Posts Tagged ‘Soho’

Dunn’s Deals: Douglas Dunn and the Lofts of SoHo

November 4, 2017

Cassations rehearsal at Douglas Dunn Studio, 541 Broadway, 3rd Floor. Decor by Mimi Gross. 2012

Douglas Dunn, choreographer, dancer and long-time resident of SoHo, recently shared with me a letter he wrote to Wendy Perron, also a choreographer and dancer, who is currently working on a book about Grand Union. Grand Union, in Perron’s words, was “a pivotal improvisation group that was unforgettable for downtown dancers in the 1970s.”

In his letter, Dunn shares memories of moving to and around SoHo, from apartment to loft to larger loft. His story captures SoHo’s evolving real estate landscape at the time, and also reads as a who’s who in modern dance. A fascinating story with beautiful photographs!

click on photographs below to view slideshow with captions

 

October 23, 2017

Hi Wendy,

During 1964/5, the year after graduating from Princeton, I lived on West 110th St., had a full time Welfare Job, studied Ballet at the Joffrey School, and attended New School night classes on the Psychology of Art with Rudolf Arnheim. It was too much, so….

 

247 Elizabeth Street

In the summer of 1965, I married and took a job teaching Spanish at The Gunnery School in Washington, Connecticut. I enjoyed the subject, but not the difficulty of having to motivate the students. After three years, in the spring of 1968, my wife (Ann Hentz), young son (Ethan Dunn) and I left that idyllic and isolating environment, and took up residence at 247 Elizabeth Street, between Houston and Prince, a 5th floor walkup. Little Italy was still Little Italy. Raw. The rent was in the low $200s. The one-bedroom apartment had been found by Steve (Shaw) and Bill (Bakaitis), two longtime friends who resided in tiny railroad apartments on East 9th Street near Avenue A, also raw, paying $37/month. By the fall, my wife and son, Ann and Ethan, went to live with her parents in South Bend, Indiana. Within a year, Sara (Rudner) moved in with me. She was full time with Twyla (Tharp), I with Merce (Cunningham).

Douglas Dunn at 508 Broadway before moving to 541 Broadway. (photo: Peter Moore, 1982)

In 1972, a friend of Sara’s, the painter Ben Schonzeit, let us know that the third floor at 508 Broadway, between Prince and Spring, had become available. We didn’t need a studio of our own, but I had a dream. The back wall of the loft was gone. Instead of buildings, there was the African Savanna, teeming with animals. Coming to understand, thus, that my dancing and my natural self were one, that I would be a dance artist for the rest of my life, I insisted that we move. In 1973, Sara left, taking a loft way west on Canal Street.

 

508 Broadway looking west before moving to 541 Broadway (photo: Peter Moore, 1982)

508 Broadway was owned by an aged couple who had run the ground floor as a dry goods store. Now living on our

508 Broadway

residential rent, they came in weekdays from Brooklyn and played cards in dim light. They were friendly. They charged $200/mo for each of the four floors above the store. After a few years, suddenly and without notice, the rent went way up. Unbeknownst to us, the building had been sold to Calvin Pearl, a Soho speculator. With his mother’s inheritance, he bragged, he had bought fifteen buildings, with the aim of flipping them and moving to Florida. We four tenants went to his office on Mulberry Street and begged him to sell to us. After a year, he did so, clearing $100,000.00. We each paid $49,000.00.

Off and on when Lucinda (Childs) was on tour, I rented her space at 541 (Broadway) in order to have a larger studio. We even performed Lazy Madge there for two weeks in the late ‘70s. (508 is twenty-two feet wide, 541 thirty-five.)  So I was familiar with the building. There had been a few Grand Union rehearsals in Trisha’s space earlier in the decade, and I had danced for her and with David (Gordon). Trisha (Brown), Lucinda and David had all moved to 541 in the early ‘70s, on the fifth, fourth and second floors respectively.

541 Braodway

On the third floor was a couple, the husband a concert pianist. I knew them slightly from my sojourns at Lucinda’s. Somehow, not from anyone in the building, I heard that they were selling. We spoke, arriving at a verbal agreement at $35,000.00. The next day, at their door with the cash down payment in hand, I was apprised that they had changed their minds and that the deal was off. I heard later that that morning at a building meeting there was talk of selling a vacant space on the Mercer side, and that an attorney present had recommended a price of $75,000.00. I had told the owners that I would be interested if later they decided to sell, but next thing I knew they had sold to a French couple, for how much I never heard.

Two or three years went by. Mimi Johnson, whom I knew from Cunningham days and from Artservices, let me know that the French couple were selling. After considerable negotiation, and some resistance from my dance colleagues in the building, I bought in at $350,000.00. 1982.

Douglas Dunn Studio looking east at 541 Broadway, 3rd Floor (photo: La VOCE di New York, 2016)

As for 112 Greene Street, yes, several nights each week folks would gather there to eat, drink, smoke and dance. Another spot, every Thursday was Open House at Robert Wilson’s loft on Spring Street. Dancing to music was the thing, to Cat Stevens especially. When Andy DeGroat would appear, others would clear the space to watch him. And Robert himself would emerge late, dancing virtuosically on the edges of his Earth Shoes.

If you have more questions, while I still have memory…

Best,
Douglas

 

for more information about Douglas Dunn visit www.douglasdunndance.com

read a review of a Douglas Dunn performance in his 508 Broadway studio in the September 1974 issue of Artforum

listen to Douglas Dunn’s oral history interview for The New York Public Library

read “Shall We Dance?” about 537-541 Broadway

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/

(Pre)School Daze

April 1, 2017
SoHo Playgroup-related items from The SoHo Memory Project Archives (click on image to enlarge)

In honor of the SoHo Playgroup Reunion taking place this month, I am posting about SoHo’s unique preschool. Our second such reunion, the “kids,” now around 50 years old, and their parents, most of whom are into their 70’s, will be getting together to have a potluck lunch full of reminiscing and catching up. Can you believe it? These are folks that I went to preschool with 45 years ago!

