Beginning in January 1962, 27 Cooper Square has been the home of many of this country's well-known artists, among them writers, musicians and painters, including Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Archie Shepp, Elizabeth Murray, Sirone, the late George Mingo, Hettie Jones, and others. Dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, the building can be seen in archival photographs exactly as it appears today. The Seventh Regiment assembled in front of it on their way to the Civil War, and it has seen the Third Avenue Elevated train come and go.
It was last used as a cold-water rooming house and had been vacant for a decade when in early 1962 the record producer Marzette Watts, the actor Ezra Lazley, and writers LeRoi Jones and his then-wife Hettie Jones moved in. They installed heat and hot water but lived simply and frugally as most artists did then. The Joneses produced their magazine Yugen and Totem Press books here, and because Cooper Square was centrally located, many of the artists of the time began to drop in for meals and parties. 27 hosted writers Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, Diane di Prima, Frank O'Hara, Fielding Dawson, and many others grouped under the "Beat" and Black Mountain labels, as well as painters and other visual artists such as Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers, Bob Thompson, David Hammons, and Robert Frank. When Archie Shepp and his family moved in, there were rehearsals and musical activity that involved Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Butch Morris and others. Because at that time the original Five Spot was only half a block south, 27 became a place where people just dropped in to find out what was going on.
In the later 60s, 27 was the "headquarters" of the nascent Black Arts Movement, and in the 70s witnessed the arrival of a new generation of artists, among them Stanley Crouch, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Billy Bang and other musicians of note, as well as visual artists such as George Mingo and David Hammons. When the Shepps left, Elizabeth Murray and her family moved in, as did the bassist Sirone. Because there are only three residential floors to 27, and a narrow central hall as well as a common mail slot, living here was a shared experience, and as was common in those years, both the ordinary maintenance and many of the repairs to the building were done by the artists themselves. Those who lived here felt, even though they didn't own it, that 27 was theirs, not only because they cared for it, but because of the many major artistic decisions that were arrived at within its spaces.
27 has been a spot on literary walking tours since the 70s and is mentioned in many books that discuss the origins and continuing artistic relevance of the East Village. It is also the childhood home of still another generation of artists including the photographer Accra Shepp, the writer Lisa Jones, and the art historian Kellie Jones. For all of the above-mentioned reasons, I believe that this place matters, and additionally--and most importantly--it has always been, and continues to be, a central ground where artists of all races have met to share ideas and aesthetics.
27 is an intimate space. Its facade represents New York through the 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries, but its artistic and spiritual importance, who lived here and what they created here, overshadow its physical self. Still, were it to vanish, there'd be nothing to point to, nowhere for the tour buses to stop and mention "Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation," as they were overheard to do in the Fall of 2005.