Going Greene—The Greene Street Project: A Long History of a Short Block

October 31, 2015


What can one block, a span of less than 500 feet of a New York City street, tell you? If you look closely enough, you can see 400 years of economic development. In a new website entitled, “Greene Street Project: A Long History of a Short Block,” (http://www.greenestreet.nyc/), William Easterly and Laura Freschi of NYU and Stephen Pennings of the World Bank have created an interactive timeline covering 400 years that charts the economic evolution of one NYC block, Greene Street between Houston and Prince, that reflects the broader evolution of the entire SoHo area from rural farmland to high-end retail hub, thus placing current day SoHo in the context of New York City’s history.


From the site: “By 1700, the block was part of the large Bayard farm. The farm stretched from what is now Chinatown to the southern part of Greenwich Village, around 200 acres.” (Thomas Howell, ‘Greenwhich Village painting,’ 1768. Via Greene Street Project)

In many ways, the objective of this site mirrors the mission of The SoHo Memory Project. The website preserves and shares the history of this one block, explaining how its communities evolve due to the changing economic forces that continue to drive growth in New York City today. NYU professor William Easterly, co-author of the paper and this companion website, explains in a recent article in Wired Magazine:

Most research on economic development takes a very broad view, focusing on a country or other relatively big region, Easterly says. Very few studies have tried to investigate how the fortunes of much smaller areas map onto broader trends.

Indeed, the timeline illustrates quite clearly how this block, once inhabited by half-free slaves from the Dutch colonial era, became British-owned farmland, a wealthy residential area, an entertainment district that included a red light district, a factory hub, a deserted area declared by some as obsolete, an artists community, and then the wealthy residential and commercial area that it is today.

Red markers show the locations of brothels in 1870 and 1880. (image: G.W. BROMLEY & CO. / DAVID RUMSEY COLLECTION)

Red markers show the locations of brothels in 1870 and 1880. (image: G.W. BROMLEY & CO. / DAVID RUMSEY COLLECTION)

Is it true that history repeats itself? Does this timeline hold clues to what is next for SoHo? Mega retailers have taken over Broadway as the popularity of online shopping continues to rise. What will happen once everyone is a half-free slave to Amazon Prime? Who will shop in SoHo? What will become of these vast commercial spaces? The answer to this question will surely affect what will become of its residential real estate as well.

Market value of the real estate on the Greene Street block, from 1830 to 2010. (image: WILLIAM EASTERLY, LAURA FRESCHI, AND STEVEN PENNINGS)

Market value of the real estate on the Greene Street block, from 1830 to 2010. (image: WILLIAM EASTERLY, LAURA FRESCHI, AND STEVEN PENNINGS)

Remember, SoHo as a residential neighborhood with a catchy name is only 50 years old, a long span in a person’s lifetime, but a blip in the lifetime of New York City. SoHo’s pioneers invented to concept of adaptive reuse by converting factories into homes and art galleries. But as long as time goes on, New York City will continue to change, and there is nothing anybody can do to stop it. That is not to say that we, as a community, cannot have a say in how it changes. SoHo pioneers proved that by fighting off Robert Moses and powerful real estate developers—and winning. What can we do to shape SoHo’s future?, Learning about its past will inform how we shape its future, and the Greene Street Project is a great place to start!

Is there art in SoHo?

October 3, 2015
Walter De Maria, The Broken Kilometer, 1979. Long-term installation, 393 West Broadway, New York City. Photo: Jon Abbott

Walter De Maria, The Broken Kilometer, 1979. Long-term installation,
393 West Broadway, New York City. Photo: Jon Abbott

Many people lament the fact that SoHo is no longer a cultural destination, that it has lost its creative soul. I beg to differ. SoHo may no longer be the center of New York’s art and gallery scene, but there is still a vibrant creative community here, though it is sometimes obscured by the more visible retail establishments. This is evidenced by the recent formation of three organizations in SoHo that work to highlight SoHo’s continuing connection to the world of art and design. The SoHo Arts Network, SoHo Strut, and the SoHo Design District have a diverse array of programming that highlight cultural sites and resources throughout our neighborhood that might otherwise be overlooked.

