The Old Neighborhood: A Q&A with Richard Price About the "Lush Life" Exhibition

In recent days an unusual exhibition has been assembling itself across nine galleries on the Lower East Side, based on Lush Life, the hit 2008 novel by that griot of the street-smart, Richard Price. Packed with grit and culture-colliding incident, the book tells the story of a murder investigation weaving its way through the downtown New York neighborhood. The exhibition, organized by Franklin Evans and Omar Lopez Chahoud, uses the novel as a template for talking about the Lower East Side, using each chapter as a jumping-off point for curated artistic takes.

A native New Yorker, whose penetrating understanding of urban life has enlivened his many books (including Clockers) and screenplays (including for "The Wire"), Price has also been a close observer of the art world for some time. ARTINFO spoke to the celebrated writer about his thoughts on the show, also called "Lush Life," as well as the way the Lower East Side has changed over time, the best movies about artists, and his daughter's pop-up gallery.

For more information about the exhibition, read Sarah Douglas' article on ARTINFO.


How did the "Lush Life" exhibition come about?

Risa Needleman at Invisible-Exports, who I met at a dinner party, just came up to me and told me what was happening. She said that it was a done deal already.

Could you see how your novel could be the basis for an exhibition?

Well yeah — I think their concept was that they wanted a book that they felt was definitive about the neighborhood. They could format chapters to those galleries and do a sort of walking version of the book just going from gallery to gallery. Each installation, from what I understand, is off a phrase or an incident within that chapter. I haven’t seen any of the work. There are a ton of artists. I saw a mock-up of the poster, that’s it.

Did you give any kind of input?

Well, they did a walking video with me on the Lower East Side of a couple of key places in the book, and they’re going to use that as some kind of video installation somehow, but I’m not sure where. I really am in the dark about this a lot. I know the theme of each of the galleries per chapter, but I can’t even imagine what the art is going to look like.

Are you flattered they chose your book?

Yeah, yeah, this is so unique. Sure, absolutely.

It’s a different format for an exhibition for sure, and the fact that it involves some of the best young galleries in the city today makes it especially exciting. And the neighborhood itself is fascinating, with all of its layers of history.

I think it's really more about the Lower East Side than the book. They’re going off phrases in the book. You know, it’s not like Ulysses and taking a walking tour through Dublin, seeing where Stephen Dedalus went. That’s kind of the basic literary walking tour. I’m just like anybody else — I’m dying to see what they’re doing. I haven’t really been involved in the Lower East Side for at least two years — I live in Harlem, you move on. So I went down on this walking tour, and what I saw was more of the same, advanced. And at the same time I saw stuff that gentrification will never touch. It’s pretty much the same, a couple more high-rises than before. But, you know, by the nature of the neighborhood you can’t really do all that much to it except tear everything down that's six stories high and replace it with bigger buildings. But working within the buildings you can’t do that much because they were built the way they were built.

I once stayed in a crumbling building down there. It was one of those Chinatown-landlord affairs, with whole families crammed into tiny apartments and a front door that doesn’t lock.

Yep, that’s in the book.

And now this clothing store opened about a block away that's selling $1,600 Swedish-made suits.

You know, the Chinese... the Fujianese are such a big presence there that no matter the $1,600 suits, they're always going to keep their people in business. But I'm wondering about the Hispanic people, you know, when a bodega goes and a wine bar comes in. That's the thing — they've been there forever and all of a sudden there's a "for rent" sign. The landlord just priced them out.

But the ethnic Chinese population down there isn't going anywhere.

Yeah, I think it pretty much keeps to itself. If you go south enough on the Lower East Side, you don’t even know you’re in America. Right above Canal Street, and certainly right below Canal Street, the Chinese presence is so intense that it’s not going to go anywhere, and it’s a growing population on top of that.

You grew up in the Bronx, but I believe you’ve had family on the Lower East Side stretching back for generations.

Yeah, everybody has, pretty much. A couple of schmoes who came over from Russia or whatever, just like everybody else. But it wasn’t part of my childhood, and I have no real memories of it before being in high school. My father had a hosiery store in the Bronx and there were hosiery wholesalers on the Lower East Side, and they were open on Sundays because they were Orthodox Jews, and closed on Saturdays. So I just remember going down there on Sundays to pick up a ton of hosiery for his store. He was also a window-dresser, and he had a client who was a Chinese guy who ran a department store on Canal Street, and I remember going down there — this was around 1960, 1961.

