The sight of striking Verizon workers near GVSHP’s offices (as well as all over New York) reminds us of the long and storied history of the Village and East Village in the labor movement. In fact, their central role in American labor struggles is reflected in some of our neighborhood’s most important landmarks.
Webster Hall may be best known as a music venue and one-time dance hall, drag ball showcase, and recording studio. But it was also the site of critical events in the history of organized labor. From GVSHP’s nomination of Webster Hall for landmark designation in 2007:
” In 1912, activist Margaret Sanger marched 119 children of striking Lawrence, Massachusetts workers from the train station to Webster Hall, where they received a decent meal for the first time in weeks and were then placed with families that could provide for them. The founding convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) took place here in December 1914 … For decades, ACWA continued to meet and later celebrate its founding at Webster Hall. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Emma Goldman frequently orated at Webster Hall, and in the 1920s, the defense committee for Sacco and Vanzetti met in the space….Webster Hall’s functions as a home for dance and political activism were often combined by social and political organizations that held parties to raise money for their organizations.
The most famous of these were the masquerade balls hosted by the progressive and socialist magazine, The Masses, and by the Liberal Club, based on MacDougal Street. Starting in the 1910’s, these parties took inspiration from the bacchanals of Paris and were given names like “Pagan Romps” and “Art Model Frolicks.” The parties grew more and more outlandish, and the costumes, skimpier and skimpier. Soon, the fundraising and activism side of the balls gave way to pure celebration and excess. “
Just a few blocks away is 128 East 13th Street, a remarkable building originally a horse auction mart for the likes of the Vanderbilts and the Belmonts, which served as the studio of artist Frank Stella from 1978 to 2005. But for a period in the 1940’s it was a training ground for women to learn assembly line work during World War II — the proverbial home to Rosie the Riveter. In 2006 GVSHP discovered a plan to demolish the building and replace it with condos; GVSHP provided the Landmarks Preservation Commission
(LPC) with documentation of the building’s unique history (including its labor history) and urged them to immediately landmark it. The LPC calendared the building (thus preventing demolition) and held a hearing, but five years later has still not designated. The good news though is that the owners got the message and sold a “preservation easement” for the building in exchange for a tax break, thus giving away the right to alter the building’s facade or build above it. It’s now the home to Peridance Studios. Read more HERE.
101 Avenue A, between 6th and 7th Streets, also has an interesting union and labor history. This distinctive late 19th century tenement housed a series of halls and gathering spots in its ground floor for decades, where generations of immigrants, mostly Germans, gathered to deal with the pressing labor, political, and social issues of the day. In later years, the gathering space became the home of the Pyramid Club, one of the most influential performance arts spaces in late 20th century New York, and by many accounts the birthplace of a new wave of politically conscious drag performance in the late 1980’s. GVSHP proposed the building for landmark designation in 2007, but the LPC refused to consider it, in spite of the State of New York ruling the building was eligible for the State and National Register of Historic Places (read HERE) . However, earlier this year when the LPC proposed an East Village/Lower East Side Historic District adjacent to, but not including, 101 Avenue A, GVSHP and a coalition of groups were able to convince the LPC to expand the proposal to include 101 Avenue A. Read more about the building HERE, and the building’s history and GVSHP’s landmarking nomination HERE.
The Hebrew Actor’s Union at31 East 7th Street captures more labor firsts. The building housed the country’s very first theatrical union. Read GVSHP’s testimony in support of landmark designation HERE. After proposing the building for individual landmark designation and holding a hearing, the LPC did not move further ahead. However, they have included the building in the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, which we hope will be heard sometime this fall.
This is just a small sample of the rich labor history in the East Village and Village — what’s your favorite labor history site?
On a slight tangent, Verizon also reminds us that the former Bell Telephone (Verizon’s corporate ancestor) Labs are also found in our neighborhood, in what is now the Westbeth Artists Complex (see GVSHP’s webpage HERE). GVSHP got the complex listed on the State and National register of Historic Places and the LPC promised to vote on landmarking the complex in 2010, but is still yet to complete this work.