Eastside Sound: An Interview with Lou Holtzman [Part II]

Posted on: April 30th, 2013 at 6:30 am by

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We already had a look at the Eastside Sound studio; now some backdrop on the owner…

Let’s put it like this.  A long time ago.  Picture this neighborhood…total deserted area.  I mean, when jazz musicians and rockers would come to my studio in the 70s, there was one bodega open until around midnight.  This place was a ghost town.  And a dangerous ghost town… -Lou Holtzman

It is a soggy Wednesday afternoon when we meet Eastside Sound owner Lou Holtzman for lunch inside Congee Village at 99 Orchard Street (aka 98 Allen).  This is the building in which he was born and raised, and later worked. The building that was completely bombed out on the upper levels in the 1970s; the building that nurtured his idea of starting a recording studio; the building that successfully fought off the Tenement Museum in a fierce eminent domain battle in the early aughts.

Holtzman’s mother ran a handkerchief business in the ground floor retail space.  Growing up, the neighborhood was such a drug-infested shithole (“prostitutes shitting on the stoops”), that both mother and son learned to protect themselves. “It was like Fort Apache down here,” he says.

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[Mother on Orchard 1939; Photo: Holtzman]Yet Holtzman never escaped those dangers in early years because, in the end, this is his neighborhood.  Always a musician (drummer), this Lower East Sider had a ton of space in this building.  After closing the family store, he opened a studio in what is now the mezzanine section of Congee.  Friends and bandmates would rehearse here at first, but he later realized that recording music was the perfect route.  The entire original Eastside operation was built with his own hands, and “little by little, it became my career.”  He claims that it was the first recording studio on the Lower East Side, “before anyone even thought about that.”  Some of his proudest aural achievements include Mercury/Polygram singer Jean Lucien, Blue Note pianist Don Pullen and pianist Tommy Flanagan.  All analog, sans auto-tune.

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[Outside Eastside; Photo: Holtzman]By 2000, though, the Allen Street studio was no longer cutting it.  Holtzman packed up the gear and moved to the current location at 150 Forsyth Street.  The main impetus behind this decision was to jumpstart a new income stream by renovating the entire building for habitation.  In addition, his Aunt, who co-owned the building, sold her stake to the Congee folk.

As for the future of Eastside Sound, the obvious intention is to keep growing.  Holtzman hopes that the operation stays here well after his own life.  In the immediate future, one lofty goal is importing some Chinese talent to record old school R&B-type music here.  Niche market.  He assured us that Garage Band and other DIY digital workstations aren’t really killing the business.  But the effects are still felt.  Despite the ease and convenience of such services, some musicians enjoy the professional attention.

Of course there’s the prickly subject of rapid change.  Regarding recent gold-rush gentrification and developer advancements, Holtzman agrees that there’s presently good and bad in the neighborhood.  On the one hand, the area is cleaned up from its derelict past (somewhat), and the safety factor is much higher.  On the other hand, rents are simply too ridiculous to survive.  Overall, he believes the 2008 Lower East Side zoning was an instrumental move that will keep future development in check.

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