That’s was kind of the tail end of the "old neighborhood," when the area was populated by European immigrants.

Yeah, that was the tail end. It got a lot more dangerous in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, I guess until Giuliani took over the police department. It just descended into hard drugs, and it was always poor down there but then poor became violent, and poor became sort of drug mercenary. But, you know, there was always a beatnik presence down there, but I can’t imagine anybody walking on Ludlow Street in, say, 1976 and saying, “Oh man I gotta buy something here, this is going to be worth a lot of money.” I mean, there were lines going around the block to buy heroin in an apartment that today probably sells for about $2 million.

It’s such an unusual palimpsest in that way. I think it must have more overlapping sociological strata than most other neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, it has archaeology that you can dig up — if you look at the waves of people who have come, say, from the 1870s to now, over the last 140 years, there must have been five different waves. The immigrants came and then the whole neighborhood became hardened around the people that didn’t have mobility, and then when drugs came in it became dangerous and desperate, and then when crack went away real-estate people came and they glommed onto the artists who had quote unquote “discovered” it in the 1960s and 1970s, and then the artists got priced out by the real-estate people. Now it’s kind of like everywhere else, where there's no there there, in a way. Too expensive.

There were tons of artists who came from down there, successful ones.

Most artists I know can't afford to live down there. Most artists who I know started moving out to Williamsburg and then when they couldn't afford that started moving further out in Brooklyn. But the pattern is that the artists come and the realtors come in and they jack up the rent based on the cachet given to it by the artists, and then the artists who gave it the cachet have to move out and the real-estate guys follow them there and they have to move out again and pretty soon everybody is living in the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s funny, too, because the quality of life down there is so mixed as a result. While there are some nice restaurants, you can't find a supermarket anywhere unless it's one of those more or less hidden Chinese markets.

Now you see a few preschools because people down there are starting to have little starter families, you know, but these are the white arrivistes, because people were down here for a million years with families, but they were living in the tenements when they were tenements and the housing projects. But these are the people that are looking for preschools, you know, private tuition preschools. So you can see the character of the neighborhood changing and the stores that meet the needs of people there who are starting to have families, for example. There are stores that are right next to each other — you might have a bling shop right next to a wine bar, and whoever goes into the bling shop would never in a million years step into the wine bar and vice versa. So it’s still pretty schizophrenic, but it’s leaning toward — I mean, who knows, but my guess is it's going to wind up destroyed, like everywhere else. TriBeCa is no longer TriBeCa, SoHo is no longer SoHo, Greenwich Village is no longer Greenwich Village. It just becomes a place for rich people to live.

Have you been following the migration of galleries down into the neighborhood? Maybe five, ten years ago there were some galleries opening on the Lower East Side, but they’ve started gradually moving down to exactly the area where your book was set.

When I was down here I knew there were galleries, but there weren’t too many. I knew Rivington Arms, I was aware that there were galleries there, but they looked like they were for the generation that was making the art. There were young artists and young people that were coming to see it. It was not really establishment art. I don’t really know what the art scene is like down there, but all these galleries that I’m involved with, they must have mushroomed.

Lower East Side galleries are getting more and more recognition these days, with their show reviewed regularly in the New York Times and their artists are being featured in museum shows. In the case of one gallery down there, Candice Madey's On Stellar Rays, five out of seven of its artists were included in MoMA PS1's "Greater New York." Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1, said they envisioned the show by thinking about an ordinary day walking from gallery to gallery on the Lower East Side.

What’s good about this is that it’s going to make people see the connective tissue, you know, that there is a group dynamic going on, an interconnected art community down here. But it's tough. I mean, painters need space, and that's an area that’s pretty cramped. I know some old-school painters that are down there on the border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and they're living in ancient places. But it’s not like TriBeCa used to be, where it’s like wilderness and nobody’s using the space. It’s pretty populous down here, and the spaces are pretty small.

I think they have their studios in Bushwick.

There’s also a section of Philadelphia called the Sixth Borough, in what's called the Liberty Bell section. And it sort of looks like the Lower East Side, but from 15 years ago. Everything is sort of on a small, very intimate scale, and you can get a small two-bedroom apartment for $1,500. And it’s basically an hour away by Amtrak. You know, real-estate pricing creates a diaspora.

