Archive for the ‘Everyday Life in SoHo’ Category

SoHo Guide

January 6, 2018

Happy new year!

As we enter year eight of The SoHo Memory Project, I thought we would revisit some of the many businesses that have come and gone from our community. This image gallery features a selection of advertisements placed in issues of the annual SoHo Guide, published by the SoHo Partnership. All of these advertisements date back to the mid-1990s.

The SoHo Partnership, founded by Henry Buhl, provided street cleaning services in SoHo from 1992 to 2016 and was the first collaboration between a community and a human services organization in New York City with the primary goal of providing job opportunities for the homeless. They also published an annual SoHo Guide, a handsome, spiral-bound book that contained listings for local businesses, as well as advertisements. More on the SoHo Partnership next month, but for now, take a look back at some of the businesses that made SoHo the shopping and dining neighborhood it is today. (click on any image to view as slideshow).

 

 

Let’s Talk About SoHo

December 2, 2017

“SoHo in Transition” at NYPL Mulberry Street Branch, October 23, 2017

On Monday, October 23, I led a Community Conversation at the Mulberry Street branch of the New York Public Library on “SoHo in Transition.” It was the first in a series of three such conversations to take place this fall that examine SoHo’s past, present, and future. The purpose of these conversations is to engage dialogue that creates a greater connection among old and new residents of our community. This first conversation focused on SoHo’s past.

The new 55,000 square-foot Nike superstore on Broadway and Spring is all new construction.(source: The Villager)

New York City has never stopped changing. Change is what defines us as a city, yet today people in neighborhoods across New York are alarmed by the rapidity and direction of the city’s development. Many feel that the “mallification” (some might even say “mollification”) of New York City through the proliferation of big box and chain stores has erased much of what made New York, and SoHo, unique in the world.

In this sense, SoHo has become unmoored from its history, from what makes the neighborhood singular and therefore worth celebrating. Through interviews with a long-time SoHo resident and a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, followed by a lively discussion about what people feel is special and specific to SoHo, the group came up with a varied list of things in SoHo that are worth preserving as we move forward into the future.

A SoHo door (© Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many attendees felt that SoHo is losing its local color and charm, and that one cause of this was the fact that many small businesses have left the neighborhood due to rising rents. Several people also felt the need to preserve the architecture of SoHo and to monitor all new construction and the buying and selling of air rights. The preservation of green space came up, specifically Elizabeth Street Garden, as it is the only green space in SoHo. Others said that SoHo has already lost its sense of community and a sense of cultural history, and that we should renew connections between neighbors.

This is not to say that anyone was keen on going back to the old days, or for SoHo to stay frozen in the present. Several people mentioned the many vacant storefronts throughout the neighborhood, speculating that impossibly high rents coupled with a dramatic shift in the retail landscape (mostly to online vendors) have led SoHo to a possible turning point. Someone mentioned that SoHo is always changing, from an industrial zone to an artists’ community to a retail hub, and there definitely was a sense in the room that we were on the verge of another major turning point. SoHo will continue to develop, but its stakeholders can have some say in how it develops.

The Trump SoHo (2008, Varick and Spring) was originally built as residences, the building was too tall for the area’s zoning, so it was converted into a “hotel” which the inhabitants can only live in for part of the year. The building was then built higher than allowed even for an hotel. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Beyond My Ken)

Thoughtful development can be enacted through various means. One great tool we have to preserve SoHo’s past is through, well, preservation. The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District was designated in 1973, which means that buildings in the district cannot be demolished or their facades altered. New construction is permitted only on empty lots, though those are very rare these days. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) was founded in 1980 “to preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. GVSHP is a leader in protecting the sense of place and human scale that define the Village’s unique community,” according to its mission statement.

Much of SoHo’s preservation advocacy is initiated by the SoHo Alliance (SA). SA’s predecessor, the SoHo Artists Association, advocated for historic districting and zoning changes. Now SA and other community advocacy groups, along with many individual residents, advocate for “controlled and appropriate development – a balance between residential and retail, seeking a quality-of-life that benefits everyone who visits, lives or works in SoHo,” in the words of Sean Sweeney, SA’s executive Director,

In addition to preservation, zoning laws regulate the landscape of our neighborhood. Before SoHo became a mixed-use (residential+commercial) neighborhood, SoHo’s first residents, mostly artists, were living here illegally, when SoHo was zoned solely for manufacturing and commercial use. Artists advocated for zoning changes to legalize their live/work lofts. “Mastering the Metropolis,” a recent exhibition at The Museum of the City of New York, celebrated the centennial of our zoning laws:

SoHo Zoning Map

The character of New York’s varied neighborhoods is governed by a novel set of rules first envisioned by New York reformers 100 years ago – the groundbreaking Zoning Resolution of 1916. Zoning, which was designed to tame the unruly process of free-market real estate development, has continued to shape the city we know today in countless, often unseen, ways.

When it comes to the absence of a sense community in SoHo, I think one of the reasons why there is little neighborhood cohesion is that there is no place where SoHo residents can meet, gather, interact, and share ideas. In other communities, such a place would be a house of worship or a community center. When SoHo’s population was small are less diverse, there were restaurants, cafes, and bars where one would encounter people from various sectors of the community, artists, business owners, workers, families. The disappearance of these places has left a void.

Karissa Lidstrand, in her guest post on Placemaking and SoHo writes:

Members of the SoHo community have adapted to the unique constraints of their neighborhood to build community space for decades. Now a renewed twenty-first century urbanism has thrown them a new twist. The current lack of community facilities results in little room for new and old residents to come together and converse. As a result, it makes the task of building social capital more difficult. Establishing spaces that provide a level of comfort and facilitate interaction between community members will go a long way towards strengthening that social capital.

