Posts Tagged ‘SoHo Artists Association’

Sweeping SoHo

February 3, 2018

Trash on Wooster Street in the early 1970s (photo: Jaime Davidovich)

If you haven’t heard yet, SoHo has a new “neighborhood improvement” group, an all-volunteer-run nonprofit called CleanUpSoHo dedicated to keeping SoHo streets clean. I, for one, have seen a huge improvement lately.

Our once relatively rubbish-free sidewalks became dotted with discarded shopping bags, coffee cups and food containers after the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE), subsidized by its founder, SoHo resident Henry Buhl, stopped cleaning our streets in the fall of 2016 due to funding challenges. And the problem only worsened as the weather got warmer and tourist season ramped up in the spring and summer of 2017.

SoHo is no stranger to trash talking. In the early-1970’s, after it became public knowledge that artists were living in SoHo’s then-manufacturing buildings, the SoHo Artists Association (SAA), a neighborhood advocacy group, lobbied for curb-side pickup of residential trash. Before then, because SoHo was not zoned for residential use, the City of New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) did not pick up household trash. Residents had to find creative ways to dispose of their trash — often illegally depositing it in public trash bins and commercial dumpsters. Businesses often complained, and artists were fined if trash was traced back to them through discarded mail with their name and address.

A 1971 map of SoHo’s new trash collection zones

Mark Gabor, SAA’s “Director of Garbage” recalls:

At one of the early meetings of the SAA, there was angry debate as to how to deal with sanitation. The “pros” were fed up with no public service and having to schlep our trash blocks away; the “cons” were afraid of exposing our lofts to various City-department inspections and consequently losing our spaces, since most of us were illegal residents living precariously on the edge. A lot of paranoia. I even remember some of the screaming fights by the more radical underground resident artists.

Me? I said, let me try to talk directly with the local Sanitation guys — see what they think. As it turns out, they were fine with idea of scheduled pick-up times for artists’ personal trash, and agreed to make no bureaucratic connection with other City departments, namely Fire & Police. Inevitably, these other agencies ‘recognized’ the artists, not as legal, but as acceptable — since SoHo was already becoming a cultural voice in the boom of the early 70s, and the City liked us. Yes, they liked us! For the sanitation guys (I knew them by name), it was a hoot to see how these screwy artists lived and worked. It gave them a certain panache as somehow being part of The Culture.

Fast forward to the early-1990s. SoHo had become a tourist destination as clothing stores and restaurants opened, slowly replacing the art galleries that slowly began moving to Chelsea. More people, more trash. This time on the sidewalks and streets.

Enter SoHo Partnership, founded by Henry Buhl, “to address problems particular to our urban environment and to improve the quality of life in the community.” The partnership was unique in that it 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. The organization was largely funded by donations from local residents and businesses. A not-for-profit organization, SoHo Partnership provided training and employment opportunities to homeless and jobless individuals and kept the streets of SoHo clean. In 2010, SoHo Partnership was folded into A.C.E., its umbrella organization, but continued to maintain SoHo’s streets. As mentioned earlier, because of funding challenges, largely due to a decline in participation on the part of an increasingly transient and faceless community of commercial business owners, A.C.E. discontinued street cleaning in SoHo in the fall of 2016.

What followed was a period when the streets of SoHo were strewn with litter from the growing number of people who passed through SoHo on a daily basis. DSNY could do little to help the situation. It turns out that, legally at least, commercial tenants are the ones responsible for keeping sidewalks clean:

One of CleanUpSoHo’s new high-capacity 45-gallon receptacles

The New York Department of Sanitation and most standard commercial leases require that building owners and commercial tenants keep the sidewalk and curb in front of their establishments clear. This rule applies to all sidewalks in Soho — except corners, where Sanitation must empty public trash bins. (source)

Commercial property owners and residents along the Broadway corridor between Canal and Houston formed the SoHo Broadway Initiative (SBI), a neighborhood improvement district and the first New York City supported Business Improvement District to provide equal representation to commercial and residential stakeholders. SBI has a Clean Team that cleans the sidewalks along Broadway.

But where does that leave the rest of SoHo?

Dianne Mendez, Sean Sweeney and Danielle Nazinitsky, founders of @CleanUpSoHo

A group of residents who were fed up with stepping over mounds of trash bags and shopping bags on their way home, not to mention appalled by the general dumpiness of their environs, formed a neighborhood improvement group called CleanUp SoHo. Begun as a Twitter campaign to call out offenders by posting photos of storefronts and brand names, rather than relying on an increasingly transient retail constituency, CleanUpSoHo has begun raising funds from various neighborhood sources, including co-op/condo associations, landlords, and building managers. They have succeeded in raising over $100,000 from various sources to jumpstart a street cleaning campaign.