I know artists have already moved to places like Hoboken.

And they can’t afford Hoboken. They couldn’t afford Hoboken 15 years ago. I mean, that’s the first place they tried and moved to and that place has become so yuppified. So you know, forget Hoboken and Jersey City or something like that. Hoboken is like the Upper West Side. It’s a vicious cycle, so you might have two or three years where you can afford it. It’s just the realtors, they smell the espresso and they run in.

Do you collect any art yourself?

Yeah, yeah. I like photographers. Mostly I have Weegees, and I have Bruce Davidsons, and I have a Guston. Well, I had a Guston. Leon Golub. I like a lot of artists, I just can't afford a lot of artists.

Have you been collecting for a long time?

Yeah, for about 25 years.

When you say Weegee I think of Mad Dog and Glory, which you wrote, and you wrote the "Life Studies" section of New York Stories, which is one of the most riveting depictions of an artist's life in American movies. So you’ve been following art in your work for such a long time — how did you initially get drawn to it?

Well, I was married to an artist. I don’t want to talk about my private life, but there was a big stretch of my life when I was involved in the art world.

It’s just such a rich character setting, so for someone who is so interested in characters it must be irresistible.

Are you talking about the social element of it? I’m not really social. I’ve met a lot of interesting people, and I was friends with them and everything, but I’m not a particularly social person. I don't go to that many literary things either. But I like the art. It’s the art that I respond to.

Are you still involved in the art world aside from this show?

There are artists that I'm friends with, and there’s art that I love. And my daughter has a gallery. It’s a floating gallery called 7-11. They just had a massive show on 20th Street and 10th Avenue in a space that used to be a UPS truck garage. They had like 76 artists there. They basically reconstructed a house in the gallery and every object in the house was made by an artist. Every kind of mundane thing. It’s three kids who run it, and it was their third or fourth show that they’ve done over the years, often in different spaces.

It's an interesting convergence that this show is being based on your book at the same time your daughter is getting into the business.

But she’s an actress — she just does this. This is something they all do but they all have other fish to fry. You know, they put on a show and then they disappear for six months and then they put on another show. It’s not like a full-time job.

The pop-up gallery is a model that’s been turning up everywhere.

Yeah it’s very nomadic, and I think they do pretty well. But also, they can draw on their peers — they’re all in their early twenties — so they can draw on their peers in the art world, and they can also draw on the older generation that they’ve been connected to since childhood, you know, through their parents.

Just to go back to "Life Studies" and the movies you’ve done that relate to the art scene — what movies do you think have captured it well? I don’t know if you’ve heard of this new film, Boogie Woogie, but it's pretty terrible.

Well, everybody loves The Horse's Mouth. I mean, that's everybody's favorite movie.

I've never heard of that.

Oh my gosh, that's the Citizen Kane of artist movies. It's like 1950 or so with Alec Guiness, he plays this poor hustling artist in London. It’s funny. Most artists are very finicky when they see art represented. Usually when you see artists in movies, especially studio movies, and it’s so caricaturish that people just basically feel insulted. If New York Stories captures some of it, that’s great, but The Horse’s Mouth is the one that everybody seems to like. It’s in the Criterion Collection. And of course there's Lust for Life, that old hairy thing with Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn about van Gogh. People kind of like that in a sentimental way because it’s kind of big and broad and doesn’t pretend to be much else than what it is.

Do you ever see yourself writing another art-world screenplay?

Nah, life’s short. I don't want to write screenplays, I just want to write books.

You were just doing a reading tour in Germany — did you see any similarities between the Lower East Side of old and Berlin?

What they should have is this space that they have in East Berlin, because it’s got this massive housing put up by Stalin and no population at all, it's just like a thousand artists. So if I was an artist I'd move to East Berlin and I'd have a studio the size of a football field. It’s just too big and there’s not enough people. It’s almost too big to be intimate.

Are there any of these artists from the younger generation, in Berlin or here in the states, that you're interested in?

I don’t really spend that much time in galleries, I don’t keep abreast of the art world. I’m sort of stuck two generations back. And I guess my favorite of all is Phillip Guston, and the German Expressionists. I’m living in Harlem now and I sort of adapt to where I am, and it’s not really a big art-world place to live. I’m sort of really focused on my writing right now.