The Broome Street bar was a community hub in the 1970s (painting by Robert Candella)

Another reason SoHo residents may not feel connected to each other is that they do not have any shared sense of history. Although they do not share a personal history, they share a history through the neighborhood. The SoHo Memory Project aims to shed light on this connection. It is surprising to me that there is no neighborhood or historical society to educate residents, building owners, visitors about the history of our neighborhood. As I wrote in my post “SoHo Past, Present, …Future?“:

One of my main goals moving forward … will be to think about how The SoHo Memory Project can create mutually beneficial programming that will bring past and present together to create a future for SoHo that will leverage what makes SoHo unique to benefit all members of our community. To do this, we must devise strategies that leverage the power of our successful commercial district to serve our community’s arts culture while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place. In other words, we need to find ways for art and commerce to work together to create win-win situations where the missions of all involved are fulfilled.

Photo: Alex Reiter

The most cynical of us will throw up their hands and say, what’s the point? People in New York no longer know their neighbors. People cannot see past their own doorstep. Developers with the cash will pay to play and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Believe me, I often feel that way too. I have often thought that this is not my SoHo anymore, that it belongs to others with whom I have no connection. I even often think of leaving. But where would I go? There’s really no place else I’d rather live. So until that changes, I’m here for the duration. There are many things about SoHo that I love, the beautiful buildings, the (albeit fragmented) community, and especially artistic community that still remains here.

What do you think is worth preserving about SoHo as we move into the future? And how do you propose we move forward as a community to make sure these things are preserved?

I’d like to hear from you and continue our community conversation here online!

 

For information on our next Community Conversation on December 18, click here.

For further reading:

Living Lofts: The Evolution of the Cast Iron District (Urban Omnibus, June 2013)
About zoning and SoHo.

Our Visible Past (July 23, 2011)
About LOMEX, the Rapkin Report, Brendan Gill, and preservation.

Keeping Watch: The SoHo Alliance and the Preservation of SoHo (July 1, 2014)
About the SoHo Alliance

Where Everyone Knows Your Name: Placemaking and SoHo (May 6, 2017)
Karissa Listrand’s post on placemaking and SoHo

(W)here is New York? (September 3, 2016)
About my relationship with the new SoHo and a sense of community (or lack thereof).

 

Dunn’s Deals: Douglas Dunn and the Lofts of SoHo

November 4, 2017

Cassations rehearsal at Douglas Dunn Studio, 541 Broadway, 3rd Floor. Decor by Mimi Gross. 2012

Douglas Dunn, choreographer, dancer and long-time resident of SoHo, recently shared with me a letter he wrote to Wendy Perron, also a choreographer and dancer, who is currently working on a book about Grand Union. Grand Union, in Perron’s words, was “a pivotal improvisation group that was unforgettable for downtown dancers in the 1970s.”

In his letter, Dunn shares memories of moving to and around SoHo, from apartment to loft to larger loft. His story captures SoHo’s evolving real estate landscape at the time, and also reads as a who’s who in modern dance. A fascinating story with beautiful photographs!

click on photographs below to view slideshow with captions

 

October 23, 2017

Hi Wendy,

During 1964/5, the year after graduating from Princeton, I lived on West 110th St., had a full time Welfare Job, studied Ballet at the Joffrey School, and attended New School night classes on the Psychology of Art with Rudolf Arnheim. It was too much, so….

 

247 Elizabeth Street

In the summer of 1965, I married and took a job teaching Spanish at The Gunnery School in Washington, Connecticut. I enjoyed the subject, but not the difficulty of having to motivate the students. After three years, in the spring of 1968, my wife (Ann Hentz), young son (Ethan Dunn) and I left that idyllic and isolating environment, and took up residence at 247 Elizabeth Street, between Houston and Prince, a 5th floor walkup. Little Italy was still Little Italy. Raw. The rent was in the low $200s. The one-bedroom apartment had been found by Steve (Shaw) and Bill (Bakaitis), two longtime friends who resided in tiny railroad apartments on East 9th Street near Avenue A, also raw, paying $37/month. By the fall, my wife and son, Ann and Ethan, went to live with her parents in South Bend, Indiana. Within a year, Sara (Rudner) moved in with me. She was full time with Twyla (Tharp), I with Merce (Cunningham).

Douglas Dunn at 508 Broadway before moving to 541 Broadway. (photo: Peter Moore, 1982)

In 1972, a friend of Sara’s, the painter Ben Schonzeit, let us know that the third floor at 508 Broadway, between Prince and Spring, had become available. We didn’t need a studio of our own, but I had a dream. The back wall of the loft was gone. Instead of buildings, there was the African Savanna, teeming with animals. Coming to understand, thus, that my dancing and my natural self were one, that I would be a dance artist for the rest of my life, I insisted that we move. In 1973, Sara left, taking a loft way west on Canal Street.

 

508 Broadway looking west before moving to 541 Broadway (photo: Peter Moore, 1982)

508 Broadway was owned by an aged couple who had run the ground floor as a dry goods store. Now living on our

508 Broadway

residential rent, they came in weekdays from Brooklyn and played cards in dim light. They were friendly. They charged $200/mo for each of the four floors above the store. After a few years, suddenly and without notice, the rent went way up. Unbeknownst to us, the building had been sold to Calvin Pearl, a Soho speculator. With his mother’s inheritance, he bragged, he had bought fifteen buildings, with the aim of flipping them and moving to Florida. We four tenants went to his office on Mulberry Street and begged him to sell to us. After a year, he did so, clearing $100,000.00. We each paid $49,000.00.

Off and on when Lucinda (Childs) was on tour, I rented her space at 541 (Broadway) in order to have a larger studio. We even performed Lazy Madge there for two weeks in the late ‘70s. (508 is twenty-two feet wide, 541 thirty-five.)  So I was familiar with the building. There had been a few Grand Union rehearsals in Trisha’s space earlier in the decade, and I had danced for her and with David (Gordon). Trisha (Brown), Lucinda and David had all moved to 541 in the early ‘70s, on the fifth, fourth and second floors respectively.