SANThe SoHo Arts Network (SAN) is a new partnership launched in March 2015 with a mission to support SoHo’s creative history and growing artistic community. Did you hear that? Yes, growing! According to the SAN press release:

Created in part in response to the misperception that SoHo has lost its arts community, the network provides an important platform to increase awareness of the neighborhood’s continued importance as an arts district, especially for non-profit organizations. … In addition, the network seeks to further ignite the growth of the arts in the neighborhood through public programs and events exploring SoHo’s rich cultural history. Future events being planned by the group include walking tours of SoHo’s artistic past and present, and a series of talks on SoHo in the 1970s.

The founding members of SAN include: Apex Art, Art in General, Artists Space, Center for Architecture: AIA New York Chapter, Center for Italian Modern Art, Dia Art Foundation, The Drawing Center, The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, HarvestWorks, Judd Foundation (101 Spring Street), Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Recess, Soho Photo Gallery, Storefront for Art and Architecture, and Swiss Institute. Click here for a map showing the locations of all member organizations.

Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art at 46 Wooster Street NYC

Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art at 46 Wooster Street NYC

SAN introduces us to relative newcomers to SoHo’s arts scene, such as The Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA, pronounced cheemaa), a nonprofit organization established in 2013 to promote public appreciation and advance the study of modern and contemporary Italian. SAN also reminds us that we are home to many long-established arts organizations, such as the Dia Art Foundation, The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and The Drawing Center among many others. When was the last time you visited the Earth Room or The Broken Kilometer? So close to my house, yet I have not been in years! Read the rest of this entry »

You are What You Eat….or is it Wear?

September 5, 2015
(image via domesticgeekgirl.com)

(image via domesticgeekgirl.com)

A couple of months ago, I walked past 127 Prince Street at the corner of Wooster and was surprised to see that a Lululemon men’s store had opened. Lululemon for men? It had probably been there for months and I had just not noticed. What a leap, I thought, from the old days.

In 1971, that same space was home to a restaurant called Food. Founded by artists Gordon Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden, and Tina Giroux, Food was a social and culinary hub where artists could find employment, nourishment, and camaraderie. It was, for a long time, one of the only places to eat in SoHo, other than Fanelli’s and a few greasy spoons that were only open for lunch to serve the neighborhood factory workers.

foodfacadeAt Food, there was no wall between the kitchen and dining room—food preparation was a performance for all to see, and its consumption was a delight to mind and body. In truth, it was a revolutionary way to eat. SoHo was a community of counter-culture back then that included food and Food. Sometimes scarce, food was an integral part of SoHo life, often celebrated and raised to the level of art at Food. The restaurant’s founding was part of a culinary revolution that centered upon fresh, locally grown and often organic food in an open kitchen, common today but unheard of back then. Read the rest of this entry »

Crosby Street

August 1, 2015


Are you ready to go back? WAY back? Here we go….

Filmaker Jody Saslow contacted me recently about a film he made when he was at NYU film school called “Crosby Street.” It is a beautiful portrayal of everyday life on Crosby Street in 1975 that profiles workers and residents alike at a time when gentrification was just peeking its head around the corner.

This film resonated with me in so many ways. As an archivist and historian, this film is an essential resource that documents our neighborhood’s heritage. These firsthand accounts are “proof” of what SoHo was like back then. Read the rest of this entry »

And The Survey Says,… Part II

June 23, 2015
Crosby lunch

Crosby Lunch, the coffee shop on the corner of Crosby and Prince, where my mom would get me grilled cheese and milkshakes, is one of the places I miss most from my childhood.

A couple of years back, I did a roundup of responses to my SoHo Memory Survey that ended up being one of my most popular posts (see And the survey says, ….).

Today, I am revisiting the survey, as many people have submitted profiles since 2013 (If you have not yet submitted a profile, please go to the “Your SoHo Profile” page and fill out the form). Reading through the responses, I felt myself transported to another time, when things were most certainly quieter, dirtier, colder, friendlier, and more surprising.

