East Villager discovers her true calling

13 Jun

Thirty-eight years after earning an anthropology degree and then deciding that wasn’t her calling, Helaine Sorgen has taught herself the art of potting and now runs a successful pottery shop on 9 Street in the East Village.

Clayworks, located on 332 East 9 Street, has been owned by Helaine Sorgen since 1974. “The store was a pottery before I even got here, and I’ve kept it that way as the neighborhood has changed around me.”

In 1971, Sorgen took a beginner level pottery class being offered at Clayworks. After a year of being in class, the store owners decided to close the shop. Sorgen then stepped up along with some friends also taking the class to keep the store in business.

“The original owner wanted out of the store,” said Sorgen. “All of the people taking the class decided to take over the store because we didn’t want to see it close.”

As Sorgen and her friends began to run the store, some of them backed out, but she remained at the shop.

Helaine Sorgen stands proudly outside of the shop she has owned since 1974. “I took this business over with a lot of apprehension, but I learned as I went, and things have turned out alright,” said Sorgen.

“Life happened. People grew up and got married and moved away,” said Sorgen. “Eventually, it was just me here and I decided to give running the business a shot.”

After operating on her own for two years, Sorgen signed the lease for the building under her name in 1974.

“I enjoyed being my own boss. I enjoyed the clay,” said Sorgen. “I asked myself, ‘What am I fooling around for?’ and realized that I had to take the plunge and lease the building.”

As Sorgen took complete control over Clayworks, she taught herself more and more about being a potter as time went on and the shop is now a successful local-run business.

“Learning to run the store and make pottery was a process,” she said. “I started small and just saw what I could do. Eventually I got better.”

Though Sorgen was truly passionate about potting, she remained in school and finished with degrees in anthropology and classical Greek civilization.

“Anthropology taught me that we’re all human,” she said. “We’re all essentially the same. The same parts of anthropology that appealed to me apply to pottery too.”

Sorgen now devotes most of her time to working on pieces to sell in her store.

“I spend a lot of time on each piece,” said Sorgen. “I rarely begin a piece knowing exactly what it will be. I try to make things that are practical for everyday life, and I also take requests from customers.”

Though passionate about anthropology, Sorgen doesn’t regret pursuing a career directly related to her degree.

“As a woman, there was no place in anthropology unless you were married to a man and wanted to be his secretary. I didn’t want that for myself,” said Sorgen.


One week later…

13 Jun

So, since I last blogged, I’ve had a six hour class ending in three major assignments and a very busy week, gone to a show that I’ve been wanting to see for years, and had an epiphany that is benefiting me as I speak.

Needless to say, there’s a lot to catch up on. Here we go…

On Tuesday, I had class. Six hours of class, to be exact.

Now, a lot of you are probably reacting just as a normal person would. I mean six hours is insanely long, right?

Surprisingly not.

We always workshop our stories from the week before. By that, I mean we pick them apart and help each other make them even better. Sometimes, if the whole class is having a similar issue, we discuss that.

In this case, we were all guilty of being hijacked.

Yep, I said it. We were hijacked. A character in our story took the story right out of our hands and ran with it.

I guess I can explain now…

A problem that many young writers have is the tendency to let one character kind of dictate the entire story. By this I mean the writer loses the point of the story in the character’s quotes.

Stephen, one of our professors, really stressed that we can’t let characters “hijack our stories.” We have to take charge, say what needs to be said and move on to the next one.

Definitely something to work on in stories to come.

On Wednesday, we got to see the Blue Man Group. (One perk of doing the summer program: you get to experience things students in the normal school year don’t!)

As a side note, the blue people were a bit frightening, but the momentary fear was worth it in the end.

Jackie, Annamarie and I with a Blue Man!

The show was about 2 hours long, and I can’t even begin to describe all of the visual effects they used.

The audience was involved the entire time and I can honestly say I would hands down recommend the show to anyone who has the opportunity to see it.

At the end of the show, I HAD to get a picture with one of them. If you know me, you know I don’t play around when it comes to pictures.

So, I made my way to the front of the line and got the picture. Score.

That’s one more thing I can cross off my NYC bucket list!

Our assignments for this week were to profile an interesting person in the East Village, work on a photo story for Stephen, and my classmate Taylor and I were assigned the Man on the Street project for this week.

I’ll cover the profile in another post.

As for the photo project…a very common business in the East Village is frozen yogurt shops. (literally, they’re everywhere, and due to their frequency in the neighborhood, I am now addicted.) Along with frozen yogurt, banks and cafes are everywhere too.