541 Braodway

On the third floor was a couple, the husband a concert pianist. I knew them slightly from my sojourns at Lucinda’s. Somehow, not from anyone in the building, I heard that they were selling. We spoke, arriving at a verbal agreement at $35,000.00. The next day, at their door with the cash down payment in hand, I was apprised that they had changed their minds and that the deal was off. I heard later that that morning at a building meeting there was talk of selling a vacant space on the Mercer side, and that an attorney present had recommended a price of $75,000.00. I had told the owners that I would be interested if later they decided to sell, but next thing I knew they had sold to a French couple, for how much I never heard.

Two or three years went by. Mimi Johnson, whom I knew from Cunningham days and from Artservices, let me know that the French couple were selling. After considerable negotiation, and some resistance from my dance colleagues in the building, I bought in at $350,000.00. 1982.

Douglas Dunn Studio looking east at 541 Broadway, 3rd Floor (photo: La VOCE di New York, 2016)

As for 112 Greene Street, yes, several nights each week folks would gather there to eat, drink, smoke and dance. Another spot, every Thursday was Open House at Robert Wilson’s loft on Spring Street. Dancing to music was the thing, to Cat Stevens especially. When Andy DeGroat would appear, others would clear the space to watch him. And Robert himself would emerge late, dancing virtuosically on the edges of his Earth Shoes.

If you have more questions, while I still have memory…

Best,
Douglas

 

for more information about Douglas Dunn visit www.douglasdunndance.com

read a review of a Douglas Dunn performance in his 508 Broadway studio in the September 1974 issue of Artforum

listen to Douglas Dunn’s oral history interview for The New York Public Library

read “Shall We Dance?” about 537-541 Broadway

The Three Rs: Reminiscences, Reflections, and Ruminations

August 5, 2017

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s tag SAMO on a wall.

Happy summer everyone! Thanks to all of you who have filled out a “SoHo Profile” over the  years (those of you who have not yet filled one out, click on the “Your SoHo Profile” link to the right).  It’s been great to read your memories of old SoHo.  I thought I’d share some of them here anonymously.  Although I have received a wide variety of responses to each of the questions, I feel that I can somehow relate to all of them because my memories of SoHo, like yours, are so varied, bitter and sweet, dark and light, foul and fond. At the end of this post, I’ve included links to recent pieces on SoHo and old New York!

 

Playing on the platform in front of our building on Mercer Street

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

Feeling of discovery.

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 edgy, avante garde feel.

The deserted streets, the cobble stones, I remember the 18 wheelers.

The desolate feeling.  Soho was a neighborhood then. The Italians on Thompson Street. The kids all met at the park.

All the galleries and how remote it was from the rest of Manhattan.

508 Broadway, Saul Feifer Hats and Caps. (image: Ben Schonzeit)

Its spontaneity, the creative use of space, the community of artists, the vacant lots that we’d hang out in, too many things to list.

Art Galleries and the way everyone was involved in making art.

The quiet of the streets, the look of almost desolation on the weekends.  The feeling that we could go anywhere and do anything and explore any corner of the neighborhood as young children like you might expect in a quiet town in the suburbs.

The vast emptiness and community.  The light, the rents, knowing almost everyone, the creativity, the architecture, the empty cardboard fabric spindles put out as garbage that my brother and I would sword fight with.  Dean and DeLuca being a cheese shop.

Cheap space and privacy with a sense of ‘small town’ community.

Bleecker Street Cinema, the lack of chain stores, the feeling that this was real NYC, the Greek Restaurant on Bleecker, the fact that is was really a small town in a big city.

I miss how it was a real neighborhood and not just the pretentious commercial district it has become.

Tight knit community, space to walk and breathe.

(more…)

SoHo Swan Song

July 1, 2017

Today’s guest post is by my (former) neighbor Michael Gentile, who recently moved out of SoHo after being in, out, and around the neighborhood for the last 30 years. He expresses the sentiments of a growing number of long-time residents who lament the fact that SoHo has transformed to a point of being unrecognizable to them. I wrote about my own coming to terms with this fact a while back in my post “Where is New York?”  Here, Gentile weaves the neighborhood’s long history into his observations of present day in this swan song to the neighborhood he once called home.

Soho’s Not So Grand

A NYC neighborhood in flux

Soho’s current sugar high is a real buzzkill. This neighborhood, New York City’s birthplace of hyper-gentrification, originally called “Hell’s Hundred Acres,” houses the most breathtaking, fully restored 19th-century cast-iron building facades in the world. Fortunately, the successful efforts of architectural historic preservation and community boards have saved many buildings. However, Soho’s history has become diminished and lost with the results of the neighborhood’s ever-changing crossover, which gives comfort to the crowds seeking out sameness, but at a cost.

The enthusiastic transition to megastore retail, restaurants, hotels, and condominiums has claimed victims. Former loft residents, factory workers, artists, and political radicals vanished, and were not included in the neighborhood’s future.

A walk through Soho today is difficult. It’s an atmosphere of vulgarity: wayward tourists, distraught models, fist-bumping high-fivers, girly gigglers, techno design geeks, backward-cap bros, and vacuous throngs from all over, filling the streets.

Is creativity still at work in Soho? Sort of. On the steps of Prada, lifestyle and image are crafted. Supreme hoodie kids on Adderall snap iPhone selfies while sipping $17 hemp smoothies. At the Mercer Hotel across the street, anxious Twitter users wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fleeing Kardashian. On the sidewalks, fashion wannabe Snapchatters hurriedly clip-clop to double-parked, glossy-black, Suburban Uber-Lyfts. Flag-raised tour guide groups shuffle along, overflowing into the streets. Soho’s a playground for the wealthy, who look poor and shop rich.

Dystopian nightmare or growing pains? Depends on who’s talking. Soho’s present state could be perceived as a negative development in New York culture.

