In 1990, James Wentzy â” a 38-year-old struggling artist, darkroom wizard and self-described SoHo homesteader â” learned he had H.I.V. Faced with his own mortality, he decided reluctantly to do something he hated. Work.
âIâll be dead real soon,â he figured. âNo later than the end of â90. Iâll work real hard so that when I die, itâll be a relief.â
David W. Dunlap/The New York Times Some of Mr. Wentzyâs tapes.
With that, he began videotaping members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or Act Up, and others as they fought popular indifference and official neglect in the face of the AIDS epidemic. He recorded artists who were living with H.I.V. and AIDS. He produced more than 150 AIDS-related programs for public-access cable television and was the subject of a documentary, âBooks of James.â
What Mr. Wentzy didnât do was die. So his tape collection grew and grew and grew into an archive about 600 hours long, or 25 entire days from beginning to end. There were incendiary moments, like when protesters hurled the ashes of AIDS casualties over the White House fence, and quiet ones, like when the poet Jaime Manrique recalled visiting with the writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was suffering from AIDS, the day before Mr. Arenas killed himself.
âJames Wentzy has been the great, tireless chronicler of the grassroots response to the AIDS crisis for over 20 years,â Jim Hubbard, a co-founder of MIX, the New York Queer Experimental Film Festival, wrote for an exhibition at the Fales Library of New York University.
In Mr. Wentzyâs basement apartment at 12 Wooster Street, where he has lived since February 1982, he created a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling video library, editing suite and impromptu museum of gay life in New York City, just outside a darkroom and processing room that would have been the envy of many black-and-white photographers. Almost all the construction materials were salvaged from within the building, which was once the headquarters of the Durbrow & Hearne Manufacturing Company, makers of sewing and embroidering machines and needles.
James Wentzy The basement of 12 Wooster Street as Mr. Wentzy found it in 1982
Three things pushed him to keep going, Mr. Wentzy said. One: motivating others to get active in the movement. Two: educating the public about why Act Up and its allies were so angry and impatient. Three: preserving a living history of the often-tumultuous campaign against AIDS.
âI had no control over the first two,â he said, but added that he knew he had that third one nailed.
The future of Mr. Wentzyâs archive seems assured, with its recent acquisition by the New York Public Library. âJames Wentzy has made a major contribution as an activist and director,â said Jason Baumann, the libraryâs coordinator of collection assessment. âHis materials in the libraryâs collections are essential for scholars and documentarians studying AIDS activism.â
Mr. Wentzyâs own future, however, is anything but certain.
David W. Dunlap/The New York Times Mr. Wentzy in his living room.
He has depended for 31 years on the kindness of his landlord, D. James Dee, a photographer of fine art who does business as the SoHo Photographer. They struck a deal in 1982 under which Mr. Wentzy would process and print Mr. Deeâs large-format black-and-white negatives in return for rent-free quarters in the basement. The arrangement has persisted, long beyond the near-obsolescence of film, to this day.
But Mr. Dee is retiring to Florida. And though he will still own the ground floor and basement of 12 Wooster Street, he has leased it to the jewelry designer Melissa Joy Manning, as an office, design studio and wholesale showroom, for 10 years, beginning Aug. 1. âThey want to use the space theyâre paying for,â Mr. Dee said, not an unreasonable position for a tenant to take.
So Mr. Wentzy, 60, must move out. And soon. He does not know yet where heâll land â” Germany, Thailand, Japan, Jersey City, Oakland, Calif., or out in the woods. Heâll be leaving a city much different than the one that welcomed him in 1976 from Brookings, S.D., with a seeming promise that he could do anything if he stuck to it long enough.
He will be dismantling a place suffused with memory, smelling of old wood, darkroom chemistry and cigarette smoke. (Mr. Wentzy rolls his own). Heâll be packing up tools of long-ago trades, like a sample book of Durbrow & Hearne needles and a glass case full of dead videotape cameras, along with posters, leaflets and buttons that called people to long-ago battles.
âAct Up was one of the few communities that got down to fight,â Mr. Wentzy said. âI havenât used the word community without putting quotes around it since the mid-â90s. I think we lost the war on AIDS. There is no community. Now itâs, âGood luck, youâre on your own.â â
Unlike many tales of real estate displacement, Mr. Wentzyâs story has no villain. In a way, it doesnât even have a victim, he acknowledged. âAfter 31 years, I canât start crying, âOh, Iâve been so lucky and now Iâm not,â â he said.
âAnd I canât jump out the window with any satisfaction.â
David W. Dunlap/The New York Times A photo of the artist Tehching Hsieh at the front door of 12 Wooster Street in 1982, next to a tag from Durbrow & Hearne.