Photo by Aidan Gardiner
Steve Cannon enjoying a recent jazz performance at his arts space, A Gathering of the Tribes.
An arts space that has always had its door open, now needs some help, in return, from the community
By Aidan Gardiner
On a recent hot Sunday, Steve Cannon sat on the right side of his black couch, his head cocked to the side, listening to the piano notes tumble out of the other room. Jason Moran, a prominent New York jazz pianist, had just begun playing to roughly 25 people packed into the cramped gallery space adjacent to Cannon’s living room.
Cannon, who is blind, slumped forward and clutched a dwindling cigarette. The notes tripped over themselves into an aural pool of melancholy. When Moran finished, Cannon loudly shouted with a raucous croak, “Alright!”
Zach Kangas, one of the many young volunteers who helps Cannon, acted as both the doorman and host, collecting money at the door and tending to Cannon when he needed it.
Every so often, Cannon leaned into someone next to him to share an amusing thought and loudly laugh. Kangas calmly shushed him and slipped another cigarette between Cannon’s fingers. Kangas tried to quickly light the cigarette, but Cannon continued to laugh, bobbing back and forth, forcing Kangas to compensate. It was a move of practiced care.
“I wanna start some s–t,” Cannon growled quietly. “I’m bored.”
“Don’t make me have to throw you outside, Steve,” Kangas replied. Cannon burst out laughing.
Old East Village artists in loose casual clothes mingled with trendy twenty-somethings and pastel-clad society types. The scene was typical for the space, A Gathering of the Tribes, at 285 E. Third St., which doubles as both an arts haven and Cannon’s apartment. For many years, Cannon has kept an open-door policy, allowing anyone to practice their art in his apartment.
Cannon’s Tribes has long been a hub of artistic expression and innovation and now faces an uncertain future. Earlier this year, the building’s landlord, Lorraine Zhang, put the property up for sale. Cannon, who once owned the building but sold it to Zhang in 2004 because of his own financial difficulties, is now unsure if he’ll be able to live in the space once it is sold to a new owner. Zhang told the Indypendent that Cannon is staying in the apartment outside the terms of his original lease and can be evicted at any time by her or the next owner.
Zhang is asking $3 million for the building. According to the listing on the Web site of Marcus & Millichap, a real estate investment firm handling the property, all units are available to rent and new owners have the option of a “possible conversion into a single-family townhouse,” which indicates that Zhang believes Cannon can be forced out. Kyle Woodruff, one of the two agents handling the property, said they’ve already received several offers.
“I’m not interested in talking about it anymore. It’s really going crazy,” Zhang told this newspaper. “This is getting ridiculous. I own the building. I want to sell the building. That’s all.” Zhang declined to comment further for this article.
News of Zhang’s intent to sell the building prompted Cannon and his supporters to mount a ragtag campaign to save the celebrated arts enclave. They’ve held several fundraisers, solicited private donations, and consulted pro bono lawyers. To date, they’ve raised about $15,000, but remain far short of the building’s $3 million selling price. They’ve received contributions from a wide range of donors, including Councilmember Rosie Mendez, Capital One bank and Phil Hartman, owner of Two Boots Pizza, who donated a day’s revenue from his seven locations that totaled roughly $7,000. Hartman also helped Cannon organize a separate event that garnered an additional $1,100.
Cannon said he recognizes that fundraising will likely fall short and that he needs to pursue other options as well. He’s had difficulty securing a full-time pro bono lawyer to launch a legal defense, but said that he’s been able to occasionally consult several sympathetic lawyers. He’s also hoping to convince wealthier members of the New York arts community or affluent arts patrons to buy back the mortgage on behalf of A Gathering of the Tribes.
“I don’t know which one of them is going to work,” he said. “It’s a possibility that neither one of them is going to work. What do I know?”
Cannon has long been a fixture of the East Village arts scene. He used to visit the Nuyorican Poet’s Café every Friday to sip glasses of white wine and berate performing poets: “Just get on with the damn piece, man. We don’t want your neuroses, we want your words. Move me, fool!” The New York Observer quoted him as saying in 1999. “These young cats think they invented stagefright. If you can’t talk, you’d better walk.”
“The poem is nothing without the heckle. It gives it life,” he told the Washington Post in 1993. Cannon helped nurture a rowdy poetry style that grew out of the East Village during the 1990s. He would often sit on his stoop and provide feedback to rehearsing young poets only to lob sophisticated heckle at them when they stepped onstage. In 2002, the Village Voice named him the city’s best bar heckler.
Cannon grew up in New Orleans, but moved to the Lower East Side in 1962.
“I wanted to mingle with all kinds of ethnic groups,” he said. “And New Orleans was not the place to do that.”
