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No One Lived in SoHo. Then the Artists Moved in.

Aaron Shkuda ‘s The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980 tells the story of a remarkable transformation of a run-down industrial area in New York City located South of Houston Street in lower Manhattan. Starting in the 1950s, artists moved into industrial spaces and created a colony where they could produce, display, and sell their art. Shkuda explains how this group of adventurous and resourceful artists managed to create not just a trendy neighborhood in an area slated for the wrecking ball, but a whole new style of urban living.

Shkuda is project manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities at Princeton University. In 1997, he was a student in David O’Connor’s Advanced Placement European History class at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY. David O’Connor interviewed his former student for the History News Network.

David O’Connor: Before reading The Lofts of Soho, I didn’t know that the area South of Houston Street in Manhattan wasn’t always known as SoHo. How did the name develop?

Aaron Shkuda: As far as I can tell, the use of the name evolved organically. You start to see the blocks South of Houston Street called “SoHo” around 1970, particularly when the press covered the growing group of art galleries that opened in the area. Some artists didn’t like the name – they felt that it was an attempt by the more bourgeois members of the community to “brand” the neighborhood. Though its existence clearly played some role, there is no direct connection with London’s Soho.

At the end of the book you note that many cities have latched on to the use of catchy names like SoHo for up-and-coming neighborhoods. Can you give some examples?

It’s hard to find a city in the United States, or even internationally, without a “SoHo-type name.” The podcast 99% Invisible recently coined this the “acroname.” Some are well established, such as Tribeca (The Triangle Below Canal Street) and DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in New York, SoCo (South of Congress) in Austin, SoFi (South of Fifth) in Miami, and SoMa (South of Market) in San Francisco. There’s even a Palermo SoHo in Buenos Aires. Others are clearly fictions invented by developers, or purely used ironically, such as BoCoCa (Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens) in Brooklyn and Skidrokyo (the area where Skid Row meets Little Toyko) in Los Angeles. There was even an episode of South Park about SoDoSoPa (South of Downtown South Park). These names can be funny, but they mask the complex historical processes that shaped SoHo and make the contingent nature of its development seem inevitable.

The Lofts of SoHo extensively explores the role that artists played in SoHo’s transformation, but it also analyzes larger issues that were shaping post-World War II New York, including deindustrialization, race relations, and urban blight. Explain some of these factors and how they actually helped the artists who ultimately played a role in revitalizing SoHo.

The question of how gentrification relates to what scholars have called “the urban crisis” shaped my research from the beginning. In the summer recess before my second year of graduate school, I was reading Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies And Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City. There are two pages in the book that describe how the iconic gourmet food store Dean & DeLuca opened in SoHo while New York was in its deepest moment of decline. It struck me that SoHo might be perfect way to explore how gentrification arose during a period of urban crisis.

All of the pillars of the urban crisis, deindustrialization, urban renewal, and “white flight,” shaped the development of SoHo from an industrial area to an artist colony, and then to a relatively upscale residential neighborhood. Artists were able to find loft space to rent because units were increasingly being left vacant by the migration of industrial jobs outside of New York City. The neighborhood began its transition to a residential neighborhood only after plans for two urban renewal proposals, an expressway and later a middle-income housing project, had been defeated. City leaders eventually looked favorably on the type of urban development artists undertook in SoHo in part because they provided a way to upgrade property and increase local tax revenue without the social or financial costs of slum clearance urban renewal. The dynamism of SoHo also indicated that some people did want to live in certain neighborhoods that planners had considered “blighted.”

From our twenty-first-century vantage point, SoHo’s industries appear hopelessly doomed. You point out some obvious shortcomings like the inefficiencies of vertical manufacturing and the lack of easy truck access to loading docks. However, there were some groups in the 50s and 60s that fought to protect those industries from the wrecking ball of urban planning. How did these efforts help the artists’ efforts to create a colony for themselves alongside these antiquated industries?

