This week, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
Below the sparkling glint of a crystal chandelier, slabs of meat rest behind glass as if displayed in a museum. Each label is handwritten in gold ink on a black card, leaving a sense of mortal weight; something lost, commemorated, aggrandized.
The little butcher shop at 57 Great Jones Street lacks any trace of blood or a stained smock. It gives no hint of the secrets lurking in the building’s history, like an art icon’s untimely death or the 1905 murder that catalyzed the decline of the Italian mob in the Bowery. The shop’s unexpected elegance hides the death intrinsic to each of its products. Steaks appear as objects of art, an impression their price tags reinforce.
As discerning customers pass through Premium Japan Beef, they evaluate the impeccable texture of fat lacing $130-per-pound ribeye. “This cut won the beef olympics in Japan,” the shopkeeper tells one of them. Shoppers can find decadent, rare imports like $50 seasoned wasabi powder, or they can turn to the store’s staple product, Wagyu beef from cows that drank beer, received massages and grazed to music before slaughter. The products presuppose a privileged knowing, entry to a hidden past behind what meets the eye.
Down the hall, more mysteries await. What appears to be the nondescript buzzer to someone’s apartment actually conceals Bohemian, a referral-only Japanese restaurant. Diners seeking a reservation will find that there is no number to call. To gain access, a regular must recommend the new guest. The establishment caters to people drawn to mystery over exclusivity. Its cryptic website, Playearth.jp, makes no reference to the restaurant at all. A clean map of the world drawn in calligraphy points visitors to Tsunami relief efforts, and yet, something about the conscientiousness—gestural lines and concern for humanity—convey a poetry that seems like it would lend itself to careful food.
The subtlety relies on strength of association. Indeed, the restaurant’s name conjures an ethos of artistry. Perhaps “Bohemian” is also a nod to the building’s former inhabitants; Jean-Michel Basquiat rented the apartment upstairs during the peak of his fame in the 1980s. In keeping with that common allegory of creative superstars, he joined Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and later Kurt Cobain to die from an overdose at age 27. Basquiat leaned against his bedroom fan in August of 1988 as if cooling off on any New York summer night. His demise quickly cast him from lived persona to remembered legend, adding one of many myths to the address, and boosting its property value by $45,000.
In 1973, Don Delillo unknowingly wrote Basquiat’s fate in his third novel Great Jones Street. The plot describes a disillusioned rock star ruined by the life that fame brought him. A decade later, Basquiat moved to the same block and reified the old trope.
He rented the residence from his role model, pop artist Andy Warhol, who had purchased the building several years earlier. During the 1980s, Basquiat transformed himself from bohemian archetype and semi-homeless creative to a celebrity who Madonna would date. Basquiat converted the apartment into a live-in studio and sustained the prolific pace that helped launch him from anonymous graffiti stuntman “Samo” to internationally recognized icon. During the 15 years that he inhabited the space, his frenetic paintings sold for tens of thousands of dollars, helping to sustain the $1,000-a-week cocaine habit he developed. His demise was just as cliched as the rags-to-riches story that led him to Great Jones Street, a natural conclusion to the arc of his rapid ascendancy.
After Basquiat’s death, museums and biographers took even more notice of him, fulfilling yet another common pattern: the posthumous mythologizing. The Basquiat page on IMDb shows five feature films about the artist. In July,1991, a New York Times article reported that the Robert Miller Gallery was selling his paintings for $600,000—they go for tens of millions today—and the following year, the Whitney Museum gave his work a one-person retrospective. In part, the spike in value stemmed from the memory of Basquiat’s legendary antics, his persona infusing the work even from the grave.
Post-mortem, Basquiat’s exploits did not disappear from record. Long after coroners removed his body from 57 Great Jones Street, the young artist’s legacy— and that of the man who helped him reach it— haunted the building as unresolved business. In a sense, the apartment embodied his fraught relationship with Warhol. The two artists met in 1982, when the art dealer, Bruno Bischefberger, introduced star-struck Basquiat to his famed idol. Their ensuing friendship deepened to the point that the two men became almost enmeshed. That was, until 1985, when Bischofberger commissioned a collaborative show from the two of them. Warhol had not painted since 1962 and the resultant work left critics baffled and appalled. Theodore Wolff of the Christian Science Monitor called the untitled paintings “some of the most atrocious pictures anyone ever had the nerve to call art.” A New York Times review from Sept. 20, described Basquiat as an “art world mascot,” his youth and celebrity propping tired Warhol back into relevance. The author went on to call their relationship “a version of the Oedipus story.” The response suggested that Basquiat’s experience of manipulation from art dealers also extended to his closest ally—and landlord.