The SoHo Playgroup gang in the playground on Houston Street (photo: Mimi Smith)

I met most of my old-time SoHo friends at the SoHo Playgroup, which was started by neighborhood mothers as a series of playdates in various homes and at Thompson Street Playground (now called Vesuvio Playground) around 1970.  After that, for a time they met at the Children’s Aid Society until two local building owners, Charles and Fritz, donated a basement space on the corner of Prince and Wooster (under the restaurant FOOD, now the site of LuluLemon Men).  The Playgroup parents cleaned out the basement, put down tiles, and painted the walls.

After-playgroup playdate at 80 Wooster Street (photo: Judy Reichler)

Once the Playgroup moved into its own space, it became a bit more structured and organized.  Cynthia, a teacher, was hired for $50 cash per week and the parents paid $20 per child per week and were required to “work” one day per week.  The Playgroup operated weekday mornings, and each morning a group of three parents would help Cynthia look after the fifteen children, thus giving the children a fun place to play and socialize while the other parents had some free time.  An “after-school” program was also set up where groups of five children each would visit a rotating list of lofts to play during the afternoon hours.

Making macaroni necklaces (photo: Donald Gangemi)

I attended the SoHo Playgroup from 1972, around when it opened in the Prince Street space, until I was old enough to enter kindergarten at P.S.3 in 1974 (no such thing as pre-K back then!).  My sister also attended, from around 1974-1977.  Cynthia was the teacher there the entire time we attended.  I was pretty young, so I don’t have that many distinct memories of the Playgroup.  I do remember Cynthia as a wonderful, compassionate teacher and friend.

I also remember that, since we were in the basement, we would have floods every once in a while.  The children would all have to stand up against the wall while the parents tried to clean away the water and dry out our “rugs.”  The playgroup space had moving blankets on the floor, and for the longest time, whenever I saw anyone moving, I always wondered why they covered all their furniture with rugs.

The Cheese Store, precursor to Dean & Deluca (photo: Ben Schonzeit)

I also remember Havarti cheese.  The parents of the day would be responsible for bringing in the snack of the day, and often it was purchased at THE CHEESE STORE, Giorgio DeLuca’s cheese shop at 120 Prince Street (now the site of Olive’s).  Giorgio DeLuca, along with two partners, went on to open Dean and DeLuca, the gourmet food store, across the street (now the site of Club Monaco).  My mother, who was pretty new to New York and the U.S., didn’t know what to buy, and one day she saw that another mom had brought in Havarti cheese, so she bought that too from then on.  I ate A LOT of Havarti cheese back in those days.

SoHo Playgroup was such as wonderful and special place to come into the world.  Mostly, but not all, children of artists, we were encouraged to discover and explore our inherent creativity.  Thank you, SoHo moms, for creating such as nurturing environment for us to grow up in!

If you attended SoHo Playgroup and wish to attend the reunion, please email me offline at yukie@sohomemory.org.

 

SoHo Playgroup Reunion, 2010

An earlier version of this post appeared on this blog in January 2011

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

March 4, 2017

Every once in a while, I like to dip into our SoHo Profiles folder to gather and share some of the wonderful memories of old SoHo readers have submitted to The SoHo Memory Project (to submit your SoHo Profile, please click here). It’s fun to see where there are overlaps or if there are themes that run through them. In this batch, a lot of people remember finding useful things on the street and while dumpster diving. And the loading docks, everyone remembers them. Quite a few also mention Fanelli’s and other SoHo gathering spots. I especially like the very funny story about the chickens!

The following is a compilation of recent responses to the question, “What is your most vivid SoHo memory?”

A Zelf sander

A Zelf sander

Amber, who was in SoHo from the 1970’s through the 1990’s, misses a lot about old SoHo:

The stuff you would find in the dumpsters. My mother found a spool of gold and silver card stock, and I would make full-body head dresses out of it and wear them around the neighborhood and to pizza at that place with a garden on 6th ave that became a Duane Reade. the carrot cake at Food, that spicy pepper smell around Broome or Grand. The constant creative activity- the neighborhood was so sparsely populated, and it was just “us” and the guy at Zelf tool rental and the nice people at Fanelli’s. The sound of the trucks, the Neon Gallery, and the broken kilometer, and of course the Duane Hansons.

 

St. Alphonsus Chruch on West Broadway during demolition (photo: Rachel Pincus)

St. Alphonsus Chruch on West Broadway during demolition (photo: Rachel Pincus)

Richard (b. 1946) lived on Grand Street from 1975-1990:

Sohozat, DeRoma’s, Broome Street Bar, Magoos, The Cupping Room, The Performing Garage, The Canal Street Flea Market, O.K. Harris Art Gallery, Lucky Strike, Watts Happen Inn, Fanelli’s, Vesuvio Bakery, The Spring Street Bar, Smokestacks Lightning, The Nancy Whiskey Pub, Leo Castelli Gallery, The Earth Room, The Ear Inn, cobblestone streets, blackouts and blizzards. Searching for wood on the streets in January of 1976 to bring home and burn in my pot-bellied stove. Being able to make art and then display it in the window of my studio. The Bells of the Church of Saint Alphonsus. Hornblower Antiques. Hanging out on the stoop of my studio and talking to the old long-time Italian immigrant neighbors. The sound of the Grand Street bus going East. The sunlight coming through the front windows of my studio.