There’s a plaque on Prince Street, just off W. Broadway, honoring Chester Rapkin as “The Father of SoHo.” Rapkin was a professor of Urban Planning at the University of Pennsylvania and later Princeton. In 1962 a group called the Middle Income Cooperators of Greenwich Village (MICOVE) sponsored a plan to raze much of SoHo and replace it with a middle-income housing project. In response, the City Planning Commission asked Rapkin to study the neighborhood. He found that some businesses were struggling, and all dealt with the inefficiencies of running a 21st century business in a 19th century structure. Yet he also argued that SoHo was an important incubator for industrial jobs, particularly for African American and Latino New Yorkers. It was the desire to preserve these positions that saved SoHo from the wrecking ball.

Of course, there’s some irony here. Although SoHo did not see the displacement of residents that often comes with gentrification (mainly because no one previously lived in SoHo), the residential population eventually supplanted some businesses that provided jobs to lower income workers of color.

The Lofts of SoHo pays a lot of attention to a road that was never built: the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a plan developed and pushed by Robert Moses. How did a road that never got off the drawing board play such an important role in the development of SoHo?

Both the threat and failure of the Lower Manhattan Expressway were important for SoHo’s development. There’s little chance that SoHo would have developed into an artist colony or gentrified residential neighborhood if it had been bisected by a ten-lane highway. The construction noise and dust alone would have sent residents scurrying away. The threat of the highway was also critical. From just after World War II through 1970 the threat of the project depressed rents and gave local businesses little incentive to maintain their properties. There was a good chance they would soon be condemned by the city. There is even a specific case of a landlord renting to artists in order to increase his rent rolls, and thus his compensation from the city in slum clearance proceedings. As soon as the Lower Manhattan Expressway was tabled for good, the neighborhood underwent a commercial and residential renaissance.

What kinds of difficulties did the artists face when they began moving into the industrial lofts in lower Manhattan? Why were these old industrial structures so attractive to the artists?

Artists faced practical, physical, and legal challenges. The first residents inhabited unimproved industrial space. At best, their lofts were completely empty, and basic necessities such as working bathrooms and kitchens had to be installed. At worst, their lofts were filled with industrial debris and were in need of basic structural repairs. Even the simplest tasks such as disposing of garbage could be a challenge because living in a loft was illegal. New York City’s Zoning Ordinance required the separation of industrial and residential uses of buildings, and most SoHo artists moved into loft units in buildings where industrial activity was taking place. The New York State Multiple Dwelling Law required that all apartments have safety features that lofts did not possess. Taking trash out to a dumpster was like sending a beacon to a city inspector, and most artists had to undertake loft renovations themselves.

As a reward for taking on the risk of living in a loft, SoHo artists got a space that was inexpensive and useful. Through the early 1970s, one could rent a loft for a few hundred dollars a month, or purchase one for under $30,000. Lofts were large enough to function both as studios and residences, and their open interiors were ideal for those who painted on large canvases, used industrial production methods in their art, or incorporated performance elements into their work. Lofts became stages, and SoHo was a center for dance and performance art.

Your portrait of many of the artists defies expectations. Far from being hapless bohemians, they became each other’s plumbers, carpenters, electricians, designers and marketing strategists. Were you surprised by any of the roles they took on?

Not being a handy person myself, I was always fascinated by the many artists who looked at a loft with a broken machine in the corner, maybe an oil slick in the middle of the floor, and said, “Yep, I could live here!” But most residents I interviewed tended to downplay the effort it took to make a loft livable. True, some of the early lofts were functional at best, and many artists relied on a knowledgeable community of friends and neighbors to complete renovations, but sometimes I think it was more of a challenge than they let on!

You make the point throughout the book that the artists moving into these former industrial lofts was illegal. How did the artists organize themselves to be able to continue living in buildings, despite the zoning laws that clearly forbade residences in the area? What kinds of arguments did they make to bolster their case?

