The Beginnings of Artists’ SoHo

by Richard Kostelanetz (July 2014)


SoHo barely existed when I moved there in ’67. There were maybe 10 people living between Canal and Houston Streets. I first lived down on Greene between Canal and Grand. Then, around ’69, I moved to a building [on Prince Street] where the restaurant Jerry’s is now. During the week there were trucks, rats, and rags, garbage trucks, because it was part of the carting area, so rats were just running everywhere. And the streets were filled with bales of rags and stuff like that.
--Chuck Close, in 5000 Artists Return to Artists Space: 25 Years (1998)

Prior to the development of Artists’ SoHo, many ambitious American artists preferred to live in “artist colonies,” as they were called, where a dozen or two painters typically, customarily colleagues already, purchased empty land and constructed studios. They favored sparsely populated retreats, such as Fire Island, Provincetown, or Woodstock; and established within those communities a culture more sympathetic to art and artists than could be found elsewhere in America. These artist colonies differed crucially from bohemias, which were communities, usually within an urban setting, hospitable to counter-bourgeois living, so that, say, the living room doubled as a bedroom and/or an office. Indicatively, political radicals, often prominent in bohemias, are scarce in artists’ colonies.

Within New York City, earlier artists tended to create sympathetic pockets mostly in lower Manhattan. For nearly a century beginning in 1858, a building at 51–55 West Tenth Street offered twenty-five studios, ranging in size from 300 to 600 square feet each, and a communal gallery that was very useful not only for displaying to colleagues but also for selling to collectors. Among the more prominent visual artists working and sometimes living at this West Tenth Street address were William Merritt Chase, Frederic E. Church, Albert Bierstadt, Emanuel Leutze, Ralph Blakelock, and Winslow Homer. Nearby on Washington Square North, Edward Hopper later had a studio. Behind him, early in the twentieth century, several artists pitched their studios in the former stables on Washington Mews, which is a cobblestone pedestrian thoroughfare running between University Place and Fifth Avenue, parallel to both Washington Square North and Eighth Street.

The writer Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938) briefly shared a loft with his paramour, the theater designer Aline Bernstein (1880–1955), at 13 East Eighth Street. “The fourth floor had recently served as a sweatshop, but it could easily be cleaned up, and those skylights, they were ideal!” writes Ross Wetzsteon. “So in January 1926 they moved in, Tom insisting on sharing the $35-a-month rent.” Nearby, at the top of Greene Street, on the west corner just south of Eighth Street, is an archway with these words still embedded in stone: “Art Studios.” When I visited one of them in the 1970s, it was nothing more spacious than a compact studio apartment—perhaps 300 square feet.

Around the turn of the century, certain New York artists, fatigued of paying one rent for their residence and then another rent for their studios meant for work and display, were receptive to purchasing large open residential spaces co-built in 1901 by a landscape painter named Henry W. Ranger. About the interior spaces in the Co-operative Studio Building at 25 West Sixty-seventh Street the architect-historian Robert A. M. Stern writes:

The design had an ingenious arrangement that kept costs down and maximized the use of space: two duplex apartments were located at the front or back of seven floors, and smaller, simplex apartments were located in a rear extension with slightly higher ceilings in the studios, so that while there were fourteen floors at the front there were only ten at the rear. Deed restrictions were negotiated for properties on Sixty-eighth Street, ensuring good light for the artists’ studios on the north side of the Co-operative Building. The southern part of the building was rented out, producing a twenty-three percent return on the artists’ investment.

This last move incidentally initiated a precedent for the practice of SoHo artists buying or renting more than they initially needed and then renting out surplus adjacent spaces. More than a century later, needless to say, people other than visual artists occupy most of these spacious Sixty-seventh Street apartments.

Artists in twentieth-century Paris, by contrast, tended to work in small but well-lit ateliers on the top floors of residential buildings—penthouses to some; attics to others—often residing in an apartment immediately below. These Parisian ateliers were perceived to be so attractive that non-artists eventually wanted them as well, sometimes opening up the floor to create a living room twice the height of their bedrooms.

Sometime after having resided in Paris for several years, the New York–born writer Henry Miller visited the painter Beauford Delaney one evening in the early 1940s at 181 Greene Street, east of Washington Square and north of Houston Street. Instead of a culturally classy Parisian arrondissement, Miller found “streets which seem commemorated to the pangs and frustrations of the artist; having nothing to do with art. Shunned by all living as soon as the work of day is done, they are invested with the sinister shadows of crime and with prowling alley cats which thrive on the garbage and ordure that litter the gutters and pavements.”

