Steve Cannon, a blind poet and arts patron, faces evictionby Gerard Flynn January 18, 2012
"One of the worst things about being blind is that you gotta trust people," said Steve Cannon recently on his couch at A Gathering of the Tribes, an alternative salon and performance space on the Lower East Side.
Cannon was mulling over news he had just received from his accountant that someone's been taking money from Tribes, possibly one of the many volunteers he depends on to run the arts organization, which he started as a literary magazine in his apartment over twenty years ago.
Cannon was also pondering his next move in a legal wrangle he has been having with his landlord, Lorraine Zhang.
In 2004, Cannon sold the three-story townhouse at 285 East Third St to Zhang for $950,000, having lived there since 1970, long before the area became gentrified.
Under the agreement they signed, and which was to be renewed after five years Cannon would get to stay as a tenant in the apartment until 2014. The agreement also stipulated that Cannon could continue Tribes, with Zhang acknowledging that the "seller is using the 2nd floor apartment for his non-profit activities, which seller represents are private art and cultural gatherings and poetry readings."
Cannon said he would never have sold the 174-year-old building, it to her without that stipulation. "I sold it to her because I trusted her. I would never have sold it to her if I couldn't continue Tribes," he said.
The agreement seemed like it was set in stone. Tribes' future, at least until 2014, assured. The art shows and poetry readings would go on.
But when the agreement came up for renewal in 2009, Cannon never signed it. Being blind forces Cannon to depend on his unpaid volunteers. "I didn't sign it because nobody here brought it to my attention," he said.
Non-renewal didn't stop Cannon from sending rent checks, however, including one for a year's rent, he said. It also didn't stop Zhang from cashing them -- until now.
Zhang's decision to put the building up for sale in January 2011 alarmed Cannon enough to try and raise funds to buy back the building, although he never raised more than $15,000.
Then, last August, Zhang started making a baffling demand -- "stop all commercial activities" in his apartment. That claim ran counter to Zhang's acknowledgment in the possession agreement that Cannon was running a non-profit, he said.
Tribes is a 501-C. Not that Zhang was listening. Over the following months, more emails and more phone calls came. Sometimes every few days with the same demand -- stop all commercial activity -- and a vague accusation that Cannon was in violation of their agreement.
It eventually became clear to Cannon what Zhang was asking. "She wants me to cease and desist Tribes," he said in a dry New Orleans drawl one sullen morning, glass of vodka in hand.
Zhang's demands, however, didn't stop the retired professor of the humanities, who came to New York in the early 60s from London -- to be part of its diverse literary and arts scene and because "black people were getting their teeth kicked in by whites in the South," he said.
Rather than yielding to Zhang's demands, Cannon has kept the show going. A phone call from her one December morning last, again ordering Cannon to shut down Tribes, was met that evening by a mad and raucous party of burlesque babes from Montreal, who peeled off their clothes in the back garden below to a packed audience of revelers.
Since then Tribes' literary and artistic assemblages have continued, sometimes bringing up to seventy guests in tow. However, more parties, more art, more poetry readings may have been the final straw for Zhang. Despite Zhang telling this reporter last December that Cannon was welcome to stay for as long as he wished, things took a turn for the worst at the end of last month.
As if strategically planned to launch Cannon's New Year on a downer, Zhang's lawyer served Cannon with eviction papers at the end of the month. Cannon has been ordered to vacate the property by February 1, possibly marking the end of an arts organization that has been an important incubator to many aspiring artists on the Lower East Side -- and internationally. The salon is known in art circles all over the world. Despite the bad news, Cannon said he is hopeful of a positive outcome. If not, the 77 year old promises to go down fighting. The ongoing legal tangle may even spill out into Occupy Wall Street.
In addition to being funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation, which sent him a grant for $40,000 last year, Cannon does often remind everyone that he knows some rich and famous people. He is calling on them to get involved to save Tribes.
Mayor Bloomberg, he said, has written checks to Tribes totally $20,000. While this week, Dave Hammons sent a check recently for $30,000.
He is also writing to state senators and members of the City Council to hear his case. Local Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who has sent him a check for $6,000, is expected over soon. The case, even if it ends up in housing court soon before a judge, might be made the more difficult to defend given a violation Cannon received from the Department of Buildings.
The building, which is zoned for residential use only, received a visit in June 2006 from a Buildings' inspector.
The inspector found Cannon's occupancy "contrary to that allowed by the Building Department -- in that the second-floor has been converted into an office and art gallery contrary to records," the violation reads on the agency's website.
Since Buildings never issued a certificate of correction for the violation, it is still open, making it doubtful whether Zhang can sell the building until it is cleared up.
An attempt by the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Protection to landmark the Greek Revival building was denied by the Landmarks Preservation Commission was in September.
If Zhang prevails in their legal wrangle, Cannon has no intention of stopping Tribes -- completely.
"I am a writer. I have always been a writer," the author of several books of fiction, including Groove, Bang and Jive Around, said. "I started Tribes as a magazine and I will continue it as a magazine. F--k the gallery, I can close always that down," he said, vodka in hand.
Others foresee the passing of Tribes as a "tragedy" for alternative art in New York -- and beyond.
Since Cannon started Tribes, said Bob Holman, of the Bowery Poetry Club, he has turned an "open house crash pad moveable feast gallery" into an "anti--institution" and "last holdout of a culture that predates the horrific triumph of capitalism," he said.
"It is the only open door cultural center in New York City. If it goes the world will be a whole lot less interesting and there won't be another place to go where everyone is an artist or a poet because they say so and Steve agrees."