 

Dumpster diving on Mercer Street, ca. 1977

Dumpster diving on Mercer Street, ca. 1977 (photo:Nancy Haynes)

Sarah (b. 1963) lived in SoHo in the 1960s:

Finding endless scraps from the small area factories and making cool things with them.  Also, climbing up and down the truck loading docks as I made my way down the streets (one could not pass on the sidewalk because there were always trucks parked at a right angle to the sidewalk!)

 

The ball field at NYU Playground, 1973

The ball field at NYU Playground, 1973

Lucien (b. 1966) grew up in SoHo:

Playing at playground east of Silver Towers while my parents climbed the fence into the field at the NE corner to play softball.  Judson Health Clinic.  Mary’s Candy store on Thompson.  Dumpster diving!  Running along Greene or Wooster along the tops of loading docks and other building structures playing “don’t touch the ground” with my brother.  Sword fighting with cardboard tubes left over from bolts of fabric.  Climbing in and on the bread delivery trucks at Wooster? and Prince.

 

Nicholas (b. 1967) was also a kid in old SoHo:

My mother sent me to the bodega on West Broadway and Prince street to get her beer and cigarettes when I was 9. One of the guys who worked at the bodega sent me home to get a note from my mother.  When I returned with the note he put the 6-pack in a paper bag and walked me half way home before handing me the bag.  I think he was nervous about breaking the law.  That kind of thing would be impossible today.

 

Exterior of Magoo's, 1978. (Photo: Ken Nadle via Art in America)

Exterior of Magoo’s, 1978. (Photo: Ken Nadle via Art in America)

Kaleb (b. 1968), who lived in SoHo from 1977-1991, remembers:

I woke up one morning to the sound of chickens.  I thought I was dreaming.  I got up and looked out my window.  A truck carrying cages of chickens heading to the slaughter house on Mulberry and Prince had taken the corner on Lafayette too fast and cages of chickens spilled across the street, many cracking open.  Dozens of chickens were wandering around dazed, clucking, confused.

 

 

Mike Fanelli of Fanelli's

Mike Fanelli of Fanelli’s

Sybil (b. 1954) lived in SoHo from 1977-1999:

During my first summer there, 1977, there was the big Blackout in the Northeast. I remember sitting on my fire escape around three in the morning and seeing more stars than I’d ever seen in NYC. Mike Fanelli, asking the local tradesmen/artists, “are you working”, and not charging folks if they were out of work. Then, there was the guy who, around 10 or 11 at night, every so often, would come riding across Prince Street on a bicycle, from the Bowery, towards Soho, singing opera at the top of his lungs, with his dog running along side of him. I could hear him from blocks away, before he appeared outside my window. If I was in bed, I’d get up to run to the front room window, to see him. It made me feel joyful to hear and see him.

 

Vered (b. 1947) has lived in SoHo for close to 50 years:

Meeting talented people from all over the world and from places in the United States that I had never heard of.  They came, every year, the best and the brightest from rural, agricultural and cosmopolitan places and they all ended up here trying to build old lofts into studios and to make themselves famous.  Andy Warhol walked and hung out among us, Henry Miller too, Blondie sang at Arturos, Phillip Glass bought my piano when I needed rent money.

 

Cast Iron Facades

Cast Iron Facades

Thornton (b. 1936) who has also been in SoHo for half a century remembers:

The buildings, the architecture that is so compelling both inside and out.  It was a soulful place filled with artist of diverse background, drawn here from every part of the US and abroad to try and make art of every kind; jazz, poetry, sculpture, dance, painting, and photography etc.  The energy was amazing and unique because we were here in one area while the rest of the city for the most part ignored us.

 

Thanks to all of you who submitted SoHo memories. Please keep adding to our collection. Memory is ephemeral, so lets catch as many as we can before they slip away!

 

 

 

The Old Kid on the Block: Mercer Parking Garage

February 4, 2017
The Mercer Parking Garage after it closed for good.

The Mercer Parking Garage after it closed for good.

As many of you locals know, The Mercer Parking Garage on Mercer between Houston and Prince, closed its door on December 31, 2016. The garage opened in the 1960s and had been continuously operating since then. So it was already a neighborhood mainstay when I moved in next door in 1974.

And it certainly was a mainstay in my life. The garage guys were there, year in and year out, when I came home from school, and later when I came home from college (all the way from Morningside Heights!). As an adult, I still saw the same faces from when I was a child. Morris, Junior, Willie and later, Jay, Pedro, Juvie (sp?), and still Willie. They were my security detail back when SoHo was dark and desolate, they saw me grow up and they’ve known my daughter since the day she was born.

Willie at the garage on December 30, 2016

Willie at the garage on December 30, 2016

I had a recurring dream (nightmare?) when I was a teenager.  I was being chased by a faceless someone.  As I turned the corner onto my block, I saw Willie standing in front of the Mercer Garage so I ran up to him and he said something like, “It’s okay.  You’re safe here.”  Since then, whenever I see the garage or Willie, who has worked there since 1983, I feel safe.

The famous PARKING sign. Where will it go? Perhaps it needs a home in the SoHo archive.

The famous PARKING sign. Where will it go? Perhaps it needs a home in the SoHo archive.

In 2011, spoke with Jay, the owner of the garage, and found out that his family has a long history in SoHo and on Mercer Street, WAY longer than my family.

The building at 165 Mercer Street was originally a factory but was converted to a parking garage when automobiles began to be popular.  During prohibition, there was also some bootlegging going on in the building as well.