Whereas the atelier in a residential building might have benefitted from heat rising from below, Delaney’s top floor studio gave Miller an overwhelming chill, even at the beginning of the fall:

In a few moments, the fire died out—and remained dead for the rest of the evening. In about twenty minutes the floor became icy cold, the dead cold of cold storage in which cadavers are preserved in the morgue. We sat in our overcoats, collars turned up, hats pulled down over our ears, our hands stuffed deep in our pockets.

Sometime after I first read this description in Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), then a quarter century later in the late 1960s, I had similar negative responses to loft chill, paralyzing chill, in my first forays both inside and outside downtown artists’ lofts.

In the years just before World War II, a modest artists’ community formed in the east Greenwich Village area around Tenth Street and Broadway—to be exact, between Sixth Avenue on the west, First Avenue on the east, Eighth Street on the south, and Thirteenth Street on the north. Galleries as well as studios were located in walk-up buildings scarcely twenty-five feet wide. On their ground floors were retail stores, sometimes a few steps down from the street; on their second floors, showrooms with large windows displaying goods; above them, open spaces or apartments. Scarcely unique to this neighborhood, this kind of modest multiuse building can still be found elsewhere in the city, especially on Madison and Lexington Avenues on the Upper East Side on blocks that haven’t yet fallen to wreckers.

I once imagined that such well-lit second floors would give artists a good deal of natural light, but Pat Pasloff, a veteran painter who came of age after World War II, assured me that any space that could be rented for retail would have been too expensive for emerging artists at that time. Instead, artists worked and resided in the floor(s) yet above, customarily around 1,000 square feet, with rents under $100 per month; they added wood or coal stoves, or kerosene heaters to keep themselves warm at night and on weekends. Even if the space were not zoned for legal residence, the working artist could still spend the night surreptitiously. The rules allowed for a shower, but not a bathtub; a hotplate, but not a stove; and anything resembling a bed needed to be hidden away if a city buildings’ inspector knocked. Artists already living as outlaws had few apprehensions about recalibrating their gas or electrical meters to undercount usage or to telephone “phreaking,” as it was then called. (Pleased we were to find in my own space during the initial renovation a tiny box of telephone wires attached to a wall; but nothing we could do would make them “live.”) Many recall giving hospitality to fire inspectors reluctant to find violations with anyone no wealthier than they were. When asked if they lived in their studios, artists would customarily reply, “Who would want to live in a dump like this?” Indeed, no one would except an artist seriously wanting a living space in which also to work.

Because their galleries were at 79, 80, 88, 89, and 90 East Tenth Street, many of these downtown artists were exhibiting in their own neighborhood—in a model duplicated decades later in SoHo (but not yet later in West Chelsea, say). The critic Harold Rosenberg, whose enthusiasm for his neighbors’ best work was hugely influential, resided only a few blocks away, on Tenth Street between Second and Third Avenues. Nearby as well was both the Cedar Street Tavern, where artists liked to talk and drink (and often fight, as some recall), and the Whitney Museum, then located at 8 West Eighth Street, where some exhibited, because it, unlike the Museum of Modern Art, was exclusively devoted to American work. Many lofts in this area were torn down for “urban renewal” in 1961, which, as Elliott Barowitz noted, “coincidentally marks the demise of the Abstract Expressionist movement.” Compared to what became Artists’ SoHo, Tenth Street was a remarkably modest scene.

The poet and anthologist Oscar Williams, residentially more adventurous than his literary colleagues, lived after World War II with his wife, the artist Gene Derwood, in the penthouse of an office building on Water Street, south of the Brooklyn Bridge, surrounded by “seedy bars all around and dozens of woebegone drunks,” as John Gruen wrote. “Visiting the Williamses was something of a trauma, particularly since we had to wait for several very long minutes before Gene Derwood made her way down in the manually operated elevator to unlock the front doors of the building.” In the 1950s, some artists wishing to work where they lived, chose large Upper West Side apartments, then less fashionable than they became, customarily reserving one of many rooms, such as a master bedroom or a dining room, perhaps as large as 600 square feet, for their work.

