back to Soho, back to 1970, with stops in 1966 and 1963

does it seem like we haven’t left?
In the course of thinking about the fascinating sociology, anthropology, urban planning, and cultural issues associated with the residential real estate sales angle of Soho, I have collected a bunch of nuggets from the inter-tubes. Many of them will never see the light of day (or the ‘light’ of this blog) but will remain part of the jumble percolating through the so-called Manhattan Loft Guy mind since that November 12 New York Times article Suddenly, SoHo Heeds Law Limiting Lofts to Artists and my post later that day, did the NY Times just write the obituary for the Soho real estate market?. Some, however, will get a public airing.

Today is the day for one such nugget, a short New York Magazine piece from August 24, 1970 entitled Soho: Artists’ Bohemia Imperiled, by Peter Hellman. (The link brings you to the second page of the article, so scroll up a little to start at the beginning; scroll up or down a lot to travel back to 1970 advertising and such.) It helps me think more about how Soho became “Soho”. (And, yes, I will continue to break convention by referring to Soho, not SoHo.) Read the whole damn article.

into the Way Back Machine
New York Magazine, at least, considered 1970 Soho to be bounded by West Broadway and Lafayette, pulling in the machine shops to the east and excluding some tenements of a Little Little Italy to the west. Hellman starts the story precisely in 1966, when

something crazy happened …. leases to the upper floors were picked up not by other marginal businessmen but by artists, who went to work at once cleaning out the places and setting up studios. At 2,500 square feet each, the lofts might have been small for most industrial uses, but t an artist the space, with big windows on both ends was a more than ample studio.

500 stories in this part of the naked city
I have no idea what the sources are for these data, but Hellman purports to provide a specific census as of mid-1970:

Soho’s 40 blocks are now the illegal homes of 500 artists, sculptors, designers, dancers and cinematographers. With their families they number close to 2,000. Seventy-five of the artists live in cooperatives and the rest rent their space.

(I will come back to those two sets of pioneer artists, renters and coop owners, in future posts as that remains an important factor; I am grateful to Sean Sweeney for pointing that out, correcting my myopic sales-oriented vision; see the comment summary in my December 17, real world impact of Soho artist-in-residence rules and Certificate of Occupancy enforcement, as the dialogue continues.)

every Heisenberg has his day
One day there will be a Manhattan Loft Guy post (or series of posts) about how the DNA of loft neighborhoods includes a different kind of change than the DNA of other neighborhoods. By (my) definition, we are talking about formerly industrial buildings having been re-purposed to residential use, whether in Soho, Tribeca, Flatiron, Hell’s Kitchen, Williamsburg or Bushwick. The more concentrated were the former industrial uses, the more challenging the management of change. I touched on this dynamic in a later-stage context (as 2010 Tribeca traded in Sarabeth’s for the Bazzini’s of ‘original’ Tribeca) in my September 22, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for Manhattan Loft Neighborhoods / Tribeca loses Bazzini, gains Sarabeth’s.

The Loft Law Of Eventual Lament, (re)introduced
That post about Tribeca included this description of a dynamic that is peculiar to loft neighborhoods. It is not the The Upper West Side (for example) has not changed over the years, but that (relatively) stable residential neighborhoods change more incrementally than neighborhoods that undergo Use Change, with loft neighborhoods being the examples most familiar to me. Here’s is how I put it in that September 22 post:

Various articles I have seen feature quotes from local residents or people who come to Tribeca for work or school complaining that Bazzini’s is closing, and about the change in the neighborhood. There are laments from residents of Independence Plaza (built in the early 1970s), nearby loft dwellers resident since the 1980s, kids from Stuyvesant High School (moved to Chambers and West Streets in 1992), workers from Citicorp up a few blocks on Greenwich Street (built in late 1980s), and I remember somewhere reading about a sad five-year old (born in the 2000s). You see where I am going here?

It is likely that all of these people came to the neighborhood because they liked its ‘character’, and the movement there of similarly like-minded people
changed the character. Eventually, there were enough additional people living and working there that long-time businesses were no longer compatible with the new environment and new businesses were attracted to the new environment. Eventually, the people felt that the environment had tipped enough that it was no longer what it was before they moved there.

I suppose one could look at this phenomenon as an application of The Law of Unintended Consequences, but I might start calling it The Loft Law of Eventual Lament (on another day; don’t worry about that digression).

unique Soho
Soho is, of course, the mother of all Manhattan loft neighborhoods because it was the first to scale up. But its development was different from later-developing loft neighborhoods all over New York City in several other important respects:

  • it flew under the radar long enough to have a significant local resident population when it hit;
  • the artist residents did not (for the most part) displace an existing residential population;
  • important other constituencies took an interest in ‘protecting’ the Soho that the artists created.

These themes run through the 1970 New York Magazine article.

I already mentioned Hellman’s mysterious census, showing 2,000 residents in artist families. Hellman describes a Soho Arts Festival in May 1970 that was somewhat controversial among the artists but ‘successful’ in a specific sense. The weekend open house was sponsored both by the Soho Artists Association and the city Department of Cultural Affairs.

The normal Sabbath quiet of Soho was overwhelmed, the streets were filled with gaping uptowners and suburbanites, most of them puffing from unaccustomed treks up and steep old staircases.


Ten thousand people came ot look around and, according to the positive view, came away with a feeling that here in these shoddy blocks was a cultural brotherhood that had to be preserved against the incursions of great corporate glass. These weekenders would not be allies in the fight to keep Soho for the artists; a full army of them had been gained in 48 hours, and a few paintings had been sold to boot.

No other loft neighborhood that I can think of had the same non-resident powerful constituencies. More on that, anon.

A.I.R. could not apply to Soho, originally
Here is something I learned in the New York Magazine article about artist-in-residence:

Under this plan, implemented by Mayor Wagner in 1961, artists could take over teh top two floors of a commercial building with minimal red tape as long as they had adequate egress, sanitation, [and a sign] (so firemen would know they were there in case of alarm). But in Soho, AIR ran into the new zoning code of 1961 decreeing that AIRs would be allowed only in “C” (commercial) zones and not in “M: (manufacturing) zones.  

Hellman identified whom he thought was the first Soho artist denied A.I.R. status because of this zoning problem: Jack Beal, who had just been featured in a show at the Whitney, and who paid $125/mo for a big loft on Prince Street beginning in 1963.

He has been in legal limbo ever since, and so has everybody else who has followed him into Soho.

That quote will close today’s program, but not before I draw one more parallel out of that quote about Legal Limbo. That quote from 1970 applies with equal logic (but with an entirely different history and context) to the first non-artist to buy a coop in Soho ever since the artists got their A.I.R. problems worked out. Poor bankers!

© Sandy Mattingly 2010


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