In the 60’s, Jay’s father, Calman, an auto mechanic, bought the building. Calman and his brother, Jay’s uncle Morris, who had worked in an embroidery workshop down the street since just after WWII in what is now the Donald Judd building, ran the garage, which used to sell Getty gasoline.  Calman would work the morning rush at the garage and then leave to work at an auto body shop on Bleecker and Lafayette (where Pinche Tacqueria is now) all day and then he would come back to the garage to work the evening rush. He would take Saturdays off, and then on Sundays, when the garage was closed, Jay would come in to the city from Brooklyn with his father and mother. His father would go to the shop to work on cars he didn’t get to during the week while his mother would clean and sweep at the garage.  Jay would go across the street to the former NYU playground (see my post on the playground here) to play pickup basketball games and then in the evening the whole family would go to Chinatown for dinner. That was their Sunday ritual.

Morris Diamond worked at his family’s embroidery factory at 101 Spring Street from after World War II until 1969 when the factory closed. He then worked with his brother, Calman Batt, at the garage at 165 Mercer Street until his death in 1987. Jay Batt, Morris’ nephew, ran the garage until it closed at the end of last year.

Morris Diamond worked at his family’s embroidery factory at 101 Spring Street from after World War II until 1969 when the factory closed. He then worked with his brother, Calman Batt, at the garage at 165 Mercer Street until his death in 1987. Jay Batt, Morris’ nephew, ran the garage until it closed at the end of last year.

I did not know Calman, but I have only fond memories of Morris, who passed away in 1991.  He always greeted me and my family cheerfully, and on spring and summer evenings in the 1970’s, I would sometimes sit with a friend on the bench outside his garage and practice the songs we learned in our chorus.  Morris would come out of his office applauding and give us each fifty cents for our “beautiful” singing.  Fifty cents could buy us a slice of pizza, a subway ride, or a boatload of candy, so, to us at least, it was a substantial chunk of change.

An FBI photo of the Mercer Parking Garage when bootleggers and cars shared space upstairs

An FBI photo of the Mercer Parking Garage when bootleggers and cars shared space upstairs

Back then, the garage’s clientele was mostly comprised of commuters coming in to SoHo to work at the factories and offices. The garage workers knew all of their customers, as they were mostly monthly parkers who would come in every weekday.  They were Monday morning quarterbacks who would talk sports and chat and there was a real camaraderie, a sense of community, at the garage.

The enormous car elevator. I always wanted to ride in it.

The enormous car elevator. I always wanted to ride in it.

By the early 1980’s, most of the factories closed and the clientele began changing.  There are still some monthly customers, but Jay says that there are more and more “transients” who remain anonymous.  Lunchers.  Shoppers.  Weekend partyers.  The garage is open late on Saturday nights to accommodate the dinner crowd, but they still close at 7:30 pm on weekdays, which gives them just enough time to get all the cars out and the trucks in.

This sink has seen it all.

This sink has seen it all.

Business declined due to the recession. More and more people chose to just stay home.  But Jay said he would never sell, and he didn’t.  He knew just how valuable his enormous building was, but he liked running a business and he planned to pass it along, just as it was passed along to him. But things changed, as they always do.

The good news is, Jay will still be able to pass it along, as he did not sell the building. From what I have heard, after an extensive renovation and restoration, the building will house offices and retail on the ground floor. This will change the block considerably, but it will not be an anomaly. The building will feel right at home with the Mercer Hotel, Prada, Balenciaga, Zadig and Voltaire, Versani, Marni, Vera Wang, 45 RPM, and the currently-under-construction Tori Burch, Marc Jacobs, and a three story Dolce and Gabbana. As a matter of fact, in recent years it was the garage that was the anomaly on the block.

But the question still remains, who will protect me now? I’d better start getting cozy with the doormen at the Mercer Hotel…

Pedro in the garage's office

Pedro in the garage’s office

An earlier version of this post appeared on this blog on July 2, 2011.

 

 

George Maciunas: The Father of SoHo

December 31, 2016
George Maciunas (photo: fluxus.org)

George Maciunas (photo: fluxus.org)

It is worth noting that, in the past six years that I have been writing about the history of SoHo, I have not included a profile of George Maciunas, often called “the father of SoHo.” Perhaps I felt that, not having known him personally when so many others still in SoHo today had, I was not worthy of the task. Perhaps I felt I could not do such a larger than life figure justice.

In this post, I will attempt to outline Macuinas’ contribution to the development of artists SoHo and loft living, with only glancing references to his contribution to the art world, most notably his role in the Fluxus movement of the late-1960s. For more on this I refer you to the many works that cover this subject, including the excellent Illegal Living by Shael Shapiro and Roslyn Bernstein.

Born in Lithuania, George Maciunas’ family emigrated to the US in 1948. He studied art in New York and Pittsburgh. After a short stint working in Germany, Maciunas established the official Fluxus Headquarters at 359 Canal Street.

The Art Story website describes the Fluxus Movement:

Fluxus was a loosely organized group of artists that spanned the globe, but had an especially strong presence in New York City. George Maciunas is historically considered the primary founder and organizer of the movement, who described Fluxus as, “a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, Vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp.” Like the Futurists and Dadaists before them, Fluxus artists did not agree with the authority of museums to determine the value of art, nor did they believe that one must be educated to view and understand a piece of art. Fluxus not only wanted art to be available to the masses, they also wanted everyone to produce art all the time. It is often difficult to define Fluxus, as many Fluxus artists claim that the act of defining the movement is, in fact, too limiting and reductive.

Other leading members brought together by this movement included Ay-O, Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Wolf Vostell. (source)

A few years after returning to New York, Maciunas would begin to leave his indelible mark on the neighborhood that is now called SoHo, earning him the title “The Father of SoHo.” It was then that he began purchasing loft buildings from closing manufacturing companies to develop as Fluxhouse Cooperatives, buildings with live-work spaces for artists.

