Guest Post Series: M. Lynch

West Broadway in the late 70's or early 80's (photo: Mira Schor via The Huffington Post)

West Broadway has always been a main thoroughfare in SoHo.  What happens on West Broadway is often a good indicator of what’s going on in SoHo in general.  In the past, I’ve written posts about the possible renaming of West Broadway to Jackson Pollock Place (see the post here), about an early gallery on West Broadway that was perhaps a bit before its time (see the post here), about a proposal to build a mega-sports complex (see the post here), and about the pig roasts at the bodega (see the post here).

In an effort to include a spectrum of voices with a spectrum of approaches to SoHo memory, I would like to introduce you to the very interesting work of M. Lynch, who traced the evolution of SoHo by studying the businesses along West Broadway through the decades between the 1960’s through the 1990’s:

West Broadway is the illustrative case-in-point for the evolution of SoHo. Successive businesses along the same commercial corridor trace the ever-changing history of the neighborhood. Over the five blocks in SoHo there was a constant movement of businesses in and out of the buildings along West Broadway. In the sixties new enterprises were still industrial and commercial concerns, just different companies. From the 1970s onward the new types of businesses along West Broadway – galleries, restaurants, clothing boutiques and retail outlets – represented a shift in the orientation of SoHo from an industrial backwater into a hip and increasingly affluent residential community. (page 3)

The following is an excerpt from her thesis.

West Broadway @ Houston, 1970's (photo by Straatis on Flickr)

SOHO – FROM BOHO TO BOBO: THE BUSINESS ESTABLISHMENTS OF WEST BROADWAY

by M. Lynch

SoHo experienced a complete metamorphosis from the 1960s through the end of the 20th century. In its bohemian era of the 1960s-1970s, the neighborhood was home to artists and other early settlers that converted industrial lofts into studios and living spaces. In the 1980s SoHo became an increasingly wealthy residential neighborhood. More affluent professionals whose role in the art world was limited to spectator replaced the initial low-income residents engaged in the creation of art. The transition from Boho [bohemian] to Bobo [bourgeois-bohemian] happened in less than twenty years. During the same period SoHo’s former downscale industrial and commercial enterprises gave way to upscale business establishments and residential lofts. Only the cast iron buildings survived the successive phases of SoHo’s development.

The businesses along West Broadway illustrate the marked change in the general character of the neighborhood. Table 10 [see below] displays the map of the businesses along West Broadway in 1965 and 2000. The map on the left (1965) is almost completely gray (industrial, commercial and automotive) with just a few delis, diners and restaurants, and one church. On the right, the map is brightly colored, with only four buildings continuing to house any of the kinds of businesses that were prevalent on the street thirty-five years before. By 2000, West Broadway is crowded with expensive restaurants, high-end retail stores, designer clothing boutiques, a major hotel, and some remaining contemporary art galleries.

West Broadway in 2008 (photo: New York City Daily Photo)

The transformation of SoHo from declining industrial district to prosperous neighborhood can be viewed as the success story of an area that barely evaded urban renewal and managed to preserve its characteristic and historic architecture. The early rehabilitation of the area was a grassroots effort of urban pioneers who organized and cooperated with political and advocacy groups to subvert the development plans of major civic organizations and business interests. The neighborhood was not bulldozed to make way for high-rise housing or an Expressway, and the cast iron structures have been preserved. The streets and buildings are no longer dingy and deserted, but vibrant with people and thriving businesses. SoHo is known globally through design magazines and movies as a district of fashion and sophistication with enviable living spaces and chic retailers. For residents that arrived in recent years and tourists to the area the continual upgrading has been seen as constant improvement.

West Broadway at Houston Street 1938 (photo: NYPL)

But others, particularly the pioneering residents, have seen the same transfiguration as a disappointment or betrayal of the neighborhood and residents. The early settlers felt an attachment and ownership of the neighborhood based on the
“ . . . hardships encountered and the sweat labor expended in converting raw loft spaces into usable places in which to live and work imbued these spaces with special significance for their occupants.” (89) In their view the unplanned transition from industrial district to bohemian arts enclave was a natural evolution. But the subsequent gentrification was neither their expectation nor intention when they first moved to SoHo. Not only had artists settled the area, but the city had specifically designated the area for artists when they legalized loft living in 1971, and yet there remained fewer and fewer working artists as time moved on. To early residents, SoHo typifies city neighborhoods that have been “upscaled, redeveloped and homogenized to the point of losing their distinctive identity.”(90) Outsiders may dismiss their complaints as simply nostalgia for “the old neighborhood” and its days as urban art colony. But to long-time residents, the mallification of SoHo and the departure of artists and galleries has culminated in a faux- art district, not an authentic neighborhood. The grit and grime of SoHo’s early days are gone, but the price of its rejuvenation has been the loss of its identity as New York’s first and foremost arts community.

Table 10

About the author:

M. Lynch is a Manhattan transplant from the Left Coast. After college, she arrived in 1980 and settled in the Village just over the border from Soho. Her interest in contemporary art and friends in the area led her to frequent SoHo’s streets, bars, restaurants and galleries over the ensuing decades.