CleanUpSoHo has begun replacing approximately 100 existing/missing small wire mesh baskets with sturdy, high-capacity 45-gallon receptacles approved by DSNY through their Sponsor-A- Basket program. In addition, CleanUpSoHo has hired Wildcat Service Corporation, who is cleaning the streets bordered by Houston, Mercer, Canal and Thompson.

Members of the Wildcat SoHo team cleaning our streets

CleanUpSoHo co-founder Danielle Nazinitsky told me, “Longer term, we plan an outreach program in cooperation with DSNY to educate property owners and commercial entities about DSNY laws and regulations regarding proper trash disposal, recycling guidelines, collection schedules, commercial cartage, etc.”

In the true spirit of SoHo, CleanUpSoHo is a grassroots campaign that has made true inroads in improving our community. To continue this good work, they will need our support. Please contact Danielle Nazinitsky at or (330) 936-7928 to find out how to become involved with their efforts or to make a donation.

The SAA: Trash Talkin’ and Beat Walkin’

July 14, 2012

A flyer for a meeting of the SoHo Artists Association (click to enlarge)

Before 1971, SoHo artists, almost all of whom also lived in their work spaces, were living here illegally.  For a while, no one seemed to notice or care, the city pretty much looked the other way, but when non-artists looking for investment opportunities began noticing the profit potential of such spaces, artists, who, until then, chose to remain anonymous and hidden, came together to form the SoHo Tenants’ Association and then incorporated as The SoHo Artists Association (SAA), initially in order to legalize loft dwellings and fight to keep SoHo an affordable place for artists to work.  Without the community organization and activism of residents, SoHo most certainly would not have evolved as it did.  It would most likely have been taken over by either real estate developers looking to make a quick buck or the city looking to build new housing projects, or both. Luckily, the SAA and other groups willing to put in time and labor stepped up and fought for what they felt was rightly theirs.

On January 20, 1971, the City Planning Commission voted 4 to 0 to recommend to the Board of Estimate that artists be permitted to reside in the manufacturing buildings of SoHo.  On January 28, the Board of Estimate made that recommendation law.  This law was ultimately passed due to the SAA’s two-year battle with the city for the legalization of loft living in SoHo and set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas. (more…)

If You Don’t Build It, They Will Still Come

December 10, 2011

Charles L. Low with drawings and models of his proposed sports complex (photo: The New York Times)

Did you know that the second biggest development project never to happen in old SoHo, after LOMEX, was a proposed sports complex?  In 1972, the real estate developer Charles L. Low asked the City for a variance to build a 21-story public sports center at 311 West Broadway, just north of Canal Street.  The complex was to have 15 tennis courts, four ice skating rinks, a 6,000 square foot gym with running track, six squash courts, two handball courts, a 25-meter Olympic swimming pool, a whirlpool, sauna and exercise rooms, lockers and dressing rooms, lounges, health food bars, pro shops, a nursery, and self-service parking for 225 cars.  The complex was to mainly cater to the Wall Street crowd and other white-collar types who worked downtown.  In 1972?  In SoHo?

Needless to say, this plan caused some controversy.  And, as you can guess, the complex was never built.  But for a while, when the plan was still a possibility, it caused a huge divide in the SoHo community and its environs.

Many but not all artists who lived in SoHo were against the plan.  The most vocal opponent was the SoHo Artists’ Association, who argued that the complex would spoil the character of the neighborhood, that it would be an eyesore in a neighborhood that was made up of low-rise, 18th century buildings.  They also argued that the complex would bring in more people and automobiles to the neighborhood than it could support and it would also lead to higher rents in an area whose rents had already doubled in recent years due to escalating property values.

On the opposing side, community members, most of whom lived just west of West Broadway, most of whom were Italian-American, and most of whom were not artists but laborers and merchants, supported the plan, arguing that the complex would raise the profile of the neighborhood, bring much needed jobs to the area, and would provide a place for residents, especially children, to exercise (the students in the nearby Catholic school were promised free access to the facilities).  In addition, NYU supported the plan, as the complex would improve the quality of life of their faculty members who lived nearby.