Not that there aren’t surprises in the SoHo of today. The ever escalating number of shops that open in SoHo is surprising to me. I thought it would have plateaued years ago. The ever escalating property values in SoHo. I thought that, too, would have leveled off at some point (it has to at some point, doesn’t it?). The fact that Jon Bon Jovi’s loft in the New Museum Building sold for $37.5 million. But I’m not sure that was even surprising, just a stark contrast to the fact that people I know bought their lofts for $5,000, but that was in a different time, though in the same place.

I suppose that’s the takeaway of this post. That we have fond memories, good and bad, of old SoHo, but that is not to say that we are not fond of our present, though perhaps in other ways. The very fact that there are high-end stores and high property values is what has allowed me and my family to continue living in SoHo, through income from commercial tenants and the security of owning property in this highly desirable neighborhood. It’s just that our present is so very different in ways we could not have possibly imagined, back when SoHo was young.

2013_3_2_ 036

The corner of Greene and Prince Streets, ca. 1978, back when the Richard Haas mural was new. Photo: MCNY

What do you miss most about SoHo in the 1970’s?

Everything. It was the real New York. I remember a store called Barone, that was a fabulous make up store. I loved “Let their be Neon” that was great. The lights in some of the steps and the sidewalks. I miss Food, the restaurant. I miss the street cats. I miss the smell of the bakery on Prince Street.

The quiet.

The vibrant arts community. The building of our lofts to make them livable. The help neighbors gave each other in trading construction skills. Building the lofts together. Seeing each other’s art and encouraging each other. Sharing ideas and materials. Knowing everyone when you walked down the street or went to the store for groceries. Having my named called out when I entered Spring Street Bar or Magoo’s or Fanelli’s,

The other artists, the ability to interact and learn from one another, building a community of fellow artists, using our studios to show each other’s work, the peace and quiet to make art and think creatively. I miss the all night diners. I miss gathering at Fanelli’s when Mike was still alive and his sons worked there. I miss the manufacturing community that worked here, though many in sweatshops. Yet it made the neighborhood real.

It was a discovery everyday. Artists. Buildings etc. Today it is too “precious” for my taste but NYC never stays the same and I love that too.

The uniqueness, the awesome shops unlike anything else, the grottiness, that flea market in the empty lot, the shop where they sold only postcards.

The mix of cultures, of working class and middle class, families, and single folks, old and young, and artists, and real life. The streets at night, barren but full of promise and fun. So many characters.

Walking around the neighborhood and running into friends and acquaintances. The community of artists. The quieter streets and fewer stores.

  1. Discarded cardboard rolls from textile mills, which were good for sword fights and construction projects.
  2. AYH bike joint on Spring St.
  3. Walking thru galleries with my parents on Saturday morning and seeing all their unusual friends (men who kissed men! People who painted pictures as a job! Poets whose poetry never rhymed! Who were these people!??)
  4. Expedi Printing and Sam Chen (maybe was 80s?)

The entire neighborhood.

I still love the old buildings, the urban landscape. I’m sad it’s so commercialized. I loved the remoteness, the outlaw feeling. I remember going home from the bar at night, walking down the empty center of the street instead of the sidewalk, because it was safer.

The feeling that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Mercer Street at Prince Street, Onetime Guggenheim SoHo, now Prada SoHo. Photo: MCNY, Edmund V. Gillon

Mercer Street at Prince Street, Onetime Guggenheim SoHo, now Prada SoHo. Photo: MCNY, Edmund V. Gillon

What do you miss least about SoHo in the 1970’s?

I left in the 60s but I do not miss the 5 long flights of stairs or heating the loft with a space heater and a fireplace so it was cold as hell in the morning or not being able to answer the door incase it was the building inspectors.

The dirt.

The danger to women walking dark streets at night coming from waitress and bar tending jobs. We were not supposed to be living here so we could not complain about the street lights being out. We could not call the cops for the same reason.