To demonstrate just how many of each of these businesses there are, our assignment was to take photos of every single frozen yogurt shop, bank and cafe in the East Village.

Every. Single. One.

All of them.

And let me tell you, there’s a LOT. The village was split between the 5 of us and we had to walk our areas and snap pictures and record the addresses of the places.

In the end, all of the pictures will be put on an interactive map that pinpoints the locations of each of these places and gives the addresses. It should look pretty cool, plus we’ll all get a byline in the Local!

Now for the Man on the Street interviews.

Taylor and I were the victims…I mean…reporters for this week.

We had to check out video equipment and literally go into the streets of the village and ask passers-by what businesses excluding bars and restaurants they thought were the most common in the East Village. Then, we had to edit all of the responses together and create a 2 minute video clip that answers the question.

The boys who did the Man on the Street the week before had a really REALLY terrible response. People wouldn’t talk to them at all. They told us they talked to hundreds of people and ended up with around 9 interviews.

Needless to say, Taylor and I were dreading this project.

We headed out really early on Wednesday to start the project. We were fully prepared for rejection.

As it turned out, we got more responses than we thought. (Sorry boys, maybe your people skills aren’t up to par? Kidding…)

We headed back to the institute to start editing and promptly sat there for over 7 hours. What’d we end up with?

30 seconds. I kid you not.

As we struggled to edit the video together, we learned so much more about video editing than we could have imagined, and we’re very proud of the end result.

So, here’s the grand premiere! After 12 hours of video editing….

Oh…as for the epiphany?

I realized since the one opportunity I had to get a roommate came and went, I had an extra bed. Naturally, I pushed them together, threw some blankets on the empty bed, and have been lounging in the lap of luxury ever since.

Life’s good.

Plant sales honor beloved local florist

10 Jun

Note: This story was published in “The Village Beat” in June 2011. I’m recording it here, however, because the site will no longer be live once this internship ends. Here’s Bill Curry and Cornell Edwards’ story:

In a bittersweet tribute to a local florist’s life, his partner has raised close to $4500 through the sale of his plants to locals who revered him as an active, kindhearted member of the community.

Cornell Edwards died suddenly on March 29 due to a stroke, and for the last seven weeks, Bill Curry has opened the doors of the Flower Stall on 143 East 13 St. to accept donations for the plants to go towards one of the pair’s favorite causes: the Seneca Village Restoration Project.

Started in the 1820’s, the Seneca Village was Manhattan’s first community of African American landowners. Short-lived due to the construction of Central Park, there have been efforts ever since to rehabilitate the community. Edwards was very passionate about this project.

“Cornell was an advisor on the board for the Seneca Village,” Curry said. “He was very involved. Anything he was part of, he was not passive.”

Also involved the community board in the seventies as well as heading up the housing committee, Edwards’ role in the community was admired.

“Cornell was a lovely, gentle person with a good sense of humor who truly enjoyed being around people, and that was evident due to his community involvement,” customer Diana Wall said.

As Curry slowly lets Edwards’ plants go, he finds comfort in the fact that “the plants are being converted into something substantial.”

The shop, an eclectic mix of things the pair had purchased together over their 50 years of partnership, was a staple in their neighborhood and brought locals together.

“Cornell’s flower shop was one of the few places that anchored the neighborhood as a place of neighbors,” long-time customer Claire Moed said.

As locals make generous donations in honor of a beloved community member, the future of the shop has come into question.

“As I sell plants, I’m really throwing [Cornell] away piece by piece,- again- but I can’t take care of all this,” a tearful Curry said.

Curry, who still evokes deep emotion when discussing the passing of his partner, is currently looking for a tenant who will bring something unique to the Village and do some good for the community.

“[Whatever business goes here] has to be something that can contribute to the community,” he said. “I want to find something that would carry on Cornell’s vision.”

As Curry works tirelessly to sort papers, sell plants and keep the shop running, locals have been contributing in the form of donations as well as spending time in the shop and helping Curry out.

“I come in here all the time,” Moed said. “He was a neighbor. I don’t think people understand that word today. I mean neighbors, like, who know your kids and care about your family and have your extra set of keys. That’s what we are.”

While Curry opens the shop each Saturday to continue his sales, locals realize the end of the Flower Stall era may be near.

“This is a rare New York store,” Moed said. “And once it’s closed, there’s not another New York store like it.”