One of the most interesting aspects of the SoHo story was the tenacity and creativity of artist advocacy. As early as 1961, the New York City Fire and Buildings Departments threatened artists moving into SoHo with eviction. These agencies were mainly just trying to do their job – from a legal standpoint, SoHo artists didn’t really have a leg to stand on, and it’s easy to see why a public official would be concerned about a group of people deciding to live in unheated firetraps where industrial activity was taking place. From a contemporary perspective, this was also the most shocking discovery about SoHo’s history. Thanks to the work of Richard Florida and the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town program, which funds creative placemaking projects, the idea that artists are good for cities feels almost axiomatic. It was shocking to learn about a group of city officials looking to evict artists for attempting to improve vacant industrial property!

The arguments that artist groups made anticipated the current discourse around creative placemaking and the creative class. The first group, the Artist Tenants Association, argued that the arts were “big business in New York. They linked loft tenants to the New York School of abstract expressionist painting, which secured New York’s place as the center of the art world, and the museums and galleries that pumped money into the city’s economy. The second group, the SoHo Artists Association, infused a language of real estate into their advocacy. They worked to bring outsiders into SoHo to demonstrate the vibrancy that loft conversions brought to this struggling industrial area, and explicitly made the argument that artists were making Lower Manhattan attractive to a wider range of “creative” professionals.

The Lofts of SoHo describes the development of a whole new style of urban residential space. What were some of the aesthetic and practical features of “loft living,” and what made it so attractive?

The lure of lofts starts with their size – 3,600 square feet was considered a smaller loft, and these spaces dwarfed the postwar New York City apartment. Lofts’ large windows let in a lot of light, good for painting as well as living. Because loft spaces were un-partitioned, and the first artist tenants did not have the time or the money for a full renovation, lofts were by necessity rather minimally decorated and left many of the industrial features of the spaces intact. SoHo residents added their artistic flourishes to create an interior design aesthetic that combined minimalism, industry, and art. Once you’ve seen an early SoHo loft, it’s hard not to find this aesthetic everywhere – it’s particularly common in restaurants, (think exposed wood floor beams, minimally finished floors, mismatched tables, and industrial light fixtures). Flexibility was also an important feature – it was common for loft residents to put up and take down walls when they had children or needed another studio space.

I thought it was kind of ironic that a group of architectural preservationists in NYC helped save the buildings that the artists redesigned to create this “loft living.” Can you explain the role that the NYC Landmarks Commission played in saving so many building in SoHo?

While artists upgraded the interiors of loft buildings, historic preservationists rehabilitated the reputation of loft exteriors, specifically their cast-iron facades. Before 1970, the general public mostly ignored the area below Houston Street. Some called it “The Valley” due its location between the high rises of Lower Manhattan and Midtown, while others referred to it as “Hell’s Hundred Acres” because of its high rate of fire. Preservationists like Margot Gayle and the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, as well as New York Times critic Ada Louis Huxtable, made the argument that the area’s 19th-century cast-iron facades were both architecturally interesting (they contain a high degree of ornamentation) and historically important (they were industrially fabricated and an important forerunner to the 20th-century skyscraper). Thanks to their efforts, the Landmarks Preservation Commission made the SoHo Cast-Iron Historic District a landmark in 1973. This has profound implications for the neighborhood’s development. Because the buildings are landmarked, they cannot be torn down or substantially altered, which discouraged larger developers from entering the SoHo market, causing the area’s gentrification to occur in a more piecemeal fashion.

You explain how the artists were able to revitalize SoHo only to become victims of their own success. The “embourgeoisement of SoHo” leads to many of the artists getting priced out of the neighborhood that they helped revitalize. You say that many of the residents who replace the artists in SoHo were part of what you call the “creative class.” Who were part of this class and how did they come to displace the artists? Is this an inevitable consequence of gentrification?