Living here illegally, having no garbage pickup, no street lights at night. I do not romanticize the sweatshops that misused migrant or illegal workers. But I miss the integrity of people working for a living to make a better world for their families.

The grime, the industrial noise during the day could get irritating.

The chicken slaughter house across the street from my apartment building on Mulberry Street. It smelled horrible in the summer heat.

The sometimes dark and deserted streets. The loud trucks on our block during day and night.

I miss all of it. The dirt, noise, factories, lofts that my friends lived in …

The mafia as my landlord for a work space on the second floor of 69 Mercer St. You had to be very careful not to piss them off.

The hike to grand union; unlocking my door with one foot jammed to keep the elevator door from closing on me, while a packed crowd of sweat shop workers waited behind me in the elevator and I occasionally fumbled my keys and dropped them down the elevator shaft; rats in the tub.

I can’t think of any deterrent, other than it was hard to catch a cab.

I miss it all!

Sledding in the Parking Lot (I seem to have lost track of the source of this photo. If you sent it in. please let me know. Apologies for the oversight!)

Sledding in the Parking Lot (photo: Nava Lubelski)

What is your most vivid SoHo memory?

The long and happy friendship I had with Sol Lewitt who lived on the 2nd floor of our building. Also the huge fire across the street where 4 firemen died and Sol saved me from being burned up.

So many. Seeing the colorful textiles outside, the large spools that people used as coffee tables. Dean & Deluca, galleries, Whole Foods, Food.

Meeting talented people from all over the world and from places in the United States that I had never heard of. They came, every year, the best and the brightest from rural, agricultural and cosmopolitan places and they all ended up here trying to build old lofts into studios and to make themselves famous. Andy Warhol walked and hung out among us, Henry Miller too, Blondie sang at Arturo’s, Phillip Glass bought my piano when I needed rent money.

The buildings, the architecture that is so compelling both inside and out. It was a soulful place filled with artists of diverse backgrounds, drawn here from every part of the US and abroad to try and make art of every kind; jazz, poetry, sculpture, dance, painting, and photography etc. The energy was amazing and unique because we were here in one area while the rest of the city for the most part ignored us.

Having to yell up to someone’s loft for them to let you in. Also, the window ladies on Thompson – leaning out of their windows across the street, a pack of smokes, a bottle of coke, and a rolled up towel to rest their arms on.

Many vivid memories, but I think the interior of the raw and semi-finished lofts were intense.

Eating at Food. Visiting galleries and seeing Duane Hanson sculptures, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed exhibit. Empty, desolate streets with dumpsters filled with fabric scraps. The WTC being built in the distance.

There are a few: During my first summer there, 1977, there was the big Blackout in the Northeast. I remember sitting on my fire escape around three in the morning and seeing more stars than I’d ever seen in NYC. Mike Fanelli, asking the local tradesmen/artists, “are you working”, and not charging folks if they were out of work. Then, there was the guy who, around 10 or 11 at night, every so often, would come riding across Prince Street on a bicycle, from the Bowery, towards Soho, singing opera at the top of his lungs, with his dog running along side of him. I could hear him from blocks away, before he appeared outside my window. If I was in bed, I’d get up to run to the front room window, to see him. It made me feel joyful to hear and see him. The days surrounding the tragic disappearance of Etan Patz. I used to see him, playing on the sidewalk out in front of his parents loft, near Whole Foods.

Standing in front of our graffiti filled front door taking a first day of school picture every year from age 5-10.

Impossible to narrow down… Fear when Etan Patz was first reported missing… Getting Easter Basket from guy at Broome St. gas station when I was 3 (we were Jewish so this was confusing to me)… Eating at Food… A lifetime of happenings and events.

Standing next to John Lennon & Harry Nielson at West Broadway & Prince St.

My landlady, Mrs. Ermelino, leaning out of her window on a little pillow, yelling at people who wouldn’t clean up after their dogs: “Hey! You! Why don’t you go back to Jersey!”

Playing in the parking lot on Grand Street, waiting for the school bus at 6th Ave. and Grand and getting hot choice from the diner there on cold days, riding bikes on the old West Side Highway.