You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one

5 Jun

In my class, one of the large projects we’re working on is about the 2010 census. We’re angling it as a perception versus reality type of thing, meaning we’re on the streets digging around to see what people THINK happened in the census over the past 10 years (perception) as compared to what the numbers tell us (reality).

A map of East Village on a wall in the journalism institute.

My class is covering two sections of East Village. The sections are called “tracts.” That being said, this next bit is for my curious New Yorkers. Everyone else, don’t worry about the coordinates. It’s really not vital to your understanding, and it’s pretty confusing if I do say so myself. The first, Tract 20, spans from Avenue D to FDR Drive, then East 6th Street to East Houston Street. The second, Tract 38 covers 9th Street to 3rd Street, then 1st Street to the Bowry (or 3rd Street).

So, more or less, we’re talking two areas that are a few blocks long and wide.

Professor Latty assigned each of us a different angle to cover. Mine was to talk to businesses that had been around the neighborhood forever- mom and pop shops- and to find out how they’d seen the neighborhood change.

Based on my recent Flower Stall find, I was more than happy to accept this challenge, having an excuse to wander the village for hours.

My friend Nadine and I tackled this task together, because her job was to cover new businesses, which, consequently, were often located right next to the old ones.

We started on Tract 38. This is truly the heart of East Village. It’s a well off neighborhood, with numerous shops and restaurants. NYU has buildings not too far from this area, and we had a lot of ground to cover.

Here's the VMA from The Ramones, conveniently located on the right as you enter the store.

My favorite find of the day was a store called Trash & Vaudeville, located on 4 St. Mark’s Place. Apparently, I’ve been out of the rock n’ roll loop, because this place is famous. Like, really REALLY famous. It’s been around since 1975.

Let me paint this picture for you: the shop is right next to a really popular bar, so there’s a lot of traffic. When you walk in, you’re greeted by people who are true rock n’ rollers. I’m talking spiked hair, studded belts, mohawks, band shirts, spandex…you name it, they’ve got it.

Then, you have one of two options. If you look to the left, you’re facing a wall of photos of celebrities who have been in the store. The one that stuck out to me was Avril Lavigne. If you look to the right, you’re facing a VMA belonging to The Ramones (that’s right…a Video Music Award. As in, MTV) in a glass case. So, regardless of the decision you make, you’re going to find something fascinating.

The outside of Trash & Vaudeville, along with Jimmy.

Then, the store goes back for what seems to be the rest of the block. So basically, this place is huge. Not to mention the downstairs.

I approached one of the employees, explained myself, and was told to wait for Jimmy, who could tell me more about the store than anyone. Jimmy was pointed out to me, and he was on the sidewalk talking to customers, convincing more and more people to come into the store.

I knew I was in for quite the interview, so I waited. And waited. And waited. After about 20 minutes, a frazzled Jimmy tells me he “needs a minute to get his thoughts together” and then he could talk.

I was so intrigued at this point I can’t even explain it. So, I looked around the store and waited for Jimmy to collect himself.

Once he finally finds me, we go out onto the balcony and I ask him one simple question: “How have you seen the East Village change since you’ve been working here?”

Jimmy looks at me, sighs, and proceeds to tell me my question was boring.

I won’t lie, I was a little taken aback because I really didn’t know how to reword the question to catch Jimmy’s attention. So, I asked him what he would like to tell me about.

He went on to explain the history of the shop and how “everyone that’s anyone in the rock n’ roll world comes here to shop.” He told me his frustrations about the “monstrosity of a vacant building” that’s next to his shop, and how the neighborhood’s economic status has shifted.

He shared with me his feelings on the lack of diversity in the East Village. (This statement was really surprising to me, but Jimmy knew what he was talking about.)

He then told me how everything has become so over priced and expensive that only a certain type of person can even afford to live on the block anymore. That’s where the loss of diversity comes from.

“If you go uptown, all you see is a velvet rope or an $8 cappuccino- which isn’t necessarily bad- but it’s a change from how things used to be,” he said.

At first, I didn’t understand where Jimmy was coming from, but he painted a picture of East Village that was so vivid I couldn’t help but feel like I was there. He told me of the local beat cop that would walk around the block everyday and that knew everyone’s name. He told me of the old men that used to sit across the street and play checkers day in and day out, and he told me of his personal struggle to make it in New York.

That visit really opened my eyes to what people who have truly grown up in East Village see as compared to what outsiders see.

I went to a few more shops, some sharing Jimmy’s opinion and some believing that East Village really hadn’t changed much. It was interesting to hear stories and step back in time to what East Village used to be.

