), second floor was the projection room, and the third-sixth floors had a "factory on each story."

Suffice it to say that, as mentioned above, the Café Au Go-Go was host to some of the greatest musicians in the business such as Hendrix, the Dead, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker and more. Several of the performances there were recorded and are commercially available (Blues Project, Stan Getz, John Lee Hooker and a blues compilation). The Café was also the site of the infamous arrest of comedian Lenny Bruce on charges of obscenity.

It’s impossible to discuss the Café au Go Go without consideration of the nature of Greenwich Village in general. The Bleecker Street area and surrounding blocks have long been a center of Bohemian culture (for lack of a better term). There were many other music venues, most notably the Village Gate, the Gaslight, and Café Wha’ and the area was a haven for writers, poets, and musicians such as Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Theodore Dreiser. But much has been written about this area and this time and I'll leave it to better authors than I.

The Café shut its doors in 1969 when owner Howard Solomon sold it. Richie Havens, a regular at the Cafe, may or may not have bought it from Solomon. By April 1971 the popular coffehouse the Gaslight moved from its home on MacDougal St. to 152 Bleecker (they opened with Miles Davis!) where it was known as the Gaslight at the Au Go-Go and then the Gaslight II. This club stayed open until at least March 1973. I don’t know what filled the basement space or any other space in the building in its last few years other than “an extremely weird club called Cockroach Art” that was in a loft at either 150 or 152 in the mid 70s.

Based on a 1977 Certificate of Occupancy and other City records (permits for elevators), it looks like the building was torn down in 1977 and replaced by condos and shops. I find this somewhat surprising as the building currently there (which occupies 148-154 Bleecker) just doesn’t look like 1970s architecture to me (then again, I’m not much of a student of architecture either, just more of a keen observer).

I have no idea what is currently in the basement at 152 Bleecker but the current (2010) occupant in the 1st floor is a nail salon. I wonder if the clientele there have any clue about the ghosts that lurk around them...

And here's what it looks like today:

image courtesy of Google Street View

Sources of information:
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), 2006. The South Village: A Proposal for Historic District Designation, Report by Andrew S. Dolkart. Available from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, www.gvshp.org

GVSHP, South Village Virtual Tour, http://www.gvshp.org/south_village922.htm

NYC Dept. of Buildings, retrieved 4/15/10 from http://www.nyc.gov/html/dob/html/home/home.shtml

New York Public Library Digital Library, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/index.cfm

New York Times, May 17, 1895, "In the Real Estate Field" column.

NYT, May 10, 1963, p. 36

NYT, March 25, 2007, "Streetscapes", retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/realestate/25SCAP.html

Office of Metropolitan History, retrieved April 2010 from http://www.metrohistory.com/searchfront.htm

Unholy Modal Rounders 1975-1977, retrieved from archive.org, April 2010.

Village Voice, May 23, 1963, p. 16. Retrieved from Google news search

5 comments:

Corry342 said...

This is great. A nail salon...

Teri Tynes said...

Very interesting! I live near this address and can tell you that the block has continued to change beyond the Google Street View image. The sidewalk was paved over in front of several stores, ending access to basement shops. The great Bleecker Street Cinema was on this block at 144 (now an art supply shop and drug store). The street is still a popular destination for music.

T. Lawrence Wheatman said...

Thank you for this information. I (with my then wife Carla) opened that "extremely weird club" Cockroach Art. The building that stands there now is the same 4 buildings that were always there, but with a unifying facade. It was built with a type of wood that became extinct in the early part of the 20th century that is stronger than steel, or so the developers told me when they kicked us out and began turning this into condos. If you are looking from across the street you will see at the top 2 female details that are from the old building... there were 4 but 2 were removed during the renovation. During the 18 or so months that we were operating there were only 2 tenants in the building... AMDA (American Music & Dance Academy ?) and a fellow who was publishing a "good news paper" called "The Word", although in the 2 years we knew him he only seemed to take acid, and only managed to publish one issue.

Last month (3/2014), after much cajoling for many years, I have resurrected Cockroach Art as a Facebook page. Come join us.

Allan James said...

Wonderful history of an underground club where so much musical history took place. I lived in this building in the mid-1970s as part of Cockroach Art, an urban counter-cultural experiment. Lawrence Wheatman (Truckin) describes the building well as being somewhat deserted by that time... but there was an aura of greatness in the club/theater downstairs, however, and sponsored and generated a lot of musical and cultural energy upstairs (1974-1976).

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About Me

I'm fascinated by the evolution of place. Or more precisely how a location has been used by humans and how we've changed a place to fit our needs and fit our needs to meet a place. The older I get the more I feel a connection to people from the not-too-distant past. We walk past a building housing a Rite-Aid and mobile phone store without realizing that once there were people dancing and falling in love there, or laughing at a movie there, or skinning their knees while roller skating there, or dropping acid for the first time and grooving to Hendrix there. So this blog is a weird bit of history/architecture/Grateful Dead arcania. But what's the internet for if not for weird little bits of arcania?

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