2004-11-30 Place of Aid and Comfort – NY Times

For Activists, a Place of Aid and Comfort
The New York Times
By David Gonzalez
Published: November 30, 2004


Twenty years ago, Steve Stollman decided he wanted to do something
positive for himself and for the city. After fighting without luck the
city’s plans to slather advertisements on bus shelters, he was looking
for a cause that would embrace his belief in human-size alternatives
to mass-marketed urban life.

He settled upon bicycling and welcomed into his East Houston Street
storefront the various groups that promoted it.

“My life had been tied up around trying to stop people from doing something,” he said.
“Negative, negative, negative. I got involved with bicycling because I wanted to do
something nonconfrontational.”

Well, that was the plan. In recent months police officers have taken to coming by his
storefront on the days that Critical Mass sponsors its meandering rides about town. On
Friday, nearly two dozen officers – on bicycles, Mr. Stollman noted wryly – waited
across the street while about 100 riders danced inside after the ride. Others were not
so lucky, as the police arrested 17 of them during the ride.

“I’ve got this gray cloud over me,” said Mr. Stollman, 62. “If I become involved in an
issue, all of a sudden it becomes confrontational and difficult.”

Over the years, he has given aid and comfort to news dealers who are fighting the city’s
plan to replace their stands with little more than tricked-up billboards; bicycle
messengers who were once demonized as a rolling threat to street life; and Time’s Up,
an environmental group that supports the monthly Critical Mass rides.

Such is his solidarity that he even put in storage the antique bars he refurbishes and
sells – his main source of income – to let larger groups meet at his storefront.

Andrew G. Celli Jr., a lawyer for the news dealers, said the storefront he jokingly c
alled “conspiracy central” serves a serious and public purpose.

“It is a home for all these things that have been cast off by the culture,” he said.
“But they have an intrinsic value, are based in history and are community oriented.”

None of this should come as a surprise, since Mr. Stollman started out in the city
distributing underground newspapers like The Chicago Seed as well as various so-called
“comix.” He can still recall the names of two of the three Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
(Fat Freddy and Phineas Phreak – Freewheelin’ Franklin eluded his memory.)

The news dealers he met more than 30 years ago were often blind or veterans whose
politics were the opposite of the papers Mr. Stollman distributed. Yet they took a
chance on him as long as the papers sold.

Mr. Stollman said their acceptance impressed him.

“You’re blind, you’re on the street, and everybody is trying to rip you off,” he said.
“Yet you are taking the additional risk of selling literature that is politically
dangerous. I couldn’t believe how vulnerable they were.”

He meant that literally, too, since the stands were often ramshackle green huts better
suited to a bygone era when they sold only newspapers. He decided to learn woodworking
and build sturdier stands. To do this, he moved to a storefront at 49 East Houston Street,
between Mott and Mulberry Streets, in 1974, and later bought the building.

The neighborhood then was not exactly chic.

“The week I moved in there was a tabloid headline, ‘Firemen Might Get Paid This Week,’ “
he said. “It was very scary. People were moving out of New York City. It looked like
the city was not going to make it.”

The storefront, built in the 19th century (and looking it), had been through a few
incarnations as a bar, including one known to locals as the place where police officers
on the take got their regular envelopes.

As interesting as the building’s past was, the neighborhood’s history was more appealing.
Jacob Riis, who exposed the underside of urban life, once worked as a police reporter
nearby. Puck magazine, which satirized the powerful and the self-righteous, was published
a block away. Nikola Tesla, the inventor who competed with Thomas Alva Edison, had his
laboratory across the street.

If there is a place for maverick karma, he has found it.

It could explain why he has opened his doors to more and more groups who have challenged
business as usual in New York, groups that used to float around parks and plazas. “There
are all these buildings which have plazas, and they have to welcome you, up to a point,”
Mr. Stollman said. “But here, people can come around and in terms of advocacy of their
issues, it gives them a place where they can exist. It is as much a psychological thing.
You have public spaces, but you know you are still a guest there who at some point might
not be welcomed.”

Members of Time’s Up said that since they started coming to Mr. Stollman’s space they
have been able to expand their activities. They now offer workshops on bicycle repair,
as well as legal clinics to deal with their unexpected transformation into urban
anarchists on two wheels.

“Face-to-face communication is so important in any movement that wants to go forward,”
said Rick Conroy, a volunteer with Time’s Up. “Before, we met in coffee shops. Now we
can have a meeting with 20 people. And it’s bike friendly.”

How much longer it remains so is uncertain. Mr. Stollman knows he could sell to
developers who have transformed the area.

While sitting at a broad table in an upstairs alcove, where the walls are plastered
with vintage street and subway signs and the tin ceiling is partially covered with
billowing Indian print blankets, Mr. Stollman mulled over two requests for meeting space,
from the satirical protesters Billionaires for Bush and another outfit calling itself
Bush on Crack. He had promised his partner, Melissa Miller, that he would sell the place
and move upstate. Ms. Miller, who works for the Visiting Nurse Service, said the decision
was his, but she fully understands what is at stake.

“It used to be you could walk around the city and see these little stores and you wondered
what they did inside,” she said. “It was curious. It was whimsical. Now there is no whimsy.
There is only hard-edged business. Steve’s is one of the last places of whimsy that I
know of. It’s a dying breed, places of whimsy.”

Mr. Stollman says that the groups he has taken in perform a public service, which he sees
as making sure the streets and sidewalks serve the common good and not corporate interests.
He insists that the cyclists he has welcomed into his house of whimsy might actually change
the city. The riders, he said, approach their cause with joy and seriousness, two traits he
thinks are indispensable.

“People are in a very depressed state because they see things as bad and getting worse,”
he said. “The antidote is joyful, constructive activity. Oh, there are pills, also.
Unfortunately, after a certain period of time they seem to stop working.”

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company