Notes:

89 James R. Hudson, The Unanticipated City: Loft Conversions in Lower Manhattan (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 82.

90 Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010). xi.

To view the full text of this paper, click here.


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15 Responses to “Guest Post Series: M. Lynch”

  1. Ian Says:

    I am a lifelong New Yorker, but more of a Soho newbie (moved to Spring street in 1997), but I just want to say that I absolutely love your blog, it’s such a wonderful thing you’re doing here. I look forward to reading every new story, then I even go back a week or two later to read the comments. Thank you for all of the fascinating reading!

  2. Mark Gabor Says:

    Wonderful blog entry! Such a treat for those of us who were lucky enough to be there, inadvertently making history.

  3. Deirdre Says:

    Hi Yukie,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of months and it’s been interesting, sad and memory provoking. Thank you. I loved the struggle to find Miguel’s name– he was the wall eyed man who ran the bodega at Prince and West Broadway.

    I lived on the top floor of 471 West Broadway from 1963 to 1971. My parents were artists. Then a man who claimed he was an artist bought our building and wanted our loft to live in, as it had two skylights. So we decamped for the then unheard of area of 26th street and 6th Ave.

    I had the best childhood at 471. I was there from the age of 3 to 11. There were strange and wonderful things on the street to play with, even if the amount of friends were limited because there just weren’t that many children around to play with. Loft living was intense and great. Swing windows meant mosquito bites in the summer and lack of insulation in the building meant that my mother, every cold winter day, had to build a fire in our pot bellied stove each morning to supplement the radiators a
    AND the space heater.

    But I had room to run around with our dogs and a rope ladder to swing from. My friend Renata and I had wonderful times running around the streets we called the “back streets,” meaning everyplace below Houston between W. Broadway, Canal and Broadway. We considered these blocks our own, The blocks all emptied out during the weekends when the factories closed. This was before poor Etan Patz. Happily, no pedophiles were down there because it was assumed no children lived there, though I sometimes shudder to think about the risks we took.

    My mother, Anne Healy, made sculptures out of sailcloth which were periodically displayed on our building from 1968 till 1971 when we forced to move uptown. We have pictures which I will try to get online of her work on the W. Broadway building.

    It was an interesting time and place to grow up. I thank my parents for raising me there.

    Deirdre

    • Yukie Says:

      Hello Deirdre! Wow, you were probably one of the only children in SoHo back then. 1963! Thanks so much for sharing your memories, and please do send along any photos you have of your loft or the neighborhood from back then.

  4. wendy beck Says:

    The only thing better would be to time travel to ’71 when I moved to Mercer St. I remember I’d have to go to the West Village to get a NY Times! There were no stores, no temptation to spend, a good thing. As someone who saw the changes, I often talked with people about making a Monopoly set with West Broadway being Boardwalk, etc.

  5. Michael Says:

    Perhaps the title of this writing should be: SoHo – From Boho to Fauxbo (from Urban Dictionary, definition 2. It means Faux Bohemian). The non-creative wealthy drove real estate up and drove out the artists that made SoHo such a vibrant place to begin with; a gritty, authentic artist colony.

    One of the memories I have of SoHo from the 70s is the smell of pepper. It drifted throughout the neighborhood and surrounding areas. It was strongest at its source, the NE corner of West Broadway and Broome Street (500 Broome Street had a pepper-packing factory until the early 80s I think). Putting a pepper grinder under my nose brings back old memories. Ha! It also makes me sneeze.

  6. Carol Eckman Says:

    Wish I had kept track of the businesses that occupied various spaces that have passed thru Soho in my time (since ’76)–like the pepper factory that Michael mentions. Table 10 seems to have information regarding just that on WB. It is tantalizing, but too small to read. where may I find a readable source? does anyone share this fascination with the old businesses? (a la Gallery Stop, OGs on Thompson)

    • Yukie Ohta Says:

      Hi Carol- If you scroll down the the bottom of the post where it says “To view the full text of this paper, click here.” you can download the entire thesis and see the maps full size. Thanks for your interest!

  7. Warren Lowery Says:

    In 75-76 I worked nights at Artie DeRoma’s grocery/deli on the east side of West Broadway, possibly between Broome & Grand. I can clearly recall the buzz of folks coming in late Saturday nights to pick up the just-delivered Sunday Times…five pounds of newsprint & a quart of HaganDazs!

  8. Neighbor Al Says:

    I lived on Governors Island (back in the day), and would ride like a demon on my motorcycle to pick up sandwiches for lunch from DeRoma’s, and make it back just in time to catch the return ferry. Totally loved SOHO back in the late 70s and early 80s. Best ham on rye I’ve ever had, and best selection of hard cider and beer that I’d ever seen.

  9. Elizabeth Shelley Says:

    My grandparents were early settlers on West Broadway – 452 and 454. They moved in in the early 1900’s – their sixth child, my mother, was born in 452 in 1923. They lived there until my grandmother’s death in 1972, and my uncle continued to live there until the late 70’s. My grandfather business was a machine shop at 454 West Broadway. I have many, many happy memories of going there every Sunday. Even though they raised 6 children in a one bedroom apartment, it never seemed crowded.

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