Business leaders, city planners, and politicians always get worked up over the idea of development. Real estate developers’ rote answers offer little comfort to the continuing gentrification problems, high rents, and empty storefronts. It’s disingenuous, hand-feeding the public a generic shopping experience structured at a marketing meeting by executives wanting to up their game. What’s the point? Money.

The daily crime scares some away. The setting is perfect. Picture any typical over-priced, high-end boutique. Enter a motley European couple—exit a pair of pricey Manolo Blahnik heels. The thieves blend into a sea of humanity.

When a grand larceny occurs, sometimes an ad-hoc protocol follows: the store empties, the staff blocks the sidewalk, the shop is put on lockdown, bummed-out employees light up and smoke. Everyone looks down, tapping away on their devices, calling the corporate office or making dinner reservations.

The NYPD set up a defensive move during peak periods: street patrols and a mobile processing “jail” station at Prince and Greene Sts. Supply and demand—where there are crowds, there are highly-organized criminals.

But crime is nothing new to Soho. During the 1860s, Mercer St. was part of the City’s “ten-cent houses” and the first red-light district, including Mrs. Van Ness’ number 149 brothel, filled with discreet prostitutes. On the same block, the recently closed, soon-to-be condo, the Mercer-Houston Street Garage, originally operated as a horse boarding stables. Then, in the 1930s as a parking garage, it housed Joseph “Black Lefty” Lapadura’s lively bootlegging operation until the FBI discovered it.

However, Soho’s most infamous moment might be the day young Elma Sands’ dead body was found underground, floating at the bottom of a Lispenard Meadow well. The well is still there, now at 129 Spring St.

It was the cold night of December 22, 1799, when Miss Elma planned on eloping with Levi Weeks. Mr. Weeks, a carpenter, was later charged and tried for her murder in 1800. His lawyers were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It was the first recorded transcript murder trial in the United States, and the jury acquitted Weeks in only minutes. Some say the spirit of Elma Sands still roams the streets of Soho at night.

And then there are the many non-rent-paying “tenants” who’ve endured these changes and flourished: rats, estimated at 100 million citywide. One thing’s for sure, the rodents are enjoying themselves every night, running around and jumping on tied-up cardboard boxes.

Meanwhile, a sleepy Soho pauses and moans a collective sigh during the few precious moments before dawn. A walk at sunrise might turn your head for the wrong reason. Curled up in Tiffany & Co.’s elegant Greene St. doorway, a homeless person snores away. Garbage trucks barrel down the soot-stained Belgian block streets. Seafood, dairy, florist, and bakery vendors make deliveries. A dog walker silently passes a jogger in the brightening gray light. It’s all a reminder that there are no dead ends in Soho, just detours.

This story first appeared on
http://splicetoday.com/

Where Everyone Knows Your Name: Placemaking and SoHo

May 6, 2017

Ken Schol Mon Levenson and another artist at Fanelli’s. Beer and coffee for breakfast. (Horizon Magazine)

Over the past few years, “placemaking” has become a buzz word in unrbanist circles. The term seems to have supplanted “community building” and “neighborhood enhancement,” terms with somewhat similar definitions, as the key to (re)vitalizing and unifying neighborhoods. As defined by Wikipedia:

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being.

Can you think of such a space that exists in SoHo? Do you wish we had more places like this to congregate and socialize? Karissa Lidstrand, who is completing her M.S. in Urban Placemaking and Management at the Pratt Institute, has kindly offered to write a guest post about placemaking and SoHo. The following is an extension of a finding from Chapter 3 of her thesis, Creating Seats at the Table: A Business Improvement District’s Methods for Evaluating Community Needs.

Figure 1: Food Restaurant on the corner of Prince and Wooster ca. 1973

The Struggle to Build Social Capital

When asked what community means to you, how would you respond? The term community can be very subjective. Some may think of their friends and family as their community while others may think more broadly. If you were to use that definition when thinking about community space would the result be a community center or something more private?  In SoHo community space has appeared in a variety of forms in part because of the neighborhoods land use.

Prior to World War I the manufacturing industry was booming in SoHo, as it was in many other cities across the United States. The cast iron architecture that lines the streets of SoHo was created in the late 1800s, influenced by the textile industry that located there. Legally these buildings were, and still are, zoned for manufacturing use. The manufacturing designation prohibited community facilities such as houses of worship, community centers, hospitals, and schools from being established.

It wasn’t until the textile industry gave way to foreign competitors after World War II that neighborhoods like SoHo began to see the effects of manufacturing leaving the inner city. Buildings occupied by factories in the 1800s later became vacant loft spaces post-1940. Not all manufacturing left SoHo at once, printing companies and warehouses moved into the upper floors, taking advantage of reduced rents and the large, open spaces.

The rapid decline of manufacturing in the neighborhood left the area inactive. The quick transition of SoHo to an artist community began in the early 1960s. A variety of artists saw the potential in the loft spaces as locations for their studios. Building owners rejoiced with the opportunity to rent their vacant spaces, even for a low price. As manufacturing declined and the artist community made this neighborhood their home, the lack of community facilities become more apparent.

In the twenty first century SoHo and New York City have experienced a significant amount of investment and population growth. This has impacted the composition of many neighborhoods, impeding efforts to strengthen “social capital,” the relationships between residents (old and new) and the people who work in the neighborhood.

Through interviews conducted with community stakeholders the lack of community space in SoHo was identified as a concern among a variety of stakeholder groups.

Yukie Ohta, a longtime resident of SoHo, reminisced of spaces where people used to come together when she was growing up and where she would take her children. Some of those spaces included Food and the Scholastic Store. Food was a restaurant on Prince Street where locals could grab a bite to eat, artists could find employment, and neighbors could converse. It was perfect for families because below the restaurant was a play group where parents could drop their children off to interact with other kids while they sat upstairs conversing with friends.