In the aftermath of the show’s failure, Basquiat stopped replying to any of Warhol’s communications and their relationship was fizzling out until Warhol’s abrupt death in February of 1987. Basquiat’s devastation over the loss precipitated a rapid decline into desperate drug use. A March, 1996 article from The Guardian quoted his girlfriend at the time, Kelly Inman, who lived in the basement of 57 Great Jones. She wrote about a conversation of theirs, in which Basquiat had said, “When you say you think I’m going to die, you think I don’t know what I’m doing. I do.”
Basquiat’s finances had become just as much of a mess. In Inman’s account, he believed that Warhol had promised to sell him the apartment, but once Warhol died, his executors sought to evict Basquiat. The younger artist only lived two years longer than his mentor and managed to remain in the building until his own death. By that point, Basquiat’s own estate had generated a separate controversy. The artist hadn’t filed taxes in four years, didn’t record most transactions, and never had a bank account.
Warehouse records found in the studio at Great Jones indicate that Basquiat would use his art to pay for things like the party bill at a restaurant on East 57th Street. The absence of a paper trail left many uncertainties and room for opportunism. Basquiat’s former dealer, Vrej Baghoomian, who managed the gallery where he had his final show, filed a $40 million suit against the Basquiat estate, charging that he had exclusive rights to represent Basquiat’s work and was therefore entitled to half of all sales. A Manhattan Surrogate Court dismissed the case in September 1991, but this was only one of several such suits filed after the artist’s death.
Many dealers and colleagues argue they never recieved work Basquiat promised them and demanded compensation from his estate holders. A New York Times article from July 21, 1991 quotes Basquiat’s father Gerard Basquiat, his primary executor, saying, “People took advantage of Jean-Michel. He was very young and had a loose lifestyle, and the minute he died all these people came up with groundless claims.” These disputes lasted for years. The New York Post reported on Sept. 19, 2007 that another one of Basquiat’s former art dealers sued Christie’s for $7 million on the grounds that they had knowingly sold him a fake piece.
Battles over authenticity extended beyond Basquiat’s work to the very neighborhood he inhabited. Like Bohemia’s contemporary title, NoHo had zoning laws to protect residency for artists who might otherwise get pushed out of the area, but these policies generated their own ambiguities. During Basquiat’s life, the Department of Cultural Affairs maintained an artist-certification program to manage the state Multiple Dwelling Law. Effective since the 1971 passage of the Soho Zoning Resolution, the program sought to ensure work-life spaces for professional artists. But the policy relied on the capacity to discern artists from non-artists. By 1990, the program had certified 5,000 as bonafide.
The effort reflected a strong desire to preserve the creative ethos of the area, which perhaps endures more as an impulse to capitalize on the fantasy of the artist rather than what happens in practice. One of New York’s most prominent real estate moguls, Aby Rosen, moved down the block on Great Jones Street when he first arrived in the United States from Germany in 1987. The son of a Holocaust survivor, Rosen quickly gained explosive success just like his neighbor Jean-Michel, coming to own 30 buildings over the next 20 years. He worked to develop highrises in the neighborhood, like an office building on Bowery, and used his vast fortune to amass an enormous collection of contemporary art that included at least 80 Warhols and several Basquiat pieces.
The street where the lives of the three figures converged still stirs attention for its history. A Real Estate Desk listing in The New York Times from 2015 describes Great Jones as a street with a “storied past,” but assures that “unlike the artists lofts typical of NoHo, apartments at 1 Great Jones Alley will be opulent and refined.” Overdoses and scandals make for good folklore but dissuade habitation. Better to anesthetize the past through selective nostalgia.
Case in point: In 1999, a restaurant opened at 31 Great Jones street called Five Points, a homage to the Five Points Gang that used to reign over the neighborhood a century earlier. Long before Basquiat was liquidating his art to feed his addiction, lot 132 of block 530 housed other sins. Diners luxuriating on quail with sauteed apples may never have understood the origins of the restaurant’s name, nor that the floor below them once bore the weight of a murdered man who was slain in a brawl among one of New York’s most prominent mob networks. A New York Times review of the restaurant from July 1999 observed that rustic decor like the oak tree fountain and potted wheat grass “must have the gang leader Paul Kelly scratching his head.”
At the turn of the century, an Italian immigrant born Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli used the money he earned as a boxer to spur an advanced criminal network into existence. Vaccarelli went by his Irish pseudonym and boxing title, Paul Kelly, and later disguised the street gang just as he had his own origins. He created The Paul Kelly Association, an athletic club to front recruitment into the mob. His saloon and dance hall at 57 Great Jones also went by many titles—The New Brighton Athletic Club, The Brighton, or its most common appellation, Little Naples— the organization’s headquarters by any name.
