Archive for the ‘SoHo as Concept’ Category

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).

 

New York: Our Fear City

June 3, 2017

Over the past several years, I have learned much about the history of SoHo writing this blog. I am, however, just beginning to understand the complex historical context in which our neighborhood developed. It did not, after all, appear in a vacuum.

Just this week, I began reading Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, an excellent new book by Kim Phillips-Fein, historian and friend of SMP. The book takes an in-depth look at New York in the mid-1970’s, when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, as well as the aftermath of the austerity plan that would eventually bring our fair city back to life. Kevin Baker of The Guardian says of the time:

New York’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s is surely one of the weirdest moments in the history of the city – indeed, of the United States. It was a time when the wholesale disintegration of the largest city in the most powerful nation on earth seemed entirely possible. A time when the American president, Gerald Ford – egged on by his young chief of staff, one Donald Rumsfeld – sought not to succour New York but to deliberately shame and humble it, and perhaps even replace it as the world’s leading financial centre.

This moment provides an important context for what was unfolding in SoHo at the time. It was, I think, the decline of fiscal-crisis New York and the very real possibility of “wholesale disintegration,” a we-have-nothing-to-lose attitude, that allowed creative centers such as SoHo to flourish unchecked. Phillips-Fein elaborates on this idea in her book:

Even the stirrings of creativity and resilience [in New York City], … were very closely linked to—indeed, were made possible by—the poverty of the city. The artists and musicians who clustered in the cheap apartments of Alphabet City and the Lower East Side mocked the commercialization of art, adopting an aesthetic that flaunted the absence of money. “No Wave” art, music, and film were defined by their low production budgets; they relied on urban disinvestment, sustained by the low rents of lofts, warehouses, apartments that no one else wanted. In downtown lofts that had once housed small manufacturers artists decorated makeshift theaters with old furniture, abandoned commercial signs, tossed-out tinsel, crutches, and children’s toys to perform works that were half confession, half provocation. (p. 54)

(click on images to enlarge)

The title of the book, Phillips-Fein explains, alludes to the pamphlet “Welcome to Fear City”:

The book was named for the Committee on Public Safety pamphlet, which itself seems to be an ironic twist on Lindsay’s “Fun City” – although I meant to suggest that “fear” in the city has to do with many more political issues (ie, it’s not just fear of crime and violence) and that that fear, among elite groups, winds up making possible many changes that would have been almost unimaginable otherwise.

The pamphlet, whose subtitle is “A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York,” sports a creepy drawing of a hooded scull on its cover. It was produced and distributed by the Council for Public Safety, a group of uniformed service unions that included the police offices, fire fighters, and corrections officers. Although circulation of the pamphlet was halted soon after it began, the tourists who did receive a copy as they entered New York through JFK must have been tempted to immediately return from whence they came.

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(W)here is New York?

September 3, 2016

“The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

E.B. White, Here is New York

“I don’t feel like there’s any hope in ever going against the tide. I believe you have to get on your surfboard and ride it.

Patricia Field, Native New Yorker (NYT 12/26/15)

I loved NY alex

image: Alex Reiter

I write this while abroad in Costa Rica, where I am far removed from New York and SoHo. When I return, any perspective I might have will vanish, obliterated by the frenetic energy and constant buzzing that is the backdrop of my hometown. It is only when I am away that I can sense its absence and that I can reflect upon my usual normal.

My friend Lito, a Swiss-Frenchman by birth, bought some land and moved here over thirty years ago. He is accustomed to the lulling rhythms of “la pura vida,” the pure life, Costa Rica’s proud motto. When I arrived here, Lito asked me, “So how’s New York?” to which I answered, “It’s terrible! I feel as if they’ve taken it away from me! I’m so angry!” I was taken aback by my response. I did not know where those words came from. Who are “they” and what is “it”?  And what am I angry about?

We native New Yorkers are a tough and proud breed. Whether we still live there or jumped ship for the quietude of any place that’s not New York, we all wear our New Yorkness as a badge of honor. Just as we all have our own SoHo stories, we have larger New York narratives in which they are ensconced. One cannot exist without the other. My New York story is an extension of my SoHo story.

