by Richard Kostelanetz (August 2014)
In the course of writing my memoir-history about Artists’ SoHo (Fordham U. Press, late 2014), I read several earlier books about lofts and artists in lower Manhattan. Some, to no surprise, were much better than others. The most embarrassing by far was Sharon Zukin’s Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. The copy I have is a 1989 paperback reprint from Rutgers University Press that acknowledges only on its copyright page an earlier 1982 “cloth” edition from Johns Hopkins University Press. No dates appear in either of the book’s prefaces or in the “Postscript to the Paperback Edition.” The back cover says that Zukin teaches “urban sociology and urban political economy at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.” Later, I learned, she became the Broeklundian Professor of Sociology. A lefty academic she no doubt is.
In a book riddled with errors, ignorance, and misinterpretations, a principal recurring fault is drawing upon her own experience in a residential coop not in SoHo (by name, SOuth of HOuston Street), but in the much smaller loft area around East Tenth Street between University Place and Broadway. Well north of Houston Street, this is decidedly not within Artists’ SoHo per se, which is the larger, more famous neighborhood one-kilometer south in a city where such distances can mark a cultural gulf.
When the area where Zukin lived had been a prominent artists’ neighborhood in the 1950s, the favorite bar for these artists was The Cedar on University Place; Jackson Pollock lived 46 East Eighth Street between University and Broadway sometimes with his wife Lee Krasner who had her studio on East Ninth Street; Willem de Kooning had his studios successively at 85 Fourth Avenue near Eleventh Street, 88 East Tenth Street and then on Broadway between Twelfth and Thirteenth Street before he relocated to eastern Long Island. Here were the galleries that Harold Rosenberg immortalized in the 1950s as “Tenth Street,” where he incidentally resided—further east in an apartment between Second and Third Avenues. Around here, I visited Robert Rauschenberg in the spring of 1966. However, by the time Zukin settled there and wrote about it, this loft ‘hood became quite different from what it had been decades before and different as well from Artists’ SoHo, which developed later, in another place, and under very different conditions. For instance, the latter’s streets aren’t named after numerals.
These two lower Manhattan loft communities differed not only in location but also in size(s) and legal limitations. As early as page 5, Zukin declares, “Since the end of the nineteenth century, few working-class neighborhoods remained in the heart of Manhattan, so this work force no longer lived near their jobs.” Whereas that might have been true of her turf south of Union Square, the factories of SoHo, including those in my building when I first moved there, depended upon immigrant labor from the Lower East Side. Indeed, into the 1970s some workers came down Prince Street every morning on bus #12, returning in the evenings down Spring Street. I don’t know much about Zukin’s neighborhood but know enough to know that, for sure, she’s often ignorant about mine.
Indicatively, nowhere did I find her acknowledging that a legal resident of SoHo proper needed to have city certification as an artist requiring loft space, thus discouraging, certainly before 1980, non-artists from living there legally. One reason why this certification process is not familiar to her might be that people residing in her Greenwich Village East enclave never needed it.
Also on page 5, Zukin declares, “In the case of lofts, the social class distinctions between old (artist) residents and new (non-artist) residents are somewhat blurred.” If for most of us income is a measure of “social class,” quite the contrary was true in SoHo. Here, as I noted in my book, nothing, but nothing, divided SoHo co-ops more than the difference in occupation and income (often to the degree of several multiples) between artists and non-artists from the early 1980s into the 21st Century. Such a generalization about the similarities between old loft dwellers and new might be true about her middle Village enclave; but here, as elsewhere in her book, she reveals that she knows little about SoHo, in spite of pretending otherwise.
Factual errors abound, as the arts critic Peter Frank is “Peter France” on page 95. On page 170 the 155 Wooster Street Association is identified as “a newly formed artists’ housing co-op,” rather than, as it was, a partnership among Paula Cooper, whose gallery occupied the ground floor; the photography curator Weston Naef; and the artist/professor James Seawright, who collectively rented space to others within most of their building until they sold it. Given errors discovered so far, I find it hard to believe, as Zukin says, “By 1987 only 12 of the 1,000 or so loft buildings in full or partial residential use have obtained a Certificate of Occupancy,” because I remember several SoHo coops, including my own, that had obtained a C. of O. well before 1987.
On page 117 Zukin quotes several SoHo artists about how they successfully manipulated New York City politicians during the John Lindsay administration to protect their rights to residency. Since these statements seemed incredible to me, I reread them, wishing she had named informants who, on reconsideration, seem conveniently unidentified. The suspicion is that fantasy is a recurring problem for this “sociologist.”
More than once I found Zukin misunderstanding her own evidence. On page 88, she claims that Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis, both successful dealers in contemporary art, received their “art education” at the Rockefeller-controlled Museum of Modern Art. “Inspired by MoMA’s professionalism as well as its missionary zeal,” Zukin writes, “they brought some quality of the museum to the art gallery. ‘What [Janis] did was of enormous importance,’ Castelli has said. ‘He really taught me that a gallery should be run like a museum—he had that kind of rigor.’” Hold on, you say, isn’t Castelli saying explicitly that it was Janis, not MoMA, that taught Castelli, eliminating the EVIL Rockefellers from influencing SoHo’s most prominent art gallery.