A little after midnight on November 23, 1905, a patrolman stopped by the saloon on Great Jones to find the establishment eerily vacant. As The New York Times article from the same day recounts, a police officer found the door unlocked and a dim light still flickering from behind the mahogany bar. Otherwise the dance hall, normally teeming with life at that hour, showed no sign of human activity. Upon closer glance, the policeman discovered the lifeless legs of a man peeking out from below swinging doors. A bullet wound pierced his left breast and a whimpering dog cowered over his body. The policeman continued upstairs to encounter three .38 calibre revolvers emptied of their ammunition. Strewn papers and overturned furniture suggested a fresh brawl had erupted during some kind of meeting. The officer found a letter in the breast pocket of man lying on the floor that read, “My Dear Husband, John and Mike and four others were up here looking for you Tuesday night. I am writing you this to let you know, so keep shady for a while. They are going to give you a deal. They didn’t attempt to break into the room. For if they had I would have blown their heads off.”
Police identified the victim as John Harrington, a man they presumed to belong to a group of “floaters,” or repeat voters. Investigators could not determine his real name because, like Kelly, he assumed a non-Italian identity for the election season. The day after the incident, detectives established a loose sketch of what happened that night. Four members of a rival organization to the Kelly group, entered the bar and ordered rounds for the crowd, only to incite them to a standoff. One of the men said that this friend had been murdered at Little Naples and wondered whether anyone could shoot. Quoth the Times: “A dozen guns were drawn in a twinkling.”
Shortly after the bullet spray, everyone fled, including Kelly himself, who disappeared into hiding. Of the suspects the police rounded up, one had a ballot in his possession with a vote marked for the emblem of Tammany Hall. The Paul Kelly Association had a symbiotic relationship with the powerful Democratic organization, which hinged upon Tammany’s leadership in the Bowery and a man known as “Big Tim” Sullivan.
Sullivan was born in a tenement house and sold newspapers as a six-year-old. He opened a chain of saloons below 14th street and later leveraged his position in Tammany Hall to protect the underworld of the neighborhood. A New York Tribune article from January 1913 said that these derelicts regarded him as “the greatest lawyer in New York.” Speaking before this sub-class in 1909, Sullivan boasted that he had bailed “that boy Kelly” out of jail years before, eliciting a boisterous reaction from the crowd. He continued to sweet-talk the audience, saying, “Our people down here are not thieves from choice, but from necessity, and necessity knows no law.” Big Tim’s sympathetic posture reflected the legacy of collaboration between Tammany Hall and the Kelly Association. Between 1902 and 1924, Tammany Hall defended working class interests, in particular those of immigrants—“white slaves,” as they were often referred to—the same class that constituted the mob.
Just two days after the bloodshed at Little Naples, an article in The New York Times theorized that members of the Paul Kelly crew may have wanted to prevent Harrington from divulging protected secrets about voter fraud in Tammany’s interest. Harrington was short of money and thought to be vulnerable to snitching—a stark violation of mob code. So careful of not ever ratting out an associate, one victim wounded during an incident in the same saloon told authorities only that he had slipped and fallen on the bullet.
As for Kelly himself, he transformed his life in his later years. Nine years after the Little Naples incident, several former members of his association declared a truce. A Washington Post headline from October 1914 read, “Seven of Gotham’s Elite Gunmen Bury Feud So Deep The East Side Now Looks On In Happy Wonder.” In reaction to internal showdowns between Kelly’s associates, the group of men with aliases like “Chick Tricker” and “Tony Cheese” shook hands to end the bloodshed. The article credits “the well-known and highly esteemed Paul Kelly” for assembling the peace gathering, and one of attendees, Tommy Dike, said, “Funny thing, I often meant to put one over on Kelly, but I’m glad I didn’t because I didn’t know until I met him what I fine fellow he is.”
Indeed, Kelly embraced a new moral identity and readopted his birth name of Antonio Vacarelli, perhaps to symbolize a return to the man he was before his criminal involvement. After the 1905 Little Naples incident, he fell out of the public eye and shifted into a new career as a labor organizer. The New York Herald Tribune called him “as adroit a labor leader as the city has seen.” Vacarelli started with the city’s underpaid waste management employees known as the Scow Trimmers, who lacked skills and education just like his father. His support helped them gain dignified wages and prepared Vacarelli to empower other groups such as the longshoremen harbor workers during World War II. By the time of his death from pneumonia in 1936, he had not only redeemed his name but earned a comfortable fortune, as his obituary added, “every cent of which he had made by his own efforts.”
Like so many fulfilled ambitions, the power of Vacarelli and Basquiat’s legacy lies as much in the narrative of possibility as in what they left behind. Today, the brick wall outside of 57 Great Jones Street has a simple passage graffitied in black: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”