Also in the 1950s, some Manhattan artists lived in modest lofts on lower Park Avenue, such as 49 East Nineteenth Street. Around Coenties Slip, then on the lower East River south of Wall Street, where several painters lived who a decade later became more prominent, including Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Fred Mitchell. “Consciously or not,” Youngerman once told an interviewer, “everyone who lived there was trying to live apart from the Tenth Street group.” A building on Monroe Street on the far-eastern Lower East Side offered cheap rents to the composer John Cage and the sculptor Richard Lippold, among others. So north of Houston Street was the far East Village, whose north-south avenues were named not with numerals but with letters from A to D.  For Lee Bontecou an industrial laundry immediately below her on Avenue C and Sixth Street was the source of the gigantic plastic bags incorporated into her sculptures, which seemed so impressive around 1960. (As her loft lacked central heat, she bored some holes into her floor so that steam from below would blunt her winter chill.) Several artists in the early 1960s occupied buildings around the corner of Spring and the Bowery, then as later, a point at which Chinatown met the Lower East Side.

In the early 1960s, an informal group calling itself the South Houston Artists Tenants Association petitioned the office of New York City’s mayor at the time, Robert Wagner, whose brother was an artist, for permission to reside—not just work—in districts not officially zoned for residential use or in buildings lacking a residential Certificate of Occupancy, customarily called a C of O. In August 1961, by an executive order, Mayor Wagner established the principle of an Artist-in-Residence. By 1964 the New York State legislature amended the Multiple Dwelling Law permitting no more than two artists to live in such a building. Their presence would be announced on the front of the building with a sign no more than four inches square with two-inch block letters declaring “A.I.R.” and identifying the residential floors with numerals. The assumption was that these A.I.R. signs (also spelled “AIR”) would alert firemen arriving on the scene to rescue the residents first. The buildings designated at the time for partial artist residency were largely in the West Village, the Lower East Side, the Bowery, and further uptown in Chelsea/Clinton (west 20s and 30s) and Murray Hill (east 30s). Tis said that some artists put A.I.R. signs on their buildings, even though they weren’t authorized to do so, to fool not only firemen but building inspectors.

“The artists themselves did not enroll en masse, partly because they could not afford the improvements required to gain legal residential status for their lofts,” notes James R. Hudson in his informative book about “Left Conversions in Lower Manhattan,” The Unanticipated City (1987):

The artists’ reluctance to participate in a program designed for their benefit and protection certainly made public officials question their willingness to be responsible citizens, to meet acceptable standards of conduct as loft tenants. Artists, after all, were [thought to be] a rather unstable lot at best, with little capital or other power to rebuild an urban area.

For working artists the lack of money has always been (and would always be) an obstacle.

The authors of New York 1960 recall:

The battle of the lofts continued throughout the 1960s. In 1963 twenty artists protested the city’s loft policy at the opening of the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The picketing artists were tenants of the notorious Seymour Finkelstein, ‘King of the Lofts,’ a landlord and resident of Coney Island whose buildings were rife with violations.

Robert A. M. Stern and his colleagues continue:

The picketers’ placards were witty and to the point: ‘Space for Art, Not for Artists.” “Leonardo Had a Place to Paint, Why Don’t We?” Perhaps the wittiest of all read “Mona Is Not the Only One Who Needs a Leasa.’ The struggle dragged on.

Newsweek magazine in 1961 quoted a fire chief declaring, “I’m all for artists and the creative talent . . . . I have absolutely no objection to an artist working in a loft—if the loft is safe . . . . We’re not unsympathetic, and we’re not anti-art.” It became clear that Manhattan artists could exploit a general public respect for art that would have been unknown, say, in Queens, Chicago, St. Louis, or Houston.

“Ironically,” Elliott Barowitz writes, “few if any of these [newly legitimized artists’] units were in SoHo or as it was then called ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres,’  a reference to its many fires.” Compared to the other Manhattan neighborhoods, this one between Houston and Canal Streets, Lafayette and West Broadway, felt like an industrial wilderness less conducive to habitation: the buildings seemed too big, the spaces too large and too industrial, to function as an individual artist’s studio. NO KEEP.

As the loft buildings had been individually constructed, each often in disregard of those beside them, little in SoHo resembled the uniformity of, say, a row of residential brownstones. Indeed, while my co-op building has eight stories with roughly 7,000 square feet on each floor, as does another building resembling mine two buildings away, the structure between us has only three stories with roughly 2,000 square feet apiece.