A Fluxhouse Contract

Fluxhouse Contract

In his manifesto titled “A Fluxhouse Plan for an Artist Condominium in New York City” he wrote:

While it has been recognized for some time that New York City is one of the leading art centers of the world, with probably the largest artists population, it is considerably less well known that the city suffers from a severe shortage of economical working space for artists. In part this shortage is due to the moderate means of the average professional artists and the artists’ special space requirements….

But the scarcity of economical working space is part of the general problem arising from urban obsolescence and decay. Large areas of the central city, zoned for commercial and light manufacturing use, were constructed some time ago…

And the process of obsolescence and decay here continue without obstruction. Nevertheless there are many buildings in such areas that are architecturally sound and potentially valuable if considered from the point of view of radically altered use.

(excerpt as quoted in Illegal Living)

Fluxhouse II, the first of many Maciunas Coops at 80 Wooster Street, ca. 1945 (photo: Office for Metropolitan History via The City Review)

Fluxhouse II, the first of many Maciunas Coops at 80 Wooster Street, ca. 1945 (photo: Office for Metropolitan History via The City Review)

With this manifesto, George Maciunas went on to fulfill its mission, albeit in unusual and unconventional ways, by cooping 16 loft buildings over 10 years. Ignoring New York State real estate laws, Maciunas sold loft units to artists in this M1-5 zoning district that allowed for commercial and manufacturing uses but absolutely no residential use. He also failed to file offering plans before offering the units for sale. This led to inquiries by the State Attorney General’s office. Maciunas then began wearing various disguises and went out only at night. He also had his friends send postcards from around the world to make officials think  he was abroad, and he even installed a guillotine blade on his front door to avoid “unwanted visitors.”

During this period, hundreds of artists contacted Maciunas about purchasing lofts, knowing full well that it was illegal and there was a good chance that the would loose any investment made if caught by city officials. No bank was willing to loan money for the illegal Fluxhouses, so artists used their life savings and borrowed from friends to make the down payment. This is how desperate artists were for live-work spaces. Until then, most artists lived in small apartments and rented a separate studio space, which was very expensive and not sustainable in New York. Maciunas offered an alternate possibility where they would be able to stay in New York AND continue to make art.

SS-RB photo


Shael Shapiro, architect and co-author with his wife, Roz Bernstein, of Illegal Living, talk about buying a loft from George Maciunas and doing construction at 80 Wooster Street.

George Maciunas, a consummate control freak by reputation, managed all of the aspects of the cooping process from finding the buildings, to selling the units, to renovating them. He was not, however, doing this for profit, as he always only broke even or even lost part of his investments in these conversions that he offered at impossibly low prices. Maciunas was able to work on a shoestring by sometimes cutting corners, often hiring artists to do much of the contracting work.

Maciunas and Hutching wedding where the bride and groom both wore wedding gowns (Photo : Babette Mangolt)

The Maciunas and Hutching wedding, where the bride and groom both wore wedding gowns (Photo : Babette Mangolt)

In one 1975 instance, where he supposedly shortchanged an electrician for subpar work,  Maciunas was severely beaten and barely escaped with his life. After this, the already sickly Maciunas’ health declined. In 1976, Maciunas left New York to begin creating a Fluxus art center in New Marlborough , MA. In 1978, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in July of that year, shortly after marrying Billie Hutching in a Fluxus wedding in New York City. The wedding, as described in the book Illegal Living, was “the Fluxus event of the era.”

There was a Flux feast of erotic foods, including a penis-shaped pate brought by sculptor Louise Bourgeoise. For the ceremony, Maciunas and Hutching both wore bridal gowns, while their bridesmaids Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller wore dressed in drag and their best man, Allison Knowles, wore tails.

 More details John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing in front of Maciunas' USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records!, c.1970 (photo: Wikipedia)

John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing in front of Maciunas’ USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records!, c.1970 (photo: Wikipedia)

George Maciunas is remembered by SoHo pioneers and aficionados of the Fluxus movement, but unknown to many in the general public, even to resdidents who currently live in SoHo lofts. He is worth remembering, however, not only for the loft coops he created that set the trend of adaptive reuse of buildings worldwide, but also for his idealism, his can-do attitude, and his democratic ideals, qualities that embody the SoHo spirit of the early days. Maciunas lived a multi-faceted and complicated life. Artists SoHo was only one of his many creations of this oft unsung hero, but perhaps the one that will be his most enduring.

Warhol and Maciunas, a film by Jonas Mekas includes footage of Maciunas’ 1971 Dumpling Dinner at 80 Wooster Street and shots of Fluxus happenings on street level.

(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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SoHo Walks of Fame

July 30, 2016

Mercer Street, November 2, 2012 after Hurricane Sandy

I took this photo outside my house on November 2, 2012 after Hurricane Sandy

Images of SoHo appear on a daily basis in the media. Paparazzi shots of celebrities making their way down SoHo streets. Fashion shoots of supermodels preening on  SoHo streets. Portraits of luxury lofts for sale. Major motion pictures set in SoHo then and now. Commercials for products with SoHo as their backdrops.

As I was doing research for this post, something interesting occurred to me.  Many of the films I found were shot either on Crosby Street between Prince and Spring, or on Mercer Street between Houston and Prince.  Come to think of it, these two blocks, the first where I lived until I was five years old, and the other to which we moved in 1974 and where I still live today, have appeared countless times not only on film, but in print as well.  After some poking around, I came up with an inventory of media where these two blocks have appeared.  What makes them so appealing to photographers and film makers?  Or is it that every block in SoHo appears repeatedly in the media so I could have picked any two blocks at random?  One thing is for sure, it is not MY presence on these two streets that have made them alluring to visual artists over the years.  Then what is it?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Let me know if you have any ideas!

