Places that Matter

City Lore

click on image for slideshow
City Lore
City Lore
City Lore
New York City's center for urban folk culture
Place Details »

Place Matters Profile

City Lore was founded in 1986 with a mission to foster New York City - and America's - living cultural heritage through education and public programs. City Lore documents, presents, and advocates for New York City's grassroots cultures to ensure their living legacy in stories and histories, places and traditions.  Just as New York City is one of the so-called "high culture" (e.g., opera, classical ballet) centers of the world, so is it one of the richest and most diverse centers of folk culture.

With a diverse staff and board, we embrace different aesthetics for the creation of art, seek to democratize the arts, and foster a wide range of communities, artists, and forms of artistic expression. We also aim to ensure that these communities can exist in the places that they care about, across the five boroughs. We work in four cultural domains: urban folklore and history; preservation; arts in education; and grassroots poetry traditions. In each of these realms, we see ourselves as furthering cultural equity and modeling a better world with projects as dynamic and diverse as New York City itself.
Many people don’t realize it, but City Lore has actually operated from East First Street at First Avenue since its inception 1986. Until September 2013, City Lore was tucked away on the second floor of the historic Minthorne House at 72 East First Street, a charming, brick residential building built in 1868, and owned and shared by modernist sculptor, Henry Shrady, and his family. City Lore’s cozy offices were daily abuzz with staff and collaborators engaged in documentary editing, academic research, educational programming, grant writing, costume and prop preparations for in-school arts performances, and tons of good spirit. Each wall was lined with bookshelves containing resources available for teachers, folklorists, ethnographers, artists and historians to peruse as they pleased, as well as archives containing documentary material in every format used during the 20th and 21st centuries. As City Lore’s community-based programs mainly took place in neighborhoods across the five boroughs, the offices perfectly suited the organization’s administrative needs.
After a quarter of a decade serving as a behind-the-scenes hub for events and off-site exhibitions, City Lore’s dreams began to expand. Executive Director Steve Zeitlin decided that it was time for City Lore to take the next developmental step – managing a space where the organization could host its own programs, performances and exhibits. In 2011, Zeitlin reached out to First Street-based entrepreneur, developer and long-time resident Eric Anderson with a proposal to move City Lore into Anderson’s storefront gallery at 56 East First Street.
As the former president of the Block Association, Anderson was already acquainted with City Lore, which had long hosted Association meetings at 72 East First Street. Anderson came to NY from northern California in 1981 to study at Columbia, first as an undergraduate and then as a Ph.D. student in Semitic languages. He left academia to build affordable housing in New York. Anderson soon became interested in the world of city regeneration and real estate development because “the issue of homelessness was something that I could square with living here in New York City. So I decided that I wasn’t going to be an academic – I was going to choose the activist route. I was going to be someone who would house people in affordable housing.” In 1988 he began working for a Harlem-based development firm building family-oriented affordable housing andtransitional residences for formerly homeless individuals. He recalls, “I had no capital, I had no contacts. No expertise, but I was willing to learn and to take risks. I had a long view of New York. I thought that these neighborhoods were going to be strong again.”
Anderson had been a devotee of the Lower East Side arts and culture scene since he arrived in New York. In 1987 he moved to the East Village, and four years later he settled at 54 East First Street, above the restaurant space now occupied by Prune, a restaurant he co-founded in 1999. In 1993 he had the opportunity to buy the vacant lot next door at 56 East First Street. Eric says, “the building had been torn down in 1978, according to a friend of mine who lived across the street when it came down. And we bought it from a guy who bought it from the city. He was a North African cab driver who got into the business of buying pieces of land from the city for nothing.” At the time, Anderson didn’t exactly have a vision for the lot. He was also busy building his development chops by creating transitional and permanent housing for low-income individuals and families. His company, now called Urban Green, also worked with community organizations, and built medical clinics as well as a charter school.
When Anderson bought the lot at 56 doing a restaurant at 54 was not even an idea. Regardless, in 1999, he and another East 1st Street neighbor, chef Gabrielle Hamilton, decided to open Prune. He remembers, “Gabrielle was walking by early on a Saturday morning. I had the front door of the commercial space open. I was drinking my cup of coffee. I used to be the super of the building at 54 and would take the garbage out early on Saturday mornings. And she was up early because she had to move her car. And she was walking by, and I knew Gabrielle a little bit from the neighborhood. I knew that she was just back from Michigan, from getting her MFA, and I said, I knew that she paid her bills by doing chef work. She was doing a lot of catering. And I asked her if she was interested in opening a restaurant. I said something like, “you have a food background, right? Would you like to open a restaurant?” And she looked at me like I was out of my mind. She said let me think about it. And that was probably May or June 1999, and we opened the restaurant in October.” Now one of the well-regarded restaurants in Lower Manhattan, Prune was initially meant to be a low-key gathering spot for locals. “We thought that we were going to open up a place that would be for our neighbors. And then we had a New York Times review by Eric Asimov, November 24 1999, in the $25 and under section – like the cheap eats kind of thing. And we’d been open for like a month, and he wrote this incredible review. And the whole place blew up, and then it was like trying to hold the tail of the tiger.”
In 1997 or 1998, Anderson became acquainted with the Lower East Side Girls Club, a local non-profit dedicated to providing leadership skills to young women from the neighborhood. When he realized that the lot at 56 East First was zoned for a community facility, his mission for the space became clear, and he started designing a building in 2001. Construction started in 2003 and within the year a three-story building was completed, with two upper residential floors (one for his family, and one for some Spanish friends), and a large community center on the ground floor. The Girls Club occupied the community facility for the next ten years, until they were able to move to a custom-designed facility on Avenue D.
In his 1999 review of Prune, Asimov noted, ”you could describe the food as homey, or as faintly European. It's hearty, and sometimes it's even funny.” Other than faintly European, much the same can be said for the block of East First Street. While the neighborhood is certainly gentrifying, the block still full of the homey, hearty, and fun flavors of old New York. In operation since 1941, the Catholic Worker’s St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality at 36 East First provides shelter to approximately 25 homeless men and women, and serves hearty meals for 100 people daily. Anderson suggests, “the fact that you can have a Swiss billionaire living right next door to the Catholic Worker – that’s a sign of a healthy block.” Halfway down and across the street are the First Park handball courts. In spring, summer and fall, the courts are alive with throngs of players hailing from around the city, who converge in friendly but boisterous competition in one of the city’s most iconic games. As Anderson observes, “you still get so much diversity over there. It’s a great thing. It’s like a distillation of everything that’s good about New York.”
In the fall of 2013, City Lore relocated to Anderson’s storefront gallery at 56 East First Street, where the organization set to work installing sheet rocked walls, wood floors, and sliding door partitions. The space is now ready to host public programs, performances and exhibits. While City Lore’s location and programmatic capacity have changed, their mission and approach to community-based programs have not. City Lore is still committed to working with the public to identify, document, interpret and advocate for the places and traditions that keep our city strong and distinctive. The difference is that now they have a home on their long-time, distinctively New York, city block.


On the Web