In 1965, SoHo scarcely resembled what it became, especially on the street level. There were no grocery stores, no dry cleaners, no parks, few trees, no schools, no pharmacies, no libraries, no churches, and no synagogues (ever since Shearith Israel had closed its Crosby Street doors a century before). The only “restaurants” were pizza parlors and workers’ luncheonettes (aka “diners”) that customarily closed before sundown. For residential needs, the neighborhood was a desert.

An additional reason for this sense of abandonment was that many of these loft-based businesses were owned and managed by people whose heirs were disinterested in them. Sometimes these proprietors were individuals; other times, partners for decades, often siblings or cousins. Some had owned their buildings and businesses since the 1930s (like my relatives mentioned ahead) and, indeed, had never located anywhere else. Once the pre-SoHo owners retired or their marginally profitable businesses closed, new commercial or industrial tenants were hard to find. This was particularly true for the narrower buildings, which lacked elevators or could not accommodate businesses that required larger horizontal spaces.

Another factor keeping pre-SoHo lofts empty and prices low was the threat of demolition within some grandiose scheme, either for a long-proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway or another “Washington Square South.” The latter proposal came from a politically well-connected developer named I. D. Robbins, who was president of the City Club which published The Wastelands of New York City. Back in 1947, the legendary architectural critic Lewis Mumford contributed this image to the search for a Manhattan site for the proposed United Nations: “Perhaps the best, and the ripest (that is, the rottenest) would have been the area immediate south of Washington Square, a region almost destitute of tall buildings, let alone substantial ones.” Even as late as 1967, the architect Paul Rudolph circulated a drawing of a spectacular multi-level “City Corridor” that would connect the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. Owners of SoHo buildings always feared they might be insufficiently compensated were their properties to be demolished, much as the owners of industrial real estate in the South Bronx had been ripped off in the 1950s, when construction of the Bruckner Expressway destroyed their neighborhood.

Other downtown businessmen simply moved their operations uptown. My immigrant maternal grandfather’s youngest (and thus most assimilated) brother owned from the 1930s into the 1960s the office building at 99 Hudson Street, at the corner of Franklin Street. Out of this address he ran a food importing business mostly of Berio olive oil and leased offices generously to his relatives many of whom also did food importing. His nephew, my mother’s first cousin, went to work there after World War II and eventually specialized in the importation of cashew nuts. My cousin Richard Franco told me that in the 1960s he would arrive at his office early in the morning to learn what he might have to sell that day. He would then walk down Franklin Street knocking on doors, so to speak, and expect to unload his available inventory by the afternoon. In the 1960s, his business, like others, moved into midtown, which was closer to Grand Central Station that took him home to Westchester. Instead of touring Franklin Street, cousin Richard spent all day on the telephone, which he regarded as considerably less appealing. After my great-uncle died prematurely in a plane crash in 1965, the olive oil business moved into Westchester, and the Hudson Street building was sold off. (Too large to be legally residential, 99 Hudson later housed a sports bar, film production companies, and law offices.) So far away were my relatives from their old working neighborhood that I became the first to tell them in the 1980s about the new residents and the renovations that they made.

One element rescuing SoHo-to-be from the lower Manhattan wrecking machine mentioned before was the “Rapkin Study” prepared in 1962 by Chester Rapkin, then New York City’s commissioner of planning. As a professor at Columbia University, he had recently coauthored a book entitled Residential Renewal in the Urban Core (1960). In his 1962 report, officially titled “The South Houston Industrial Area,” appearing in the same year as the City Club’s advocacy of demolition, it noted that the number of business establishments in the area had declined from 651 in 1962 to 459 in 1963, and the number of employees from 12,671 to 8,394. It spoke of “old, worn-out buildings that occupy a substantial proportion of the lot on which they are located. In some sections, of which the study area is typical, the loft buildings form an unrelieved façade block after block, which gives the narrow streets a canyon-like and dismal appearance even on a bright day.” One estimate marked perhaps 15% of the available real estate as vacant. Nonetheless, Rapkin advised the city not to destroy the “Renaissance-style” buildings that, though visibly dingy, employed people in garment, rag, and hat industries that were incidentally important sources of tax revenues. When Rapkin died in 2001, obituaries credited him with coining the epithet SoHo in this report, although others have likewise been credited with this christening that stuck.

