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P.S. 122: Performance Space with Lots of Fame

The East Village and Lower East Side have many superb examples of repurposing abondanded buildings into beacons of culture. P.S. 122 at 150 First Avenue is an exemplar of how historic buildings in New York can thrive with adaptive reuse.

Choreographers and performance artists on the Lower East Side and in Lower Manhattan have relied on P.S. 122 to offer a relatively informal place for artists to create their own work and see the work of others. It is still one of the few places left in Manhattan that offers affordable work spaces for New York’s artistic community.

P.S. 122

In the second half of the twentieth century, particularly during the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the East Village experienced high rates of crime and drug use, and a number of its buildings were abandoned by private property owners and city government. During this period, cultural and arts organizations began to repopulate these otherwise vacant spaces. The artists, dancers, performers, and activists of the East Village filled the buildings with new life, and the buildings, in turn, gave these new coalitions and organizations a place to grow and evolve. It was here the Off-Off-Broadway Theater movement emerged, performance art took on new meanings, and long-lasting networks and programs developed.

Keith Haring’s P.S. 122 studio

What is now  Performance Space 122 at 150 First Avenue was originally built as Public School 122 in 1885 by the prolific school architect and NYC school superintendent Charles B.J. Snyder. The school was abandoned in 1976, at which point community activists including Katharine Wolpe established the 122 Community Center, which still operates in the building. Around the same time, a group of painters, including Keith Haring, and a group of performers, including Charlie Moulton, the Blue Man Group, Penny Arcade, and Tim Miller began to share the space. By 1980, there was a PS122 again, but now the name stood for Painting Space 122 and Performance Space 122. It turned out that the East Village didn’t need more classrooms. The neighborhood needed a place for people to move and to scream and to tell stories that Broadway would never touch. PS122 went on to help define “performance art” in the early 1980s, featuring early artistic work exploring and representing the experience of people living with HIV and AIDS.

In 1979, movie director Alan Parker was having a bit of trouble finding a site that would allow him to re-create the interiors of the High School of Performing Arts for his film Fame. Instead of building a set from scratch, the production came to the East Village. The PS122 staff cleared out, which allowed Parker’s crew to take up residence, sanding and finishing a dance floor on the second level and giving the organization money for further renovations. The film, which was a smash hit, opened on May 12, 1980.

Supporting P.S. 122

According to their website, “Performance Space New York’s lasting presence from the pre-gentrification East Village neighborhood fervently aims to create an open environment for artists and audiences, and thus foster community through performance and discourse—to be a countering force to the often-exclusionary nature of urban development.” Performance Space New York is a nonprofit organization and relies on community support. You can check out more about the organization and how to donate here.You can also join the fight against chain stores which take away from the unique character of the East Village by clicking here.

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    2 responses to “P.S. 122: Performance Space with Lots of Fame

    1. I went to this school back in 1975 and 76. I started out in Racine that’s were my mother being a once housewife, let this lady in that ended up with her joining the Black Panther’s even though she was white. They went by many names, “ People’s Liberation Party.” She came to The east village what was called Alphabet City. Her many boyfriends were abusive black men. She sent us my siblings and I back to Chicago so she could sell my Grandmother’s house. I was 9 and on my own in the streets of Chicago. Elaine Brown from the black panther’s was holding a speec. I remember getting jumped by the same people my mother supported. When the organization sent me back, I had to attend school. Never have been in the building of ps 122. I would have dreamed of how the school looked. In these dreams I walked the halls, stair cases. I would have these dream as I already been there? The day my mother in rolled me: I I had told my mother beforehand about the school “Ps 122. When I walked the hallways of of this school I was overwhelmed with déjà vu. As we walked out the playground entrance I felt like it was a dream. In this school, I found my first crush. Met people that I know to this day. It was the best School. My mother speaking to the Puerto Rican principal she was a woman. Her name was Mrs. Aponte. We try to try to keep the school open. However, teachers like Mrs. Roberts of English dissent. Wanted to send this to a bigger school PS 19. That’s when my learning stopped. PS 19, had no music class well it did for two months. School was packed. No Samarkand how to fight. I left the place that had so much to offer from there I was pushed through the system of a broken education. No one says, how the small schools help the community. As Fredric Bastia, said, “ Law perverted, the police powers of the state perverted along with it. They are guilty of the same evils that they punish others. The law of greed! Ps 122 laid a strong impression on me. Because of the budget cuts that caused it to close robbery of the youth that never finished. The smallness created an environment of love amongst the forgotten children that most are dead today. I believe that if we would’ve went on amongst each other and with the support of the teachers that would even teach us on their own time when we had a problem understanding. I just hope that what this school of arts isn’t prejudice of snobbery. I went back there to make a delivery in 1990. I started to tell some of the people I crossed paths with about the history. I said I was here , the last year it was closedown. I told her this is the building as well the movie Fame was made. I would watch in 78 or 1979 from the roof of 10th street the dancers do their art. I walked in on the Taxi cab shoot. Now seeing how they did the car scene’s.. it fell on death ear’s and now empty soul’s. As I walked out of the building….. I couldn’t help if the school that overwhelmed me with vision’s and Déjà vu, did this once a placed filled with soul if it was empty of the ghost of the children of the past have left this school no more then a tomb?

    2. It also had a great daycare Children’s liberation in that building which in the 80’s and 90’s some of my friends went to, then in the 2000’s my oldest Kids went to. My youngest Wasn’t lucky to go there because they closed the daycare due to the Art space/theater part wanting more space and a Liquor license

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