After spending a few hours wandering around Tract 38, we made our way to Tract 20- which is in Alphabet City.

I won’t even lie, I was a little intimidated going to the rougher part of town. Avenue D is where the projects are located, and it doesn’t exactly have the best reputation.

The few shop owners that spoke enough English to talk to us (it’s a mainly Hispanic neighborhood…I knew I should have paid better attention in Spanish class back in elementary school…) told us that basically what you see is what you get.

One shop owner in particular said that seeing white people was very unusual in that side of town.

Though we were in the same village, Tract 20 felt worlds away from Tract 38.

A story that began with a few statistics about vacancies in each tract turned into a story of diversity and change in the East Village. Without going out to talk to these people, I never would have learned that two neighborhoods a few blocks apart could be so different.

There is one common thread amidst all of these differences, however.

Each and every person I spoke to told me of a dream they had. Whether it was for the neighborhood, like the store owner in Tract 20 who told me he hoped crime rates would diminish so Alphabet City could be a more welcoming place, or Jimmy in Tract 38 who told me of his journey in the rock n’ roll world, East Villagers, along with everyone else in the world, are people with hopes and dreams just waiting to come true.

I think Jay-Z says it best: “Concrete jungle where dreams are made, there’s nothing you can’t do…”

Here’s to New York, dreams waiting to come true, and rock n’ roll!

A fact of life

5 Jun

Since arriving in New York City, I have been continuously learning.

Whether it’s life skills like finding the best deal at a grocery store (I now understand why my mom is so appreciative of coupons) and making the responsible decision to go to bed at a reasonable hour even though there’s a whole newsfeed on Facebook to discover, or job skills like scheduling interviews and revamping the angle on a story, these past two weeks have been a huge learning process.

I know I posted a blog a few days ago about about life lessons, but I really need to touch on this one more time. (I promise, this won’t be too redundant.)

Amidst the numerous learning experiences I’ve already faced since coming to this concrete jungle, perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned seems to be the most obvious:

People are people, no matter where you go.

I know, right? Good job, Catey. You’ve discovered that the human race exists world wide. But that’s not what I mean.

I’ve learned that no matter where you go, people act the same.

For example, Have you ever met someone else’s group of friends and you see your own friends “roles” in those other people? That’s what I mean.

I mean that walking down the street in the small town I grew up in (South Lyon, Mich., or, the “Dirty SL” if you’re a real native) and walking down the street in East Village really aren’t that different.

People are rushing around, trying to get to work or school or whatever on time. People are in good moods, bad moods and in-between moods. There are people that want to talk and make friends, then there are those who want nothing to do with anyone else.

You’ll find that no matter where you go.

For me, this realization has eased a lot of apprehension I had about moving to New York.

I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but as I go out everyday and see hundreds of new people, I realize that we’re all not as different as we may think.

Tell me your story. Don’t leave out any details.

1 Jun

So, I blogged about the flower shop on my street a few days ago. As it turns out, my teachers thought the story was a great find so I went further with it.

Today, I went back to The Flower Stall with one of my professors for a follow up interview and to take some more photos.

The store wasn’t open, but we found Bill’s (the owner) door and rang the doorbell. (In a non-creepy way, don’t worry.) He finally answered, and after some awkward yelling back and forth from the third floor of the building to the sidewalk, he came down and opened the shop so we could talk.

This has to have been one of the best follow ups ever. Let me tell you…

A customer admires a photograph of Cornell Edwards, and told me her personal stories about the influential man.

To start, no amount of words can accurately describe The Flower Stall’s interior. At first glance, it’s cluttered, messy and disorganized, but once you enter the building, the clutter and disorganization vanish and a tale of a 50-year long romance unfolds. Each and every article in the store has a story, and Bill would love to share every single one of them.

The purpose of me returning to the shop was to ask some more in-depth questions. I needed to get information that I had overlooked in the first interview, and, most importantly, I needed to find out the status of the future of the shop.

As we began to talk, Cornell’s death was brought up. I won’t lie, I was reluctant to ask details about it in the first interview because I could see the pain on Bill’s face.

Anyway, it was brought up and Bill told the entire story. He discussed Cornell’s stroke, the attempts at rehabilitation and his ultimate death. Bill was so choked up the entire time. The pain was real and raw- true emotion- exactly the type of emotion attached to a worthwhile story.