Photography

MNY76144

Berenice Abbott shot this mini-Hooverville on Mercer and Houston in 1935, during the Great Depression before SoHo was SoHo.

 

Crosby Street & Spring Street, 1978 (Photo by Thomas Struth)

Thomas Struth caught the essence of 1970’s SoHo streets in this 1978 photo of the corner of Crosby Street and Spring Street looking north toward Prince.  I had already moved out by the time this was taken.

 

chanel ad

This Chanel ad, shot in front of my building on Mercer Street, appeared in Vogue, among other major fashion magazines, in the early 1990’s.  I always wondered why the paparazzi were photographing her from behind.  Note the photoshop job on the garage sign in the background.

Me and my sister playing on that same loading dock ca. 1976

Me and my sister playing on that same loading dock ca. 1976

 

christinahotel

And speaking of paparazzi, countless photos taken in front of the Mercer Hotel, where photographers camp out around the clock, have appeared everywhere.  Here, Christina Aguilera takes her dog out for a walk.

Mandatory Credit: Alequin/Bosch/INFphoto.com

Credit: Alequin/Bosch/INFphoto.com

In this December 6, 2012 photo from Just Jared: A grinning Taylor Swift and Harry Styles leave a party at Crosby Hotel  together.

Yukie and Mimi in the parking lot on Crosby, ca. 1974

This is a photo of me and my sister in ca. 1973 standing in almost the same spot at Taylor and Harry, back when it would have been absurd to even think about building a hotel in SoHo.

 

Album Covers

The back of Joni Mitchells' xxx album title title tile, photo taken n Mercer Street between Houston and Prince looking south.

This is the back of the album jacket of Joni Mitchell’s 1968 Song to a Seagull. The photo was taken on my block, outside 169 Mercer Street looking south.

 

Billy Joel

Growing up on Mercer Street, I owned and often played Billy Joel’s 1983 An Innocent Man.  Looking at the jacket photo, I had no idea that he was sitting on my block, on the steps of 142 Mercer Street at Prince, at what is now the Prada Store.

Music Videos

I was clued in to this  video by Alex at Flaming Pablum, who describes it as “an ancient, pre-Hip Hop Beastie Boys video wherein the fledgling foursome (back when future Luscious Jackson member Kate Schellenbach was still in their ranks) and their youthfully punky pals are depicted frolicking with juvenile abandon amid what looks likethe then-grimy, industrial streets of SoHo.”  Much of this video was shot on Crosby near Spring, where the parking lot used to be.

 

Sean at The SoHo Alliance recently sent me a link to this trés trés groovy video “On the Sunny Side of the Street” by Pizzicato Five, shot almost entirely in SoHo, a good portion of it on my block.  Anyone care to guess when it was filmed?  It’s pre-Mercer Hotel, there are shots of the Prince Street Station post office and Jerry’s is still there as is the Prince Street Bar.

Movies

stateofgrace27

Although I never saw the film, I remember when they were shooting State of Grace with Sean Penn, Gary Oldman and friends, which came out in 1990.  They must have done twenty takes of this scene until they got it just right.  They also shot a scene inside Fanelli’s, where these trigger-happy guys are headed.

 

I am legend mercer

Here’s a heavily-CGI-ed shot of our block from I Am Legend, the 2007 film starring Will Smith as one of a handful of survivors in a post-apocalyptic New York City.

ghost crosby

And who can forget Ghost, the 1990 romantic thriller starring Partick Swayze and Demi Moore.  In this scene, Swayze’s character is shot right in front of my old house at 97 Crosby Street during an attempted robbery.

ghost cast mercer

This cast photo from Ghost was taken on my current block on Mercer Street, in front of the (now) Prada Store, where Billy Joel shot his album cover yeas before.

Basquiat

basquiat

Here, Jeffrey Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Bowie as Andy Warhol stroll down Crosby Street across the street from my old loft in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat.  Someone recently told me that Basquiat lived in our building at 97 Crosby about 10 years after we moved out.

My mom, my sister, and me standing in front of our building on Crosby Street, ca. 1975

My mom, my sister, and me standing on the same black in front of our building on Crosby Street, ca. 1975.

andy-jean-hi-rez-copy-1-1024x685

Here, the real-life Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol pose for a picture on my block on Mercer Street.  The Marc Jacobs store next door to my house used to be the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, where Basquiat and Warhol once had a joint show.

The poster for the Warhol-Basquiat show at Tony Shafrazzi, 1985

The poster for the Warhol-Basquiat show at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery, 1985

A version of this post first appeared on this blog on September 1, 2014

 

Are There Still Artists Living in SoHo?

June 4, 2016
The Village Voice - April 9, 1964 issue about artists rallying for loft rights, back when you had to pay (10 cents!) for the paper.

The Village Voice – April 9, 1964 issue about artists rallying for loft rights, back when you had to pay (10 cents!) for the paper.

SoHo is currently zoned as a manufacturing district that basically allows for light manufacturing, wholesale business and commercial use only, with the exception of certified artists, who are allowed to live in commercial buildings, if they can prove that they need the space to produce their work.

In 1969, the Department of City Planning conducted a survey that resulted in rezoning of the SoHo area, which was then zoned strictly for manufacturing use. In 1971, the Board of Estimates made it legal for certified artists to live in joint living and work quarters (JLWQ) in the newly-zoned SoHo area.

