Posts Tagged ‘SoHo NYC’

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).

 

Gone But Not Forgotten: Sharon Watts’ SoHo

February 6, 2016
John Baeder copy

John Baeder Postcard

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

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

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

Sharon in front of her Bleecker Street building, May 1972

177 Bleecker Street, May 1972

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

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

FOOD Menu

FOOD Menu

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

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

A letter to a high school friend:

6 May 1972

Dear D____,

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

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

Hanson

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

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

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

Acconci Behavior Fields postcard

Vito Acconci Behavior Fields Postcard

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

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

Spring Street Bar Wine List

Spring Street Bar Wine List

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

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

The World Trade Center

The World Trade Center, 1971

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

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

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

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…)

Keeping Watch: The SoHo Alliance and the Preservation of SoHo

July 1, 2014
An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post)

NYU 2031–An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post) The SoHo Alliance and other community groups lobbied against NYU’s expansion plan.

In a recent email regarding community opposition to NYU’s 2031 plan, Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance, announced:

In a stunning victory for our community, a State Supreme Court justice ruled that the City acted illegally in giving away parkland on Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place to NYU to be used as a construction staging-area for the university’s planned 20-year expansion program.  NYU had planned to squeeze 1.9 million square feet of high-rise buildings into the two super-blocks above Houston Street. (Read more about the plan here.)

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

The SoHo Alliance, with the tireless and fearless Sweeney at its helm, was instrumental in this victory. As a matter of fact, Sweeney and his associates who form the all-volunteer SoHo Alliance have been working for decades to preserve SoHo’s quality of life by actively monitoring proposed development and opposing developers who attempt to overreach the boundaries of regulatory laws.

In a profile of Sweeney in the now-defunct SoHo Life magazine, he states, “The SoHo Alliance strives 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.” Without the SoHo Alliance, our neighborhood, believe it or not, would most certainly be far more commercially developed than it is today, with bars and nightclubs on every corner late-night revelers disturbing our peace at every hour.

Alliance members serve in key leadership positions on Community Board #2, providing our neighborhood a direct voice in City government. A few of their many accomplishments this past year (click here to see more) include: (more…)

Back to the Future: A History of SoHo from the 1700’s through the Present

June 1, 2014
Collect Pond: 1700’s — The Collect Pond was a fresh water pond that served as the main water supply for the city, located just south of the intersection of present day Broadway and Canal Street.  In the early 1700’s, the area was used for recreation, but by the late-1700's, the pond became very polluted with industrial waste. (image: Wikimedia Commons, Archibald Robertson)

Collect Pond: 1700’s — The Collect Pond was a fresh water pond that served as the main water supply for the city, located just south of the intersection of present day Broadway and Canal Street. In the early 1700’s, the area was used for recreation, but by the late-1700’s, the pond became very polluted with industrial waste. (image: Wikimedia Commons, Archibald Robertson)

I recently gave a presentation about the history of the area of Manhattan that is now called SoHo at Judd Foundation for their artist/guides so that they could better contextualize Judd’s SoHo (1960’s/1970’s) as well as his building (constructed in 1870) within the larger history of New York City.  I have revised and expanded the presentation as a slide show (see below).  Click on any image to enlarge.  Enjoy your trip down memory lane! (more…)


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