The Scholastic Store was a neighborhood staple where parents could take their children to read and hang out for hours without the looming pressure of purchasing anything in return. Finding places to take children has become a concern given that the only major outdoor space in the SoHo neighborhood is Vesuvio Playground. For those that live on the east side of SoHo closer to Lafayette Street, walking to Vesuvio Playground on Thompson Street is at least a 10 minute walk.

Interior of Mulberry Street Library (photo by New York Public Library)

Sherri Machlin, acting manager of the Mulberry Street Public Library Branch, discussed how community spaces are limited and that there needs to be more especially since the library is at capacity and has little room to grow.

Community space is more than just publicly assessable; it provides a level of comfort and facilitates interactions between community members. The lack of dedicated community space in SoHo has created a situation where residents have had to create their own.

When asked where people hang out today places like Broome Street Bar, Fanelli Cafe, Housing Works Bookstore & Café, and Elizabeth Street Garden come up. Parenting groups struggle to find places to meet and often choose the seating area atop Whole Foods on Houston Street.

Members of the SoHo community have adapted to the unique constraints of their neighborhood to build community space for decades. Now a renewed twenty-first century urbanism has thrown them a new twist. The current lack of community facilities results in little room for new and old residents to come together and converse. As a result, it makes the task of building social capital more difficult. Establishing spaces that provide a level of comfort and facilitate interaction between community members will go a long way towards strengthening that social capital.

 

 

Are There Still Artists Living in SoHo?

June 4, 2016
The Village Voice - April 9, 1964 issue about artists rallying for loft rights, back when you had to pay (10 cents!) for the paper.

The Village Voice – April 9, 1964 issue about artists rallying for loft rights, back when you had to pay (10 cents!) for the paper.

SoHo is currently zoned as a manufacturing district that basically allows for light manufacturing, wholesale business and commercial use only, with the exception of certified artists, who are allowed to live in commercial buildings, if they can prove that they need the space to produce their work.

In 1969, the Department of City Planning conducted a survey that resulted in rezoning of the SoHo area, which was then zoned strictly for manufacturing use. In 1971, the Board of Estimates made it legal for certified artists to live in joint living and work quarters (JLWQ) in the newly-zoned SoHo area.

Application for Artists Cer

Application for Artists Certification

This zoning law that governs the use of buildings still stands today and requires every SoHo household to include at least one certified artist. But what, exactly, is an artist? According to the city, an artist will be granted certification if he or she demonstrates a serious, long-term commitment to an artistic medium and demonstrates a need for space to make art. Aesthetic considerations and the number of shows an artist has had (or not had) are supposedly not taken into account.

The making of an artist's joint live-work quarters in the early 1960's (photo: Louis Dienes)

The making of an artist’s joint living and work quarters (photo: Louis Dienes)

There is one exception to the artists-only rule. New buildings constructed on vacant lots are exempt and therefore anyone can legally live in these buildings. Otherwise, buyers who are not certified artists sometimes sign what is called a “SoHo Letter,” a waiver that acknowledges that they are aware that they do not have proper certification and they will not hold the building liable if the city finds that they are living in their homes illegally. As the JLWQ zoning law is rarely enforced, potential residents have little chance of eviction and therefore generally sign the waiver.

25 West Houston Street, whose most famous artist-resident is Kanye West, is exempt from JLWQ because it was built on a lot AFTER the law went into affect.

25 West Houston Street (whose most famous artist-resident is Kanye West) is exempt from JLWQ because it was built on a lot AFTER the law went into effect.

In 1987, the city granted amnesty to all SoHo residents, regardless of whether or not they were certified. Since then, many artists and non-artists have moved in and out of the neighborhood. Nobody knows how many artists, certified and non-certified, live and work in SoHo today, and it is probably impossible to find out. There have been several past attempts dating back to 1970 to get an accurate count, but any survey is immediately flawed by the fact that people living in SoHo illegally, whether it is because they are artists that have neglected to become certified or because the are not artists and therefore cannot apply for certification, would not respond in fear of being evicted.

In recent years, some have questioned whether JLWQ is relevant anymore. Even in the early days, there were non-artists who managed to get certified and legitimate artists who were rejected. As time went on, many non-artists found ways to obtain certification under false pretenses.

In 2012, The SoHo/NoHo Action Committee announced that it would raise funds to hire an independent team from Baruch College’s Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute to do a survey of SoHo. This team planned to confirm how many of the city-certified artists whose addresses were in SoHo were still living at their registered addresses. This committee advocates for the JLWQ zoning law to be revised to allow anyone, not just artists, to live in SoHo. They feel that the law is hindering their real estate valuation and that very few artists still live in SoHo, making the law obsolete. No survey by SoHo/NoHo Action Committee has been conducted to date, however.

Just recently, Councilwoman Margaret Chin proposed legislation to require owners of JLQW units to provide notice when a JLQW unit becomes vacant. It remains to be seen what will come of this proposal.

Artists' Lofts: 1960’s-1970’s — Many buildings in SoHo had been built as commercial lofts, which provided large, unobstructed spaces for manufacturing and other industrial uses. These spaces attracted artists who valued them for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light and low rents. Before loft living in SoHo was legalized, artists living in commercial buildings posted AIR (Artist in Residence) signs that indicated that someone was living in the building and on what floor in case of a fire or other emergency.

Artists’ Lofts: 1960’s-1970’s — Many buildings in SoHo had been built as commercial lofts, which provided large, unobstructed spaces for manufacturing and other industrial uses. These spaces attracted artists who valued them for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light and low rents. Before loft living in SoHo was legalized, artists living in commercial buildings posted AIR (Artist in Residence) signs that indicated that someone was living in the building and on what floor in case of a fire or other emergency.

Through my own personal experiences since beginning this project in 2011, I have met many many artists who still live in SoHo, many more that I thought existed. These artists live in the shadows of the bright and shiny boutiques and designer lofts, obscured but present. They tend to live quietly in their old-school lofts that have not changed since they moved in 45 years ago and watched their maintenance costs skyrocket due to the pricey demands of their new neighbors. Marble lobbies, roof decks, and other amenities are paid for by all coop members, even those who do not wish for such “improvements” and cannot afford them.