Application for Artists Cer

Application for Artists Certification

This zoning law that governs the use of buildings still stands today and requires every SoHo household to include at least one certified artist. But what, exactly, is an artist? According to the city, an artist will be granted certification if he or she demonstrates a serious, long-term commitment to an artistic medium and demonstrates a need for space to make art. Aesthetic considerations and the number of shows an artist has had (or not had) are supposedly not taken into account.

The making of an artist's joint live-work quarters in the early 1960's (photo: Louis Dienes)

The making of an artist’s joint living and work quarters (photo: Louis Dienes)

There is one exception to the artists-only rule. New buildings constructed on vacant lots are exempt and therefore anyone can legally live in these buildings. Otherwise, buyers who are not certified artists sometimes sign what is called a “SoHo Letter,” a waiver that acknowledges that they are aware that they do not have proper certification and they will not hold the building liable if the city finds that they are living in their homes illegally. As the JLWQ zoning law is rarely enforced, potential residents have little chance of eviction and therefore generally sign the waiver.

25 West Houston Street, whose most famous artist-resident is Kanye West, is exempt from JLWQ because it was built on a lot AFTER the law went into affect.

25 West Houston Street (whose most famous artist-resident is Kanye West) is exempt from JLWQ because it was built on a lot AFTER the law went into effect.

In 1987, the city granted amnesty to all SoHo residents, regardless of whether or not they were certified. Since then, many artists and non-artists have moved in and out of the neighborhood. Nobody knows how many artists, certified and non-certified, live and work in SoHo today, and it is probably impossible to find out. There have been several past attempts dating back to 1970 to get an accurate count, but any survey is immediately flawed by the fact that people living in SoHo illegally, whether it is because they are artists that have neglected to become certified or because the are not artists and therefore cannot apply for certification, would not respond in fear of being evicted.

In recent years, some have questioned whether JLWQ is relevant anymore. Even in the early days, there were non-artists who managed to get certified and legitimate artists who were rejected. As time went on, many non-artists found ways to obtain certification under false pretenses.

In 2012, The SoHo/NoHo Action Committee announced that it would raise funds to hire an independent team from Baruch College’s Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute to do a survey of SoHo. This team planned to confirm how many of the city-certified artists whose addresses were in SoHo were still living at their registered addresses. This committee advocates for the JLWQ zoning law to be revised to allow anyone, not just artists, to live in SoHo. They feel that the law is hindering their real estate valuation and that very few artists still live in SoHo, making the law obsolete. No survey by SoHo/NoHo Action Committee has been conducted to date, however.

Just recently, Councilwoman Margaret Chin proposed legislation to require owners of JLQW units to provide notice when a JLQW unit becomes vacant. It remains to be seen what will come of this proposal.

Artists' Lofts: 1960’s-1970’s — Many buildings in SoHo had been built as commercial lofts, which provided large, unobstructed spaces for manufacturing and other industrial uses. These spaces attracted artists who valued them for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light and low rents. Before loft living in SoHo was legalized, artists living in commercial buildings posted AIR (Artist in Residence) signs that indicated that someone was living in the building and on what floor in case of a fire or other emergency.

Artists’ Lofts: 1960’s-1970’s — Many buildings in SoHo had been built as commercial lofts, which provided large, unobstructed spaces for manufacturing and other industrial uses. These spaces attracted artists who valued them for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light and low rents. Before loft living in SoHo was legalized, artists living in commercial buildings posted AIR (Artist in Residence) signs that indicated that someone was living in the building and on what floor in case of a fire or other emergency.

Through my own personal experiences since beginning this project in 2011, I have met many many artists who still live in SoHo, many more that I thought existed. These artists live in the shadows of the bright and shiny boutiques and designer lofts, obscured but present. They tend to live quietly in their old-school lofts that have not changed since they moved in 45 years ago and watched their maintenance costs skyrocket due to the pricey demands of their new neighbors. Marble lobbies, roof decks, and other amenities are paid for by all coop members, even those who do not wish for such “improvements” and cannot afford them.

Regardless of exactly how many artists live in SoHo today, many SoHo old timers are in favor of keeping JLWQ zoning in place as a means of slowing down real estate development, although not all. I have heard that some people have trouble getting financing to purchase a loft due to zoning restrictions and some hoping to sell their lofts have to do so at a lower price because some buyers with deep pockets are scared off by it.

For many long-time SoHo residents, most of whom are artists and some of whom are non-artists grandfathered by the 1987 amnesty, however, the law is seen as a safeguard against being pushed out by escalating costs. At one time, they were the ones who were living in SoHo illegally, when nobody else wanted to live there. Now, they are the only ones who are legal residents. They see this protection as a birthright of sorts, dating back to the days when they were giving birth to a nascent SoHo.

 

The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980

April 30, 2016

Lofts of SoHoI am so very pleased to announce the publication of The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980, by SMP friend Aaron Shkuda. I’ve know Aaron since he was doing research for his dissertation (also on SoHo) a few years back. He is now a professor at Princeton and has written this fascinating book about how residents transformed the industrial neighborhood that is now called SoHo into an artist district, creating the conditions under which it evolved into an upper-income, gentrified area.

