Posts Tagged ‘NYC history’

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/

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.

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

(more…)

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

October 31, 2015

 

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

bayard

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward Toward the Past

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

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

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

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

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


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