Archive of Contemporary Music hanging by a vinyl thread

Here’s a tale of another of the neighborhood’s fabulous legacies, and, like all those stories, its end may be near. (I have to note here: while these tales seem to be about neighborhood institutions, they are really about neighborhood people.) I’m going to start at the beginning because that’s how I like to tell it. Skip ahead if you are impatient.

Bob (B.) George came to Tribeca in 1974, moving here because he couldn’t afford a loft in Soho. (Monthly rent on a place on Chambers – no heat, no windows – was $68. The same deal was $100 north of Canal.) He was teaching art with Laurie Anderson on Cherry Street, DJ’ing at Florent, eating at Dave’s Lunch on Canal and partying at Save the Robots; somewhere in there he released Anderson’s first record. “Nobody was thinking we were doing anything important. We were just working.”

He’s more than nostalgic for those early years in Tribeca; he’s a bit bitter. But he’s got his reasons. “1977 was the last time it was great to live in New York,” George says. “That was the last time any music movement came out of this city. The end of the ‘70s, the early ‘80s – punk, hip-hop, disco – name something that came after that.”

It’s in that moment that he started collecting vinyl albums – and soon he had a pile of tens of thousands. He tried to give them away, couldn’t, and realized someone had to archive them to keep them alive. The Archive of Contemporary Music was born in 1985. About 18 years ago he moved it into a huge space at 54 White (it has the storefront, but it’s not open to the public). There’s admittedly no business model. The idea was simply to collect things no one else was interested in. That is not to say that there isn’t value there – any one album could be sold for thousands and altogether the albums together are worth tens of millions – but there is just no real market, George says.

What there is is a LOT of stuff: 3 million albums from the post-WWII “microgroove” era; a quarter million 78s; 6 million pieces of paper; 30,000 books; a collection of blues records funded by Keith Richards; signed records by any famous band you can think of but lots more unfamous ones. And then this line, which kind of sums up the beauty of the place: “We don’t have any interest in quality.”


(Music in the vid above: Mekons playing Memphis Egypt.)

So here comes the Tribeca tale of the new millennium, where anything worth saving seems to get pushed out. His won’t be the first music collection to leave the city: Feinstein took his American Songbook collection to Iowa; Dylan and Guthrie escaped to Oklahoma; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. “Other cities are stealing stuff away,” says George. “They claim we are the cultural capital, but the city won’t help keep culture here.”

Over the years the collection has gotten a lot of support from its board, Atlantic Records, Keith Richards and other collectors. But still, it’s getting harder (and if you don’t believe me, you can read it here in Rolling Stone). George has started a GoFundMe page as a last ditch effort – there’s a matching grant from the Jaharis Family – but in the end, the collection – whose budget is $400,000 a year – can’t afford the rent here. So it will likely move, maybe to Philly? Paris? But not till the last possible minute. And not without putting up a fight. “As bad as I am as a businessman, I’m still here.”

 

9 Comments

  1. As cool as this all sounds, how practical is it to try to store records in one of the most expensive real estate/rental markets in the world? These records can be stored anywhere. Not saying the nostalgia and the effort to collect such a vast collection are not impressive. But,not realistic to use a Tribeca 1st floor address as a mere place for storage given the rental cost.

    • Stores like ACM create a uniqueness to the neighborhood that is swiftly retreating with landlords/real estate trusts preferring chains, big banks and the like – this was a place of varied affordability for commercial, retail and residences but each conversion chips away at the style and feel of what made it so popular…now corporate & landlords prefer to keep retail empty if they cannot get the price versus keeping the streetscape alive with small businesses. We do not need another bank or fast food chain.

    • With all due respect Carly, I didn’t realize that the diversity of our neighborhood, for which I moved here, would eventually be homogenized by “practicality.” Honestly, I find that attitude disappointing. Perhaps you don’t appreciate the original population, architecture, institutions, grit and quiet of our neighborhood. I live on Franklin st and I walk by ARC regularly and stop to check out their window display. I consider that to be exactly what I want in this neighborhood (practical? I guess a good he blue jeans stores on Broadway are more practical since they sell what’s in their windows – bleck).

      I guess I need to get more comfortable with the fact that your attitude is what lives next door to me – and I need to fight harder to keep “practical” from destroying the history and uniqueness of my neighborhood.

  2. great collection – no reason to move – the Art scene is

    is still around this location. all you need is supporters and

    funding.

  3. God Carly – spoken by a true non-artist. The archive belongs here more than a bunch of bankers.
    This neighborhood was built by the locals.

    • @IJM We aren’t looking to sell out to bankers or even good ol’ neighborhood residents who just need to find a cheap place to live. (I’m in a different downtown neighborhood for over 30 years, and have no plans to leave, even if my landlord offered me a sweet buyout.)

      I love ARC, and donate to it regularly; I guess you can call it self-interest that makes me want to see it flourish, because I dread the thought of yet another designer shoe boutique or artisanal bar.

  4. And with all the respect accorded to a neighbor, you, Carly, so eloquently and precisely represent the reason this neighborhood that we’ve all loved and cherished, is DYING.

  5. We need this place, and places like it, that are not just beholden to the sacred God of PROFIT. What should be there instead? Notice that we have so many empty first-floor storefronts anyway. This is a temple to music.

    “Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Nietzsche

  6. I think a lot of these comments and criticisms of Carly are hypocritical. Who among you would sell your apartment below market value to someone you deem cool and appropriate for Tribeca instead of taking full value from a boring and homogeneous banker? I venture none of you.

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