Regardless of exactly how many artists live in SoHo today, many SoHo old timers are in favor of keeping JLWQ zoning in place as a means of slowing down real estate development, although not all. I have heard that some people have trouble getting financing to purchase a loft due to zoning restrictions and some hoping to sell their lofts have to do so at a lower price because some buyers with deep pockets are scared off by it.

For many long-time SoHo residents, most of whom are artists and some of whom are non-artists grandfathered by the 1987 amnesty, however, the law is seen as a safeguard against being pushed out by escalating costs. At one time, they were the ones who were living in SoHo illegally, when nobody else wanted to live there. Now, they are the only ones who are legal residents. They see this protection as a birthright of sorts, dating back to the days when they were giving birth to a nascent SoHo.

 

The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980

April 30, 2016

Lofts of SoHoI am so very pleased to announce the publication of The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980, by SMP friend Aaron Shkuda. I’ve know Aaron since he was doing research for his dissertation (also on SoHo) a few years back. He is now a professor at Princeton and has written this fascinating book about how residents transformed the industrial neighborhood that is now called SoHo into an artist district, creating the conditions under which it evolved into an upper-income, gentrified area.

From The University of Chicago Press:

In The Lofts of SoHo, Aaron Shkuda studies the transition of the district from industrial space to artists’ enclave to affluent residential area, focusing on the legacy of urban renewal in and around SoHo and the growth of artist-led redevelopment. Shkuda explores conflicts between residents and property owners and analyzes the city’s embrace of the once-illegal loft conversion as an urban development strategy. As Shkuda explains, artists eventually lost control of SoHo’s development, but over several decades they nonetheless forced scholars, policymakers, and the general public to take them seriously as critical actors in the twentieth-century American city.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 4 of  The Lofts of SoHo:

Prince Street art fair, SoHo, by Robin Forbes, 1976. (Reproduced by permission from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Prince Street art fair, SoHo, by Robin Forbes, 1976. (Reproduced by permission from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Chapter 4
Artist Organizations, Political Advocacy, and the Creation of a Residential SoHo

In February 1961, SoHo artists faced another threat that almost ended their nascent colony. This peril was not an economic downturn, the prospect of a highway, or even the early stages of gentrification. Instead, the culprits were some of the most mundane elements of urban governance: zoning ordinances and building codes. These types of regulations are meant to protect residents, and it was the issue of resident safety that caused an acute crisis in the SoHo artist community. In late 1960 and early 1961, a series of fires broke out in industrial lofts below Houston Street, leading to the deaths of four people, including three firefighters. Though none of the fires occurred in lofts where artists lived, these blazes led the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Department of Buildings to launch a series of inspections of SoHo structures.1

Although both agencies initially reacted to a series of code violations in industrial buildings, they soon made a surprising discovery: artists living il- legally in these structures. The New York Herald-Tribune reported that city officials found at least 128 illegal apartments in the area containing “beatniks, complete with beards” living with “mattresses on the floor and works on Zen Buddhism,” along with vermin and cockroaches. In turn, Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Thomas J. Hartnett wondered how anyone could stand living in this section of Manhattan, asking, “How do they get their milk delivered?”2

This “discovery” of SoHo residents reveals an important element of the neighborhood’s early history: that the very idea of living in a loft was completely novel. Whereas lofts are now ubiquitous in urban areas worldwide, hardly any people considered living in former industrial space before the 1960s. Similarly, few observers saw artists as people with the power to trans- form neighborhoods or develop real estate, as demonstrated by the Herald-Tribune’s use of the word beatniks, the derogatory term for bohemians of that era, to describe SoHo residents; in that writer’s view, they did not even rise to the level of artist. As mentioned in the previous chapter, local building and zoning laws made no allowance for people who wanted to live in industrial buildings. As a result, when they encountered loft residents for the first time, city officials did not celebrate the possible rebirth of a struggling industrial area at the hands of artists. Instead, they threatened them with eviction.

In response to the specter of eviction, artists organized themselves politically, forming lobbying organizations and using public demonstrations and boycotts to advocate for their housing needs. SoHo artists threw the entire weight of the New York art world behind their cause. Well-known artists such as Willem de Kooning and Isamu Noguchi, as well as curators and gallery owners, spoke out in favor of loft residents. Through their advocacy, SoHo residents worked to redefine the role of the artist in society in the minds of local leaders. They argued that affordable housing for up-and-coming art- ists was crucial to New York’s future because artists were the backbone of its cultural economy, as well as the people who gave the city its reputation as the world’s leading creative and artistic center.

SoHo cast- iron building, 98 Greene Street (1881).

SoHo cast- iron building, 98 Greene Street (1881).

In making these arguments, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of the debate about how to redevelop cities at a time of urban crisis. By finding value and beauty in outdated industrial structures, they also reclaimed prop- erties viewed as obsolete eyesores by urban renewal advocates. By pioneering new uses for lofts, SoHo residents created powerful arguments against slum clearance, particularly in industrial and commercial areas.

SoHo artists also shifted the terms of the ongoing debates over neighbor- hood preservation and rehabilitation. Although meeting the housing needs of lower-income populations in central cities had long been a preoccupa- tion of policy makers, artists looked to demonstrate that they were a unique group—relatively poor people with distinct housing needs but who also had the power to drive the city’s economy and give it its unique identity. They urged city leaders to help bolster one of the few things that New York still had going for it—its reputation for the arts—by allowing artists to live in the manner that best suited them: in converted industrial lofts with room to live and work affordably.