Both sides had compelling arguments.  It was a bit of a surprise, though, when the complex was defeated.  As Donald Tricarico explains in his book, The Italians of Greenwich Village: The Social Structure and Transformation of an Ethnic Community:

The SAA was persuasive.  The planning board adopted its position and advised against the complex.  Italians were quite angry and taken off guard by the artists’ assertiveness in the matter.  The community broker felt that the sports center was “none of their business.”  He also felt betrayed.  He insisted that “if it wasn’t for the Italians, there wouldn’t be a SoHo.” (p. 130)

In hindsight, I suppose I am happy that the complex was never built.  One less aesthetically questionable behemoth building to look at.  Yet, all of the things that the SAA said would happen to the neighborhood if the complex was built happened anyway.  And pretty soon thereafter.  On the very same plot where the complex was supposed to be, we now have the SoHo Mews, a sprawling luxury condo complex where the likes of Oscar de la Renta own property, and across the street is the majestic SoHo Grand Hotel.  And neither the Mews nor the Grand serve the youth of the neighborhood (though I don’t 100% believe that the sports complex would have in the end, either—lesson learned from the whole Coles experience).  To the west of the Grand, we have the even more majestic Trump SoHo Hotel.  If the names “Trump” and “SoHo” can be found proudly emblazoned on a marquis, I think we can safely say that we have crossed the Rubicon.

The Taxman Cometh

November 26, 2011

I had the honor and privilege of sitting in on a small business audit at the IRS the other day.  A good portion of the audit was spent on going over the “cost of goods sold” for abstract paintings created during 2009 and 2010.  Apparently, although there have been artists since pretty much the beginning of civilization, there is still a huge grey area in tax law when it comes to artists, art, and defining the cost of goods, sold or unsold.

My parents, like scores of other SoHo residents, had the most complicated tax returns with countless schedules, income credits and other mysterious forms that are also attached to my own 1040’s but that I barely understand mysel.   My father’s friend paints food (he makes pictures of food, he doesn’t color cucumbers purple), so does that mean every meal he eats is inspiration and therefore deductible?  My ex-plumber (he retired) and SoHo old timer declared long ago that his LIFE, every moment of it, is his art, so is everything deductible for him, including toilet paper and vodka?

One would have thought that there have been many precedents that would have at least begun to account for what it is that those creative types do in their downtown lofts all day.  After all, this is the IRS.  They are an inclusive institution.  However, although there are a few cases presently making their way up the tax courts, I was told that things are still, for the most part, pretty loosey-goosey (my words, not theirs!), a term not usually used to describe the taxman.

In 1987, a new tax law was passed that permitted only the cost of goods actually sold in that tax year to be deducted.  An article by Douglas C. McGill in the April 7, 2008 New York Times states that:

The intent of the law, according to sources who were close to the process of its drafting, was to apply a uniform set of rules to all ”producers of personal property,” in the language of the law, whether they were large or small businesses, mass manufacturers or freelances….In essence, the law ends the practice of automatically deducting all expenses in the year they are incurred. Instead, artists and other freelances will now be required to follow a more complex accounting method called capitalization.

This law was contested by Artists for Tax Equity, a lobbying group, and an exemption was made for fine artists, who were and are still permitted to deduct the total of the cost of “goods,” whether sold or not.  The argument was that if artists had to “manufacture” work that they think will sell in a particular year, this would hamper artistic experimentation and innovation and that the law did not distinguish between the mass manufacturing of products and the creation of unique works of art.  So it seems that, at least in this instance, artists are not strictly considered manufacturers of goods, but rather creators of something that is more difficult to define and price in monetary terms.

It is ironic that the opposite argument was made, according to Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance (as quoted in a previous post about loft regulation), when:

the SoHo Artists Association, the forerunner of the Alliance, was formed in 1968 to reach a compromise and to get artist-living here legalized. The construct or the conceit used to justify their living here was that artists do manufacture — they manufacture art!    So, the only ones who could live in SoHo/NoHo were manufacturers of art, i.e., artists basically, although musicians could live here if they composed (manufactured) music, but could not live here if they solely used it as a rehearsal space. Same with dancers.  Choreographing enabled you live in your loft. You manufactured dance. Using it just for dance practice did not.

Although it seems that there are two conflicting definitions here of what an artist is and does, to me, these two definitions do not point to a double standard or any kind of hypocrisy.  Rather, I feel that our language and culture have not yet come to terms, so to speak, with the role of the artist in society, absurd as that may seem.  So how can we expect our regulating bodies to do the same?

I grew up in a culture where trading, bartering, scavenging, sharing, and borrowing were quotidian.  Bank accounts, insurance, degrees, passports, leases, and contracts were optional at best.  My preschool tuition was paid in time and love and havarti cheese.  My father’s artwork was composed, in partnership with another artist, of objects found around the house and in the streets.  We paid our $125 rent in cash every month to a big man behind a big desk whose office was just above a liquor store, no questions asked, not complaints made.

So as I sat through the seemingly endless audit where we were actually able to produce proof of every penny spent on paint, canvas, and brushes, I was tempted to ask our auditor (a very humane and reasonable face of the IRS, by the way) why, when the rules are so vague to begin with, they were questioning the compliance of someone with so little income to justify what he made when there were much bigger fish whose finances are much more fishy.  I guess it was because it is far easier to catch a goldfish than an eel.

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