Archive for the ‘Everyday Life in SoHo’ Category

SoHo Photos

March 31, 2018

Ever since I put out a call for SoHo photos, I’ve received all kinds of images, of people, places, events from the 1970s through the present. I’ve included a selection below (click on any photo to view as slideshow), the beginning of what I hope turns into a much larger collection that encompasses as many SoHo stories as possible.

Please continue to send images to yukie@sohomemory.org, and please include a caption with place and date.

Enjoy!

 

Canal Street Artists and Fleas

March 3, 2018

Two Stores on Canal Street ca. early 1980s (photo: Susan Fortgang)

 

Today I would like to share a collection of photos I received recently. These photos and their captions by artist Susan Fortgang capture Canal Street in the 1980’s and 1990’s when it was a lawless flea market free for all. Her in-depth descriptions tell the story of a bygone era that straddled the old and new SoHos and shows us an up-close look at a street that had a culture all of its own, an invaluable addition to our image collection!

Thank you to everyone who has submitted photos to the SoHo Memory Project Photo Archive thus far. For those of you who would still like to submit photos, it’s never too late! Please send photos to yukie@sohomemory.org, or email me or share a Dropbox folder.

Canal Street Story: Flea Market Businesses, Lawlessness, Vendors, Tourists

Images and text by Susan Fortgang

Canal Street, the North side (SoHo) between Mercer Street and Broadway

Here are many of the stores that artists, as well as others, loved and depended on: Industrial Plastics, CK&L Hardware, Canal Hardware, Reliable Hardware, and Tunnel Stationers (there were several wholesale “stationery” stores on Canal Street in the l970’s).  In the right-hand corner of the photo you can see the old Pearl River upstairs, on the corner of Broadway.  Most of these stores lost their leases, were subdivided, and became flea market type booths with no store front and only a metal gate to close.  Eventually, Canal Street deteriorated into a flea market free for all.

Canal Street – SoHo – North side between Mercer and Greene Street. Note condition of historic houses behind sign.

Lighting stores, electronic stores, and stores that installed car stereos were also prevalent on Canal Street back then.  The side streets (Greene, Wooster, Mercer) were plagued with vendors who were illegally installing car stereos, purchased on Canal Street, into cars parked along the curb. Loud music, garbage and congestion drove many of us crazy during the weekend.  I believe this was during the 1980’s.  There were also a lot of break-ins into parked cars along the streets, as criminals tried to get car radios and packages from people who were frequenting SoHo.  Car alarms went off day and night.

Canal Street – SoHo – North side between Mercer and Greene. This picture shows the buildings behind at a later date as some uprgrading is visible

Canal Street – SoHo – North side between Wooster and West Broadway . Businesses are closed in the early morning.

(more…)

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.


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