To begin at the beginning. The idea of starting A Gathering of The Tribes gallery and performance space was inspired by the Nuyorican Poets Café opening its doors on East 3rd Street in1989. A writer from the Village Voice wrote a long-winded article in that paper about all the wonderful things that were in store for the new Nuyorican Poets Café and I was curious to see how it was all going to play out. Their main innovation was the slam poetry contests every Friday night, an idea brought to New York City from Chicago by the one and only Bob Holman. The café, under the direction of Miguel Algarin, also featured open mic readings on Wednesday nights as well as on Friday nights after the poetry slam. And since their building consisted of four floors, they also planned to have poetry workshops, publish a literary journal, and furthermore, have space for out-of-town writers to stay overnight. Unfortunately, the only parts of this ambitious agenda that came into being were the open mic readings and the slams. Every now and again, they would invite a guest poet to read. Still these activities were new and innovative and inspired me to open A Gathering of The Tribes at 385 East Third Street.

At about the same time I decided to start a literary journal that would be based in the gallery/performance space and use the same name, featuring writers and artists that read and showed their work there. I figured it would be wise to get two young writers to edit the magazine and I would act as their consultant, based on my experience of having worked on small literary magazines in the Lower East Side in the sixties and seventies. My original choices were Buddy Kold (Bernard Meisler) and Norman Douglas. They were in a position to do such a thing, since both of them were moonlighting down on Wall Street as I.T. nerds, and making oodles of money — in other words, they were making more than enough to pay for the cost of the magazine. Since they were half my age and palled around with a younger crowd, I would have to trust their judgment in choosing good up-and-coming writers for the magazine; poets, essayists and fiction authors. However, this never panned out because, among other reasons, they took off and went to Europe.

By the time they got back to the states, I’d already published the first issue of Tribes with Gale Shilke as the co-editor. She was half my age and was curating readings at the Knitting Factory and at the Nuyorican Poets Café. She showed an interest in older writers, by featuring them at her readings, as well as younger ones; this gave us a wider range of talent. Since the Lower East Side has always been famous as a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-everything else neighborhood, we had to make sure that the magazine reflected this diversity. We wanted to represent all the various artistic disciplines; dance, music, poetry, visual art, etc. from this inclusive perspective — that was our aim then as it is now.

The first patron of Tribes was Elizabeth Murray. And then David Hammons had an exhibition in Seattle, Washington. As part of the agreement he signed with that gallery he had to give a certain percentage of the money he made to a nonprofit, and the one he chose was A Gathering of The Tribes. David also put one of his images, a self-portrait, on the cover of the first issue of Tribes magazine. This issue included a round-table discussion with David and the editors of Tribes on his art making process.

This first Issue appeared in the fall of 1991. The release party, obviously, was held at the Nuyorican Poets Café. By this time, we’d assembled a group of writers, poets, fiction writers and editors whose job it was to solicit material that they thought would fit in the magazine: music, poetry, interviews, visual art and essays; the whole shebang. The idea at the time was to cover the Lower East Side and the myriad forms of art being produced here, in documentary format, and run it in the magazine. All decisions regarding the final product before publication were by consensus. The magazine never was and never will be dedicated to a single theme. What we wanted was to publish works of excellence with a focus on diversity.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. And this is the old rule that never ceases to make things interesting.

Since I’m blind, we had to find someone to run the office, and we also had to find someone to run the gallery. I was writing plays at the time, so I also had to find someone to produce and direct them. So this is where I’m going to tell you about some of the characters who have come in and out of here and the ups and downs of Tribes over the years.

First of all, Norman Douglas got into a skirmish with Gail Schilke, causing her to jump ship from the magazine. Norman was renting the space on the top floor at 285 East Third, and because he lacked a phone, he would come down and use mine on the second floor. On this particular day, Gail had come over for an editorial meeting, and Norman interrupted us by using the phone, which lasted about an hour. He refused to get off. Gail didn’t feel she could discuss business while Norman on the phone, right there. Gail got pissed and threw an envelope of unread manuscripts at Norman’s head and then shot out of here, forever.

With Gail out of the picture, I found three other young editors to replace her: Jenny Seymore, Melanie Best and Christen Hey. They put together the next three issues of Tribes, choosing the texts as well as the visual art. By this time, we had a wonderful young lady running the office: Martha Cinador. Martha proved herself to be very demanding. But she did a wonderful job of running the organization, planning conferences, meetings and communicating well with the other editors. Each issue was planned the same way. After the final version was approved and the magazine was printed, we held a release party at different locations. We never used the same venue twice.

Another person who worked at Tribes was Dora Espinoza, who had trouble getting along with the others (and there were many others) who were constantly coming in and out of here at Tribes. Her presence caused a schism between those who worked on the magazine and those who worked in the Gallery. It got to a point where they didn’t speak to each other. Dora had her own crew running the gallery, and the editors did what they did. Unfortunately, the art that was printed in the magazine had nothing to do with the art that was shown in the gallery and visa versa. They lived in two separate worlds. By this time, a young lady by the name of Angela, who could type a hundred words a minute, chew gum and have a conversation with you at the same time, was running the office at Tribes. She was a singer songwriter from Canada who also acted in my plays. She too, would have nothing to do with Dora.

Angela was working full time at a coke-headed law firm in midtown and could only come to work at Tribes in the evenings. A woman named Renee also worked here in her spare time as she was betwixt and between jobs. Renee had originally been “on Dora’s team” but now couldn’t stand her. Angela would show up at five or six in the evening. She would ask what had been done during the day. I would tell her what Renee had done and where she could take over. Angela being Angela, she decided things would run smoother if Renee would start leaving her a note, outlining, “I did A. B. and C.” so that we could cut me and my memory out as the middle man. Angela started the ball rolling by writing a note to Renee that very evening, telling her to start leaving her notes, detailing what she had done.

When Renee arrived the next afternoon, I told her Angela had left her a note. She read it in silence, then picked up a ball point pin and wrote over it in bold letters, “UP YOURS!”
When Angela arrived that night, I told her Renee had left her a note. Not only was she fuming, she was beyond fury. She ripped up the note, stormed out of here saying, “It’s either me or Renee. Make your choice.” Since Angela had a full-time job, I chose Renee who was available all during the week and had proven to be reliable.

The first action that Renee took in her new full-time position was to show Dora the proverbial door. She was convinced that Dora was taking advantage of the blind guy, yours truly. She 86ed her from the gallery and brought in a friend to curate shows.

I didn’t realize at the time that Tribes would continue to function as the product of this type of dysfunction for years to come. I don’t know if it’s just the way of artists or my own inclination to approach the universe as a thing of chaos held together by creative passion, that makes Tribes constantly go “Bumbity bump bump bump,” yet somehow sustaining and fulfilling its mission, to showcase art of excellence and diversity, from the edges of it all.

Steve Cannon makes his home in New York’s Lower East Side, where he is the director of A Gathering of the Tribes gallery and performance space. He also publishes the journal of the same name, which has gone 13 issues. Steve is the author of several plays, essays, and the novel, Groove, Bang, and Jive Around, which is now available as an e-book. Steve was involved in the rebirth of the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, in the Living Theatre, and Bullet Space.