One very practical question that interested me was: how did people outside of the artist community find out about SoHo? What made them want to live in a loft? Part of the answer to this question was that artists’ advocacy groups invited people into their homes to convince them to support legislation legalizing loft housing. Artists hosting performances or looking to sell their works also had an incentive to draw people to SoHo. Those likely to attend these events, or have a connection to the art community, tended to be people in so-called “creative” professions, such as architecture, advertising, and academia. These tended to be the earliest non-artists living in SoHo.

Displacement is a trickier issue. Some artists bought their lofts through cooperatives for modest prices in the late 60s or early 70s. A decent number of them remain to this day, and others were able to cash out for a substantial profit. When demand for legal lofts outstripped supply in the mid-1970s, some artists were forced out. But the agents of this change were often artists with knowledge of the loft market, or longtime industrial building owners whose families might have owned their properties for generations. They were the ones “flipping” properties and forcing less affluent artists and industrial businesses out. Some of the new tenants were wealthier professionals, or members of the “creative class,” but some were wealthier artists.

One of the issues that your book raises that I found so interesting was the limited role of government in SoHo’s revitalization. Your work tacitly makes the case that government inaction is what saved SoHo. Throughout the book, it seems that the artists wanted government to stand aside and let them do what they wanted to do. Did this surprise you at all?

I think this is part of the reason that so many cities (New York included) are looking for “The Next SoHo.” The first SoHo developed organically and cost government very little. As you write, government inaction mattered more. Policymakers only acted to legalize loft housing for artists because advocacy groups pushed them into action. Other times, city leaders seemed content to let loft tenants live illegally. Though there were threats of evictions, few if any took place. This was despite a survey completed by the City Planning Commission in December 1977 that found that 91.5 percent of recent loft conversions in Manhattan below Fifty-Ninth Street were illegal. To this day, many loft residents are technically living illegally. It remains a requirement that at least one resident still must be an artist certified by the Department of Cultural Affairs to live in SoHo and there are numerous residents with no connection to the arts. In fact, some non-artists had trouble getting financing for high-end loft purchases during the credit crunch after 2008. However, there has never been the political will to bring SoHo residents into compliance with the law through evictions. This was never a conscious decision, but clearly the incentives to allow SoHo residents to remain in their lofts are numerous, both in the 1970s and today.

When you left Port Washington in 1999, you were headed off to the University of Chicago to study Russian history. Why did you turn your attention to urban history? What attracted you to undertake this work on the changes in SoHo in New York City?

Cities have always captivated me. I lived in New York City until I was 10, and like many suburban kids arriving at college, I maintained that I was really from Manhattan. I chose to attend the University of Chicago in part because of its urban location, not knowing that it was the place where the academic study of the city began nearly 80 years prior. Much of my undergraduate work was on Russian history – I was fascinated by the grand social experiment that was the Soviet Union. But my education was interdisciplinary at heart, and part of what attracted me (and continues to interest me) about cities is that they can be studied using a variety of different methodologies.

In my final year of college, I took George Chauncey’s class on Postwar American Culture where we read some of the classic works of postwar American urban history, including Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto and Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis. When I went to work at a small policy advocacy organization in Chicago after graduation, I saw how many of the issues outlined in these books shaped the lives of urban residents in the present. Yet one major process transforming cities like New York and Chicago was absent from most histories I read: gentrification. I decided to return to graduate school to study the historical roots of this process.

What projects are coming up next for you?

I remain interested in how the economy, politics, and built environment of cities reoriented after World War II. I am currently researching plans to construct new buildings and trading floors for institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade. With the securities industry, there are interesting spatial questions that arise due to new technologies required to run modern markets. In the 1960s and 70s, securities exchanges developed computer systems that first required a large amount of space, but simultaneously created the potential for these markets to move away from the city altogether. This research is a far cry from the art world, but I am interested in why financial services sector plays such an outsized role in the contemporary city, in a way that is similar to the emphasis on artistic production and “creativity.” I find myself asking similar questions in this project, including: how do changes in the economy play out in the use of the built environment, how do various actors seek to position their cities to remain competitive in a postindustrial age, and how policies on a local and national level shape these processes?