Me and my sister playing on

Me and my sister playing on the loading dock in front of our building ca. 1977

SoHo was a wonderful and wondrous place to grow up. As children we were free to explore the neighborhood, jumping from loading dock to loading dock, and the city, riding in the front car of subways to watch the stations go by, getting a certain thrill when the CC train stopped inexplicably between stations and the lights went out, leaving us momentarily in complete darkness because the graffiti covered windows let in no light from the tracks.

Photo: Steven Siegel for Daily Mail UK)

Photo: Steven Siegel for Daily Mail UK

I’ve always thought that I WAS living the pura vida. What could be more pura than New York? Where else in the world could such a diverse group of people live so closely packed together and make it more or less work, and thrive no less. Wherever in the world I go, when people find out I am from New York, they are in awe, as if I were a chosen one. I feel so cool. It would be smug, if I didn’t recognize that being a native New Yorker, and a SoHo native to boot, is not in any way a personal accomplishment, but merely a lucky circumstance not of my own making.

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Welcome to Year Six: The SoHo Memory Project in 2016

January 2, 2016
The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society is ready to roll!

The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society is ready to roll!

On January 1, 2011, I started writing this blog without a clue about where it would lead. I began almost grudgingly, thinking that someone ought to be preserving SoHo’s important and endlessly interesting history, but not me. Five years later, I am very happy that I took the plunge, as this project has only reinforced my conviction that preservation in all of its forms is not only important, but essential to how we situate ourselves in the present and how we envision our future.

2015 was a very busy year for The SoHo Memory Project. After a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign and a fabulous article by Kyle Spencer in The New York Times, my project expanded in leaps and bounds, keeping me busy with exciting new developments. Here’s an overview of what’s to come and nja recap of highlights from the past few months.

Many thanks to all of you for your continued support in input!


LOOKNG FORWARD

The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society

A visitor watches a film at the SMP Portable Historical Society

A visitor watches a film at the SMP Portable Historical Society

It’s finally finished and ready to hit the streets! Thanks to a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities, The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society will be popping up at SoHo Arts Network (SAN) member organizations throughout 2016 beginning with four dates at Judd Foundation in January and February. The Judd sessions require a reservation, and we are currently fully booked, but the mobile museum will be at The Drawing Center two weekends in February and March, open to all:

Saturday, February 20, 12-4pm
Sunday, February 21, 12-4 pm

Saturday, March 5, 12-4pm
Sunday, March 6, 12-4pm

For a full schedule of events, please click here. I hope to see you at one (or more) of these sites in 2016! (more…)

SoHo Past, Present, …Future?

December 5, 2015

What a year it’s been for The SoHo Memory Project! We’ve made so much progress toward preserving and sharing the history of SoHo during this first few months of programming. There has been a recent groundswell in interest in SoHo history, and I so appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm to come together to celebrate our neighborhood’s rich history. I will do my usual annual “recap and look forward” post next month, but wanted to first share my more general ideas about where we stand as a community today.

new-york-city-subway-crime-1970s.jpg

NYC Subway 1970’s (Photo: Anthony Casale/New York Daily News)

It seems to me that SoHo, and perhaps New York City in general, is at a tipping point. I have had the same discussion with a number of people lately about how our city is at a critical juncture. On the one had, there seems to be a lot of looking back, especially at the 1970’s, going on (see Edmund White’s NYT piece “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?”). A nostalgia for a time that was, yes, dirty, dangerous, and dire, but also full of potential. Our fair city was on the brink of bankruptcy and was on the verge of complete chaos (remember the blackout of ’77?), but it was also a time pre-AIDS, pre-Bloomberg, pre-Superstore, pre-internet, when hardship bred true creativity and passion. A circumstance so bleak could have led to a contagion of apathy, but the opposite happened in SoHo, innovation, stemming from a place of pure hope, flourished.

28veto_lgWhat a stark contrast between that SoHo and the SoHo (and New York) of the present. If the 70’s was a time when the world was ready to leave us all to crash and burn, this present decade has thus far been a time when developers and foreign interests have made New York soar and shine. It seems that investors cannot throw enough cash at us and just when you think development has reached its peak, yet another high rise or mega store peeks up over the skyline. A far cry from the days of “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. Here in SoHo, we have soaring real estate prices, a continued influx of luxury brands opening flagship stores, and large retail chains in search of ever-larger spaces to set up shop. The sparkle, or perhaps some would say glare, of these establishments have made all but invisible the other SoHo, the SoHo that emerged back when all was darkness and doom (see my post Is there art in SoHo?).