Though they fought to change zoning laws, rather than against slum clear- ance, artists developed powerful arguments that pushed the debate over the future of urban neighborhoods beyond the renewal/community defense paradigm that had dominated discourse up to that point. Unlike antirenewal protesters, who mainly focused on preserving their neighborhoods, SoHo artists posited a new future for their community. They argued that their efforts would revitalize an area shaped by deindustrialization and urban re- newal. At the same time, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of a debate over the future of their neighborhood. To SoHo artists, urban culture could do for SoHo what other urban development schemes could not: create a vi- brant neighborhood that helped drive the city’s economy and identity. Much like the backers of projects such as Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, SoHo artists were staking out a place for culture in the city. The same New York artistic culture that could help the United States compete with the Soviet Union for cultural dominance globally could also help breathe life into moribund in- dustrial neighborhoods.3

In the end, artist groups in SoHo achieved goals that were both modest and significant. Their advocacy led to changes in two regulations that allowed only a limited number of artists to live legally in a loft. Yet these laws were the first to make it legal for anyone to live in such a structure and the first to give government sanction to anyone, artist or otherwise, to live in any former industrial space. Moreover, these policies indicated that more New Yorkers were starting to support an argument made by SoHo activists: that artists had a unique power to reinvigorate neighborhoods long ago left for dead. Thanks to artist advocacy, policy makers began to connect artist housing and urban vitality, a link that would become the foundation of theories of creative place making and the creative class several decades later. Through their actions and words, SoHo artists made the case that art could be a force for urban change.

Reprinted with permission from The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980by Aaron Shkuda, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Aaron Shkuda is Project Manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism & the Humanities, and holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago.

This book is available from The University of Chicago Press and at local bookstores including McNally Jackson at 52 Prince Street, and through Amazon.com.

To read another excerpt from this book please visit The Gotham Center blog.

Listening to SoHo

March 5, 2016

storybooth

Back in October 2015, The SoHo Memory Project held a day of recording with StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate the lives of everyday Americans by listening to their stories. Six pairs of SoHo old timers came by to share stories at the StoryBooth recording studio down in Foley Square, and their 40-minute conversations were recorded by StoryCorps staff.

Each conversation is unique and tells a fascinating story. The stories as a group tell the larger story of SoHo as it developed from an industrial area to a thriving artists community to a retail center. Below are excerpts from the conversations recorded by StoryCorps, which will be preserved and archived in the American Folklife Center at The Library of Congress.

I hope you enjoy these remembrances, and I hope you will be inspired to listen to more conversations about SoHo and to share your own story through our ongoing oral history project in partnership with The New York Public Library.

GS-KD photo

Guy Story, longtime SoHo resident and musician, speaks with his wife, Kerry Donahue, about leaving Mississippi to come to New York City:

SS-RB photo

Shael Shapiro, architect and co-author with his wife, Roz Bernstein, of Illegal Living, explains how loft living first came about in SoHo:

Shael recalls buying a loft from George Maciunas and doing construction at 80 Wooster Street:

JS-CS photo

Filmmaker and journalist Jim Stratton speaks to his daughter, Callison, about the formation of the SoHo Artists Association and how the name SoHo came to be:

Jim remembers renovating his loft space:

 

JK-EW photo

Artist Joyce Kozloff tells neighbor and long-time friend, Elizabeth Weatherford, how living in SoHo has affected her work:

Joyce and Elizabeth discuss gentrification and SoHo as role model for other artists districts:

SS_YO photo

Sean Sweeney, Executive Director of the SoHo Alliance, tells Yukie Ohta about SoHo’s fight with Donald Trump:

TW-VL photo

Artists Thornton Willis and wife Vered Lieb remember moving into their loft:

Thornton and Vered on the charm of SoHo then and now:

 

All excerpts produced by The SoHo Memory Project with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. http://www.storycorps.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gone But Not Forgotten: Sharon Watts’ SoHo

February 6, 2016
John Baeder copy

John Baeder Postcard

The tagline for this blog is “shaping our collective memory one post at a time.” Which is to say that, although we have been remembering SoHo’s past together, these remembrances have been (with a few exceptions) through my own posts, via my voice.

I am therefore pleased to present a new perspective today, a real treat! The following is an excerpt from Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams, an impressionistic memoir-in-progress/archival scrapbook by Sharon Watts of her art student years in NYC, 1971-1974. Here, we follow Watts on her remembered meanderings around SoHo, Chinatown, Little Italy, and The World Trade Center. These vivid descriptions of the downtown New York art scene of the early-1970’s, as seen through the eyes of a young transplant from Pennsylvania, are illustrated with pieces of ephemera from her scrapbook and offer us a backward glance at a New York long gone but not forgotten.

Please feel free to share your own memories of coming to SoHo for the first time, whenever that was, in the comments box below. I would love to hear from you and to add your story to this growing collection!

Sharon in front of her Bleecker Street building, May 1972

177 Bleecker Street, May 1972

From Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams by Sharon Watts:

Periodically during that summer of 1972, visitors showed up on our Bleecker Street doorstep. Into town trooped our just-past-the-cusp hippie generation, armed with backpacks and incense, en route to Transcendental Meditation seminars in a nondescript hotel on West 44th Street, or Woodstock-spawned outdoor music festivals, further upstate. High school friends would come and flop for a few days, and out of the confines of our provincial background we explored who we were now and where we were heading. Turntables wore thin the Chicago Transit Authority’s hit single, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, befitting our metaphysical musings over cheap Almaden rosé and tokes of weed. It was as close to a communal lifestyle as I was prepared to get.

FOOD Menu

FOOD Menu

SoHo was definitely on the itinerary for our impromptu walkabouts, a convenient way to experience the fact that we were not in the ’burbs of Central PA anymore. Cheap, often illegal housing and vast, open floor space with uninterrupted natural light lured artists to the waning industrial neighborhood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The new moniker stood for “south of Houston,” a street that I had quickly learned not to pronounce like a tourist. Other than Fanelli’s Bar, a former speakeasy lined with boxing photos from the 1920s yellowed from time and cigar smoke, there were few businesses to serve the fledgling community. And so, Food was born: a cafeteria-style healthy-wholesome restaurant on the corner of Prince and Wooster that was managed and owned by neighborhood artists. Brewer’s yeast, carob powder, buckwheat groats, and lentil loaf entered the lexicon of the New Age culture, as well as our Bleecker Street pantry. I might have sat obliviously slurping split pea soup shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Close, the photorealist portrait artist, or some future famous Minimalist, but I was unfamiliar with the current art scene’s protagonists. No one was recognizable except to each other, and everyone had long hair and was democratically covered with splatters of paint.