Walking home after midnight in a snowfall. Walking past a store window on West Broadway and seeing a pair of exquisite shoes I couldn’t afford (I think there was one boutique there then). Meeting Isamu Noguchi on my roommate’s couch, in her loft (he was her friend).

Seeing an entire world emerge from a dank and dark forgotten part of NYC.

Moving Forward Toward the Past

May 31, 2015
420 West Broadway back when it was the center of SoHo's gallery scene in the early-1970's

420 West Broadway back when it was the center of SoHo’s gallery scene in the early-1970’s

We did it!  And we did it SoHo style.  Everyone in our community came together this past month and gave what they could to fund The SoHo Memory Project’s Portable Historical Society through Kickstarter.  We could not have done it without each and every donation.  Thank you all so much for your support!

Things are moving forward! I am already busy thinking about how to adapt the Uni Project’s Portable Reading Room to accommodate a fabulous exhibit about SoHo.  I am compiling a list of possible popup spots. I’m talking to people about donating items to our archive.  I am meeting with old-timers as well as newcomers with stories to tell.

I will be spending the summer making plans and making contacts and making new SoHo friends so that we can hit the ground running come Fall. If all goes well, our portable historical society will begin popping up around SoHo in Spring 2016, with possible previews this coming winter. Read the rest of this entry »

Yes, The SoHo Historical Society!

May 1, 2015

So here it is—my big plan. Drumroll please….. I plan to design and build a portable historical society that can navigate the bustling urban environment of today’s SoHo while showing a glimpse of its past. and today I am kickstarting a fundraising campaign through Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform for creative projects. Kickstarter-Logo- Read the rest of this entry »

The SoHo Historical Society?

April 2, 2015
Loft For Sale - Copy for an advertisement, date unknown.  Sounds like a nice place.  And I think it was on West Broadway!

Loft For Sale – Copy for an advertisement, date unknown. Sounds like a nice place. And I think it was on West Broadway!

Ever wonder why SoHo doesn’t have a historical society or neighborhood association? I am forever grateful that we have the SoHo Alliance and SoHo Partnership. But I mean more like a place that preserves the cultural history of SoHo, what real loft living was like, what it was like to grow up in a loft not knowing that other children had doormen and elevators and carpeting, what it was like to raise a family while living illegally. Stuff like that.

Mike, Jane's husband, inspecting the installation of the first wall in the loft. (image: Cass Collins)

image: Cass Collins

Well, I have. I obviously think it’s an interesting story— I’ve been writing about it for the past 4+ years. And this blog will probably be around for years to come, even if I stop writing it today. But I think we need something more. Although there are archives throughout the world that collect the personal papers of significant artists and individuals who were SoHo pioneers, SoHo itself has no physical space dedicated to preserving its history as a neighborhood, nor is there any library or museum that tells its story. Read the rest of this entry »

Girls and Boys on Film

February 28, 2015

1971-05-Lembeck-Crista-01-loI just looked over my past few posts, and boy oh boy are they serious!  So I thought today we could do something fun.  I’ve uploaded a bunch of photos of SoHo kids (and some grownups) and I thought you all could write in either:

1) identifying the people and/or  location in the photo

2) sharing what memories the photo evokes about old SoHo

These are photos that readers have sent in over the years, and they are not in any special order.  Please leave comments via the comments window at the bottom of this post, and don’t forget to include the photo number so that we know which photo you are describing.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

PS Please feel free to send me more snapshots at sohomemory@gmail.com and I will post them here! Read the rest of this entry »

The SoHo Memory Project Goes on The Line

February 17, 2015

logo_theline_small-343399d9e012f9840403744ed6171138medium_ED_CH_v1.72_SOHOHISTORY_YukieOhta  Last month, I was interviewed by The Line about The SoHo Memory Project. Read the article, and check out all of the great things happening at The Line and at their loft on Greene Street, The Apartment!

The SoHo Memory Project:
A Conversation with Yukie Ohta


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