The most outrageous single paragraph appears on page 184 where Zukin attempts to account for the origins of Washington Square Village, the extended apartment complex between West Third and Bleecker Streets, Mercer and West Broadway. She writes: “Significantly, the most vulnerable land for the university’s expansion lay to the south [of Washington Square, RK], in the manufacturing loft district and adjacent tenements occupied by working-class families of Italian origin that was known as the South Village.” The minor problem here is that the epithet South Village referred, then as now, to the enclave west of West Broadway and south of Houston Street, which was and still is quite different from the larger loft district to the east of West Broadway. Bear this distinction in mind as you read on.
Zukin continues, “In the late 1950s, the chairmanship of the university’s board of trustees passed to Laurence Tisch, a member of the family dynasties of builders in New York City and a graduate of NYU Law School.” This prompted me to check Laurence Tisch’s biography. His Bachelor of Science degree comes from NYU and his M.A. in Industrial Engineering from Lehigh. No lawyer is he. He was the chief executive of a hotel corporation, Loew’s, that is also a successful investment company. This Tisch (1923-2003) becomes an NYU trustee in 1966 and chairman of the board of trustees from 1978 to 1990, which is about the time Zukin is writing, but not “the late 1950s,” two decades before, when she imagines him active.
She continues: “Tisch quietly assembled the several square blocks from Washington Square Park to Houston Street, between LaGuardia Place and Broadway, and then, at no apparent profit, turned the properties over to NYU. During the next few years, the university built two high-density housing projects on the site for faculty and staff.” In fact, the developer of Washington Square Village was not Tisch but Paul Tishman (1900-1996), the key element of his surname spelled differently. It was the Tishman, not the Tisch, who built Washington Square Village, along with much else around New York City. I can remember that when WSV first opened for rentals in the early 1960s it was called “Tishman’s Tenements,” and recall as well the architectural historian P. Reyner Banham telling me perhaps two decades later that, when he was invited to be a visiting professor at NYU, he was shown floor plans of Washington Square Village, where he was invited to live, that were stamped with the Tishman name.
Having won the contract to build urban renewal housing on the site, Tishman overbuilt, which is to say constructed too many floors for the available space. The only legitimate solution was to transfer title to his buildings to a community function. NYU was conveniently available. Whether Tishman intentionally defaulted is a question still remembered, as he (not Tisch) was indeed an NYU trustee at the time. Zukin’s confusing two German-Jewish family names might be excusable in, say, professor McReedy’s lecture to midwestern undergraduates, but not in a book by a CUNY professor who purportedly lives nearby. To paraphrase Groucho, when the Tisches are mistaken for the Tishmans, that’s how visions of conspiracies are born.
Foot already in her mouth, Zukin bites off yet more. “Whether or not Tisch remained a silent owner of properties contiguous to the university, it is important that even at a time when demand for manufacturing lofts was high, NYU’s expansion reduced the amount of loft space that was available.” Aside from the unsubstantiated innuendo about NYU being beholden to a hidden puppeteer (incorrectly named), this passage undermines Zukin’s documentation, quoted above from earlier in her Loft Living, of the lack of commercial demand for loft space in the 1960s. This lack of commercial clients thus accounts for why, as I noted, SoHo landlords at that time gladly rented or sold to artists. Why does Zukin condemn NYU-Tisch for reducing the supply of something for which she elsewhere defines a declining demand? Academic one-ups-manship notwithstanding, critical coherence is not among Marxist Zukin’s acquired skills. One reason for her abuse is that picking on NYU has become an acceptable blood sport for some CUNY professors. My hunch, having never met the lady and sharing no friends with her, is that her “acceptability” depends not upon disinterested research but upon displaying attitudes desirable to a certain gatekeepers, especially if they are ignorant about her subject.
Not done yet with her riot of misunderstanding, Zukin concludes this single paragraph, “Moreover, by physically integrating Greenwich Village with the loft district south of Houston Street, the university made that space accessible to a different class of users.” However, the high-rises constructed north of Houston Street were so visibly different from the buildings south of Houston and its populace yet more different that not integration but a great cultural gulf was created along that east-west thoroughfare. No matter whether “that space” refers to north or south of Houston—her language is unclear—the result has been two radically different cultural entities. What might be true is that NYU occupied her ‘hood well north (again, not “south”) of Houston, but street smarts are not among this sociologist’s sensitivities. Though much in Loft Living has footnotes, none appear in this paragraph, making it hard to blame Zukin’s misinformation on anyone else.
So many errors in a book by a scholar with a Ph.D. isn’t easy; what is more surprising that these mistakes should appear in a book from a university press, which supposedly has academic advisors vetting manuscripts, only to be reprinted, visibly uncorrected, by a second university press, both of them thus Zuked, which would be my epithet for professionally embarrassed. Not easy at all.
Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.
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