Below Houston Street, you never knew what you’d encounter that you had never seen before.

A letter to a high school friend:

6 May 1972

Dear D____,

I hit the downtown art galleries today–went in one & immediately got offered a joint. In another some old man with whiskers on his nose came up, hugged & kissed me, & squeezed my cheek asking how I got so beautiful without using “cosmetics.” What a farce–I felt like the fattest, ugliest blob alive. You’ll have to come and see the galleries, they’re a 10 min. walk away & some of them are really weird. Like walking down West Broadway I see an inflated red volkswagon “parked” in front of the O.K. Harris gallery. Inside there was a Mack truck, a sports car, & a tractor–all inflated but made out of weird, bumpy mushy plastic with flat tires. I just wanted to run & jump on them.

In another gallery, Duane Hanson’s life-size hyperrealistic sculptures of the average American, overweight and touristy-garish, forgettable in real life, unforgettable here in resin, fiberglass, and fabric.

Hanson

Image of Duane Hanson piece, scrapbook clipping from The Village Voice.

Or under a tilted floorboard: a man hidden, prone, masturbating while people walked above, the footsteps fueling his fantasies which he broadcast over a speaker. Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, and I was part of it. Of course, I didn’t really get it conceptually in any way, shape or form, and have no memory of what seedy thought I might have spawned. I was darting around the surface of the New York art world, not yet sure where I wanted to alight or what I wanted to absorb in depth.

Acconci, Hanson, and so many others were staking claim on that fertile patch of real estate in lower Manhattan, pushing boundaries in the minds of critics and the public alike. Photorealist John Baeder’s diner paintings charmed me; the seeds of nostalgia were already embedded, and the subject matter connected me to my roots. Growing up, we always drove by a tiny chrome eatery in Lemoyne, just before crossing the bridge into Harrisburg on the way to church. But I wasn’t drawn to any one specific artist or trend. The idea that it all was perking and popping and bubbling onto the stovetop of a city grid just a few blocks away was exciting enough. I felt like a cultural scout, first discovering it on my own, then being a tour guide for my friends.

Acconci Behavior Fields postcard

Vito Acconci Behavior Fields Postcard

After the gallery trawl, we’d walk the short distance further east and south to Chinatown, its pagoda-topped telephone booth on Canal Street a surefire Instamatic photo op. Averting my eyes from the roast ducks hanging in restaurant windows, I instead focused on exotic trinkets spilling out of storefronts and onto the sidewalk. President Nixon had just visited China a few months earlier, opening up trade for the first time since the People’s Republic was formed in 1949. Soon the phrase “Made in China” would take on a whole new meaning.

We would stop for a cheap meal in a noodle shop on one of the crooked streets (but eat with forks, as none of us could maneuver chopsticks), then cross Canal Street again and polish it off with pastry and cappuccino at Ferrara or Cafe Roma on Mulberry Street. Some more meandering, on to Fanelli’s or its hip younger sister, the Spring Street Bar (where I might run into my favorite teacher, Kes Zapkus), then back to home base.

Spring Street Bar Wine List

Spring Street Bar Wine List

The New York neighborhoods I discovered were distinctive and separate patches of a quilt. The Lower East Side was historically Jewish, with its discount goods, crumbling synagogues, and Streit’s matzoh factory. Hispanic threads were embroidered in, and bodegas coexisted with bagel and bialy shops, Spanish commingling with any remaining Yiddish wafting from tenements and onto the streets. Chinatown was virtually all contained (though straining at the seams) below Canal Street and east of Mott, with Little Italy to the north, nestled cozily under red, white and green tinsel street bowers. Benign-looking social clubs harbored the kind of family business that I had only just witnessed on the big screen in The Godfather. I would work up the nerve to steal a peek inside, seeing only a few old Italian men sitting around a card table. Still, it was hard to shake the image of that horse head in the bed. Just that April, the mobster Crazy Joe Gallo was shot five times in Umberto’s Clam Bar while dining with his family, then stumbled to the street and died. Of course I had to walk over to the scene of the crime a few days later, not sure if I would see dried blood and a chalk outline, or if I even wanted to.

Part of the connecting stretch between these colorful, ethnic blocks and Greenwich Village was Lafayette Street, empty and desolate on weekends, its sooty windows showcasing mysterious tool and die industry machines, quietly at rest. On the East River, the South Street seaport was not yet a tourist destination, and barely changed in two hundred years.

The World Trade Center

The World Trade Center, 1971

Only to the far south was there any evidence of the future, a double exclamation point to the city’s evolution from the days of Dutch commerce. The World Trade Center was nearly finished, looming mirage-like, our own Oz. One afternoon I decided to walk down West Broadway from Houston Street, until I was standing just below the towers. Along the way, quiet brick-surfaced side streets crowded my peripheral vision with ghosts of factory workers hurrying to punch the clock, and massive buildings, once proud dowagers of the industrial age, loitered as shadows of their former selves. Dumpsters were attached in front like aprons, overflowing with fabric scraps from sweatshops, and perched high above were water towers–tiaras from another time. It was the eeriest, emptiest walk I could remember, with the end always a bit further away than it seemed, just out of reach. Iconic: but of what? I didn’t know, in 1972.

Step by step I stitched myself into the fabric of this quilt I now called home.

For more information about Sharon Watts:
www.sharonwattswrites.com
www.sharonwattscreative.com


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