From The University of Chicago Press:

In The Lofts of SoHo, Aaron Shkuda studies the transition of the district from industrial space to artists’ enclave to affluent residential area, focusing on the legacy of urban renewal in and around SoHo and the growth of artist-led redevelopment. Shkuda explores conflicts between residents and property owners and analyzes the city’s embrace of the once-illegal loft conversion as an urban development strategy. As Shkuda explains, artists eventually lost control of SoHo’s development, but over several decades they nonetheless forced scholars, policymakers, and the general public to take them seriously as critical actors in the twentieth-century American city.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 4 of  The Lofts of SoHo:

Prince Street art fair, SoHo, by Robin Forbes, 1976. (Reproduced by permission from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Prince Street art fair, SoHo, by Robin Forbes, 1976. (Reproduced by permission from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Chapter 4
Artist Organizations, Political Advocacy, and the Creation of a Residential SoHo

In February 1961, SoHo artists faced another threat that almost ended their nascent colony. This peril was not an economic downturn, the prospect of a highway, or even the early stages of gentrification. Instead, the culprits were some of the most mundane elements of urban governance: zoning ordinances and building codes. These types of regulations are meant to protect residents, and it was the issue of resident safety that caused an acute crisis in the SoHo artist community. In late 1960 and early 1961, a series of fires broke out in industrial lofts below Houston Street, leading to the deaths of four people, including three firefighters. Though none of the fires occurred in lofts where artists lived, these blazes led the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Department of Buildings to launch a series of inspections of SoHo structures.1

Although both agencies initially reacted to a series of code violations in industrial buildings, they soon made a surprising discovery: artists living il- legally in these structures. The New York Herald-Tribune reported that city officials found at least 128 illegal apartments in the area containing “beatniks, complete with beards” living with “mattresses on the floor and works on Zen Buddhism,” along with vermin and cockroaches. In turn, Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Thomas J. Hartnett wondered how anyone could stand living in this section of Manhattan, asking, “How do they get their milk delivered?”2

This “discovery” of SoHo residents reveals an important element of the neighborhood’s early history: that the very idea of living in a loft was completely novel. Whereas lofts are now ubiquitous in urban areas worldwide, hardly any people considered living in former industrial space before the 1960s. Similarly, few observers saw artists as people with the power to trans- form neighborhoods or develop real estate, as demonstrated by the Herald-Tribune’s use of the word beatniks, the derogatory term for bohemians of that era, to describe SoHo residents; in that writer’s view, they did not even rise to the level of artist. As mentioned in the previous chapter, local building and zoning laws made no allowance for people who wanted to live in industrial buildings. As a result, when they encountered loft residents for the first time, city officials did not celebrate the possible rebirth of a struggling industrial area at the hands of artists. Instead, they threatened them with eviction.

In response to the specter of eviction, artists organized themselves politically, forming lobbying organizations and using public demonstrations and boycotts to advocate for their housing needs. SoHo artists threw the entire weight of the New York art world behind their cause. Well-known artists such as Willem de Kooning and Isamu Noguchi, as well as curators and gallery owners, spoke out in favor of loft residents. Through their advocacy, SoHo residents worked to redefine the role of the artist in society in the minds of local leaders. They argued that affordable housing for up-and-coming art- ists was crucial to New York’s future because artists were the backbone of its cultural economy, as well as the people who gave the city its reputation as the world’s leading creative and artistic center.

SoHo cast- iron building, 98 Greene Street (1881).

SoHo cast- iron building, 98 Greene Street (1881).

In making these arguments, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of the debate about how to redevelop cities at a time of urban crisis. By finding value and beauty in outdated industrial structures, they also reclaimed prop- erties viewed as obsolete eyesores by urban renewal advocates. By pioneering new uses for lofts, SoHo residents created powerful arguments against slum clearance, particularly in industrial and commercial areas.

SoHo artists also shifted the terms of the ongoing debates over neighbor- hood preservation and rehabilitation. Although meeting the housing needs of lower-income populations in central cities had long been a preoccupa- tion of policy makers, artists looked to demonstrate that they were a unique group—relatively poor people with distinct housing needs but who also had the power to drive the city’s economy and give it its unique identity. They urged city leaders to help bolster one of the few things that New York still had going for it—its reputation for the arts—by allowing artists to live in the manner that best suited them: in converted industrial lofts with room to live and work affordably.

Though they fought to change zoning laws, rather than against slum clear- ance, artists developed powerful arguments that pushed the debate over the future of urban neighborhoods beyond the renewal/community defense paradigm that had dominated discourse up to that point. Unlike antirenewal protesters, who mainly focused on preserving their neighborhoods, SoHo artists posited a new future for their community. They argued that their efforts would revitalize an area shaped by deindustrialization and urban re- newal. At the same time, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of a debate over the future of their neighborhood. To SoHo artists, urban culture could do for SoHo what other urban development schemes could not: create a vi- brant neighborhood that helped drive the city’s economy and identity. Much like the backers of projects such as Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, SoHo artists were staking out a place for culture in the city. The same New York artistic culture that could help the United States compete with the Soviet Union for cultural dominance globally could also help breathe life into moribund in- dustrial neighborhoods.3

In the end, artist groups in SoHo achieved goals that were both modest and significant. Their advocacy led to changes in two regulations that allowed only a limited number of artists to live legally in a loft. Yet these laws were the first to make it legal for anyone to live in such a structure and the first to give government sanction to anyone, artist or otherwise, to live in any former industrial space. Moreover, these policies indicated that more New Yorkers were starting to support an argument made by SoHo activists: that artists had a unique power to reinvigorate neighborhoods long ago left for dead. Thanks to artist advocacy, policy makers began to connect artist housing and urban vitality, a link that would become the foundation of theories of creative place making and the creative class several decades later. Through their actions and words, SoHo artists made the case that art could be a force for urban change.

Reprinted with permission from The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980by Aaron Shkuda, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Aaron Shkuda is Project Manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism & the Humanities, and holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago.

This book is available from The University of Chicago Press and at local bookstores including McNally Jackson at 52 Prince Street, and through Amazon.com.

To read another excerpt from this book please visit The Gotham Center blog.


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