Once in New York, he immersed himself in the then-thriving writing communities of the Village. He worked with others and published several magazines. He said that he even hung out with Allen Ginsberg.
“It was pretty riotous during those days,” he said.
In 1970, Cannon was homeless and looking for a new place to live. He approached realtor Arnold Warwick, who suggested that he buy the E. Third St. property outright, and he did for $35,000.
Cannon founded Tribes in 1989, when his glaucoma worsened and forced him to leave his teaching position at City University of New York. At first, it was just a literary magazine that he and some fellow artists published occasionally. (A new issue should be released some time this month.) In the years that followed, more and more people suggested that he host galleries and shows, and branch out into different mediums.
“I’m one of these damn fools who can’t say ‘No,’ ” Cannon said. “Next thing I know I’m telling everybody, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ ”
Over time, Tribes grew and drew prominent artists like Wynton Marsalis and writer Ishmael Reed while providing a space for up-and-coming artists to test their material.
“A Gathering of the Tribes is a sophisticated and assertively multicultural, multimedia, grassroots cultural organization in the East Village,” wrote The New York Times in 2007. “It survives on a combination of personal energy, karmic chance and the economic kindness of strangers, including several arts foundations.”
Jackie O’Bryant, another volunteer who helps run the Tribes office, said that people often stop by and hand Cannon checks for amounts ranging from as little as $20 to as much as $1,000.
Cannon said that for the first 15 years, he was able to cover most of the costs of Tribes with revenue generated by other tenants in his building, grants and private donations. Over time, however, his fading eyesight forced him to rely more and more on the people around him, none of whom knew how to manage property any more than he did. Then in 2004, mounting debt and rising management costs forced him to sell the building — which he said was a relief.
“I didn’t have anyone around me at the time that knew what it was to own a building in New York,” he said. “So it was a weight off my shoulders.”
Cannon met with many potential buyers but settled on Zhang because she gave him the impression that she understood the real estate market and would let him continue with his work at Tribes uninterrupted.
Cannon sold the building to Zhang for $950,000 with an agreement that he could continue to live on its second floor for five years at $1,000 a month with an option to renew in 2009 for another five years at a slightly higher rate. The agreement stipulated that Cannon must submit a written request to renew his lease.
Cannon now pays $2,500 a month — $300 more than the originally agreed-to rent increase — and Zhang hasn’t told him to leave. But Zhang told the Indypendent that Cannon is now living in the space outside the terms of the lease because he never officially renewed it.
Cannon said that he was unaware of the full terms of his agreement, including the renewal process or the exact rent rate, because he is blind and no one made those details clear to him. Cannon also said that Zhang did not remind him to renew his lease, but that continuing to pay his rent constituted an ex post facto renewal, a claim Zhang disputes.
Zhang told the Times that Cannon is only staying in the apartment by her good graces and can be evicted at any time — which she has often made clear to him.
At one point during our interview, Cannon leaned into me and quietly told me to be careful when I spoke to Zhang. He asked that I make it clear to Zhang that this newspaper heard about his plight from other sources because she threatened to evict him if another reporter called her regarding his situation.
One of the most pressing challenges facing Cannon is running Tribes despite the ongoing dilemma he faces. The volunteers, mostly young adults, do almost everything to keep Tribes running, from curating shows to reading aloud to Cannon.
“All I do at my age is order people around,” Cannon said. “I come up with the ideas and they carry them out. Then, they come up with the ideas and they carry them out.”
Bob Holman, who runs the Bowery Poetry Club, said Cannon and Tribes are essential to the New York arts community.
“He’s the point of contact for artists who are just beginning, who want to feel art, and taste art, in order to really be able to create it,” Holman said.
Janet Bruesselbach, who regularly uses Tribes as a studio space and helps curate the gallery, said that the opportunities Cannon affords his volunteers are invaluable. Very early in their careers, young artists can put up exhibitions that are viewed and reviewed by those more established in the field. Another volunteer joked that she arranged a quid pro quo with Cannon wherein she reads aloud to him if he teaches her to curate. She hopes to soon put up an exhibit during which visitors step into a pitch-black room and have to touch statues with their hands so as to let them experience art in the way that Cannon does.
Holman, like many others, said that Cannon’s struggle is indicative of an ongoing trend of gentrification.
“You can’t have a Broadway to bring in the tourists and the media without having the creative fires stoked Off Off Off Off Off Broadway,” Holman said. “That’s where [Cannon’s] at.”
“It’s an old story, that an artist doesn’t take care of the details of life and suddenly discovers himself in the poorhouse,” Holman added. “It only intensifies when the artist is blind and has given everything away to the community like Steve Cannon has.