We went on to talk with Bill for another hour or so, and he continued to tell stories of Cornell’s life, people’s reactions to his death and his future plans for the store. (Which include something involving a non profit organization, hopefully.)

Once again, I left The Flower Stall with a new lesson learned. Sometimes, pain is inevitable. People feel pain. It’s a real emotion, and I’m going to encounter it as a journalist.

I’ve been told before that as a journalist, you become people’s therapist, shoulder to cry on, person to vent to and everything in between.

Today, I realized that was the absolute truth as Bill began to heal a bit more while telling me his 50-year journey with the man who stole his heart.

It’s all about trial and error. Mostly error.

30 May

Ever heard the saying “life’s the hardest teacher- it gives you the test first THEN the lesson”?

Well, let me tell you, if you’re not familiar with that phrase- get used to it. There’s never been more truth behind a statement than that one.

Where to begin? I guess I’ll start with Sunday afternoon.

My friend Erin and I decided to go out for lunch before I left for my New Jersey trip. (oh yeah, I forgot to mention- I graced New Jersey with my presence this weekend!) According to her professor, there was great, CHEAP Indian and Italian food both located on 2nd Avenue. (Please note that “cheap” is the key word in this sentence.)

Being the naive new-New Yorkers that we unfortunately are, we took his suggestions without any background research on the places. (Spoiler alert: BAD, BAD idea.)

The first place we went to (I won’t name names because 1- I can’t pronounce let alone spell them, and 2- I’ll let you make judgement for yourself- if you really want to.) was the Indian restaurant.

One would think the lack of customers would deter us. Nope. How about the waiters lingering in the doorway? Negative. Or- here’s the kicker- what about the bullet holes in the front window? Nah. We were feeling adventurous.

We walk in and are rushed by three waiters. None of them had anything to do because there were zero people in the restaurant. We were immediately seated and brought numerous breads and sauces. Erin and I soon realized that everything brought to us was not complementary and prices were ridiculously high. Additionally, the waiters were hovering- and I mean LITERALLY standing about three feet from us the ENTIRE time.

It’s truly beyond me how they expected people to make any sort of decision under that type of pressure.

We quietly discussed our escape route and finally my strong-willed Polish roots came to life as I told the waiters we had changed our minds, grabbed both mine and Erin’s purses and exited the restaurant before they could say a word.

So, the first place was a no-go. Not a big deal. We decided to venture a bit further down 2nd Avenue to the Italian eatery.

Again, this place was over priced and the wait staff was awful. We seated ourselves outside (which was a huge mistake in humid 85 degree weather) and it took almost 15 minutes to be served water, let alone to have our orders taken.

Not to mention, this restaurant had menus with fine print. Who does that? At the bottom, in the smallest handwriting imaginable, it said “we accept cash only.” Thank goodness Erin and I both had enough cash on us to cover our overly-expensive, mediocre-tasting meal.

Needless to say, food was a bust on Sunday, which is upsetting because we took recommendations from a New Yorker- thinking he would know what he was talking about.

Clearly, his idea of cheap is spending a small fortune on food I could make in my own kitchen.

Lesson learned: when it comes to something as vital as food, do your own research, read the fine print and absolutely never enter restaurants toting bullet holes in the windows as decoration.

On to my next lesson of the weekend: the subway system.

When I first got to New York, my brother attempted to explain to me the subway, how it worked and how to read the maps for the trains.

Now, I’m not sure if you’ve ever ridden a subway, but it’s definitely confusing. (Keep in mind however, this is coming from the girl who gets lost in the grid-shaped city…)

Long story short, 14th Street and 14th Avenue are indeed very VERY different.

I mistook 14th Avenue as the street I lived on, got on the wrong train, and headed all the way downtown when I was supposed to go uptown. (That’s confusing too. Who decides what’s up and what’s down? I should have a talk with them.)

I ended up wandering the subway for over an hour until my stubbornness finally subsided and I asked someone for directions.

Once I exited the subway and made my way back to civilization, I made a promise to myself that I was never riding it again. Until I realized I have to catch the subway later this week. That should be comical.

So, as life tested me again and again this weekend, and I failed again and again, I learned one very important lesson: you’ve got to be able to roll with the punches.

Restaurant sucks? Wander around until you find something good. Lost on the subway? Put aside your pride and ask for directions. These little trials we’re put through on a day to day basis are simply opportunities for us to learn a lesson.

With that, I say thank you life for being the toughest teacher yet.

After all, everyone knows you look back at the teachers that were the hardest on you with gratitude when it’s all said and done.