So what next? We are at a (critical!) juncture in SoHo, where our neighborhood has all but lost its creative soul while it has gained oodles of commercial vitality. How does SoHo celebrate what remains of its past while bolstering the new? How does it remain relevant and not become too vanilla, just one of many successful American commercial hubs?

sephoraThe brands that inhabit the ground-floor commercial spaces on our main thoroughfares and side streets are brands that can be found in many commercial districts in many American cities. This is what people refer to as the “mallification” (or mollification?) of SoHo. In addition, many in the media claim that only a negligible number of artists remain in SoHo. I beg to differ. It is certainly true that SoHo is way past its heyday as an artists community, but the arts still thrive in SoHo, albeit quietly.

Mullican Installation View 1

Installation view of “Matt Mullican: A Drawing Translates the Way of Thinking” at The Drawing Center, New York, 2009

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You are What You Eat….or is it Wear?

September 5, 2015
(image via domesticgeekgirl.com)

(image via domesticgeekgirl.com)

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

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

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

Yes, The SoHo Historical Society!

May 1, 2015

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

The SoHo Historical Society?

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

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

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

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

image: Cass Collins

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

Another year older…

January 1, 2015
IMG_5370

A “Keep SoHo Low” t-shirt from the SoHo Alliance

And am I any wiser? Yes, in fact I think I am. I have gathered quite a bit of wisdom after writing this blog for four years. I’ve done oodles of research along the way, as well as much reading, writing, lecturing, and chatting with old timers, and in the process I found that I now belong to a coterie of like-minded historians and memory keepers who realize the importance of preserving the past to inform the future—all you guys. So what’s ahead for year five of The SoHo Memory Project? In 2015, I put my money where my mouth is (though there will actually be no currency exchanged) and go beyond the parameters of this blog to create the SoHo Memory Archive that I’ve been writing about this past year (see my post Archivism as Activism).

SoHo Festival Flyer - to recruit SoHo artists to participate in the May 1970 (? or thereabouts) festival

SoHo Festival Flyer – to recruit SoHo artists to participate in the May 1970 (? or thereabouts) festival

In 2014, I reached out to my coterie with amazing results. Those who were there at the ground zero of SoHo, who wisely saved their files, reports, jottings, clippings, photos, and even t-shirts knowing somehow that these were the records of a significant moment in time that was much larger than themselves yet in which they played an integral part, have entrusted me to assemble these parts into a coherent whole.

The SoHo Memory Archive is a collection of materials relating to development and preservation in SoHo from the 1960s through the 1980s and the present.  I will spend the next year cataloging this collection of “evidence,” and I hope, by the following year, the collection will be usable to anyone who wants to learn from our collective past. Throughout this process, I will share items of significance that I come across. (more…)

SoHo as Muse: The SoHo Shift

November 29, 2014
SoHo Editorial3

Public Interaction: Isabel modeled the Soho dress for a fashion editorial photoshoot the group named “Bag Lady”. She caused quite a scene in the big, attention grabbing garment, both disrupting and intriguing the crowds of Saturday afternoon shoppers.

 

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from Cameron Durham at Parsons the New School for Design, telling me about a SoHo related project he completed with his Integrative Studio and Seminar class. The studio portion of the class is taught by Stacy Selier, exploring a range of visual, analytical and making skills while working on projects that draw upon collaboration and cross disciplinary investigation. The focus of this course is not only on the “how” of making things, but also the “why.” How is it that we make sense of our ideas, the information we collect, and our hunches and theories? And what can this inquiry tell us about why we make decisions as creative thinkers? The seminar portion of the class is taught by Andrea Marpillero-Colomina and explores the urban transformation and shift in New York City through analytical classroom discussions and writing projects.

Cameron told me that they used The SoHo Memory Project as a source of information when they were doing background research for their SoHo shift design.  The finished “product” is quite interesting, melding history and fashion into a design for a shift.  I would like to share it with you, as it presents a visual interpretation of SoHo from the point of view of designers who were all born after the transformation of SoHo from a community of artists to a retail hub—blank slates in a way, in that they never experienced SoHo as anything but the home of Kanye and Nine West. (more…)


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