As aging downtown landlords, ignorant of either Rapkin or Robbins, were so eager to rent or, better, to sell their empty or decrepit properties, some consequently gave the new artist owners a “purchase mortgage,” as it was called. Thus were the new buyers saved the nuisance of a trip to a bank that, assessing the neighborhood’s or artists’ low-level commercial reputation, might have declined any loan. After all, even the mortgage program of the Federal Housing Administration refused in the late 1960s to back buildings in Hell’s Hundred Acres, while neighborhood banks were reluctant to lend to any building, let alone an artists’ co-operative lacking a Certificate of Occupancy. (My own co-op had its first mortgage from the building’s previous owners and its second mortgage from the co-op’s sponsor. Only after receiving a C. of O. did we petition banks.)

Landlords unable to sell were relieved to have tenants of any sort for empty spaces, often at rents that now seem ridiculously cheap, with leases extending as long as ten years, some of them cynically assuming that artists residing illegally could be easily evicted. Prospective renters could get space that was either “raw” or renovated to various degrees. For the latter, the new renter customarily needed to pay a fixture fee, as it was called, often amounting to thousands of dollars, especially if assuming a previous lease.

One proposal common around 1975 was called “a net lease,” for, say, five to ten years, which differed from the customary rentals in making tenants fully responsible for everything except the mortgage (if there was one), which is to say for maintenance, insurance, repair, heat, taxes both past and current, etc. To the owner of a problematic building, perhaps with building code violations or a leaky roof, this arrangement gave the landlord modest income while retaining ownership. Two strategic assumptions were that the artists, “good with their hands,” knew how to make such spaces inhabitable and that the landlord could confiscate much-improved space once the lease ended.

Some artists became surprisingly adept at the games of NYC real estate. In a Crosby Street building, the tenants simply took possession by paying off back taxes on which the negligent landlord had defaulted, turning it into a co-op not before they resided there, as was more customary, but afterward. On Wooster Street, artists got short leases on lofts from Con Edison, which expected to demolish its five buildings in favor of building a new substation. However, once SoHo was declared an historic district where nothing could be demolished, the NYC electric monopoly made a deal with its tenants who were scattered throughout the five buildings. In one of the great SoHo gifts, Con Ed gave the artists two buildings, which they co-oped, in exchange for emptying the other three that Con Ed later sold away.

“When artists moved into SoHo loft spaces, few if any of those responsible for ‘saving the city’ recognized that their individual efforts could significantly change land-use patterns,” notes James R. Hudson. “The entire ideology of 1950s urban renewal was based on large-scale development. [Individuals’] illegal conversion of lofts did not have any place on the agenda.” Even normally sophisticated historians such as Wayne Andrews in his Architecture in New York (1969) hadn’t yet learned about the SoHo-inspired revival of the architectural reputation “of previously maligned aesthetics of the manufacturing buildings,” in Susie Ranney’s felicitous phrase. That latter subject would engage the next generation of architecture writers.

A few pioneering artists moved into these buildings, notwithstanding M1-5 zoning (light manufacturing) that made residence illegal. “Raw space” was the epithet for a loft with cracked walls and ceilings, broken or leaky windows, an abundance of trash, and lumpy floors. “Renovation” was the name of the procedures necessary to make it usable, if not livable. Under the discouraging surface, some artists envisioned larger workspaces and hardwood floors more sturdy than those around East Tenth Street; others appreciated the existence of elevators, even if their operators kept workday hours.

“In 1964,” Barowitz continues, “the State Legislature amended Article 7-b to the State Multiple Dwelling to permit local municipalities to zone living work space for artists in the ‘visual fine arts.’ Inventive arguments were made that artists indeed were ‘light manufacturers’ and that they were living in (so to speak) the back of the store.” The next steps included expanding the definition of an artist to include those involved with theater or dance, but excluding, to Barowitz, “the so-called commercial arts—graphic design, fashion, photography, architecture, etc., i.e., professions that normally use work for hire and performed work in an office-like setting.” Writers who only wrote were also excluded. Likewise turned away were actors who weren’t, say, directors or stage designers as well. This Loft Law, as it is called, sort of protects artist-tenants to this day.

Partly to protect the light manufacturing businesses, the city ruled in the late 1970s that lofts with more than 3,500 square feet or less than 1,200 square feet were not available for individual artists. Likewise unavailable for residency were those located on the “Broadway corridor” between Houston and Canal streets, which were meant to be reserved for manufacturers (and later for favored retailers and the small high-tech corporations that in the late 1990s briefly gave this stretch of Broadway a short-lived identity as “Silicon Alley”).

After the early 1970s, the area from the west side of Mercer Street to the east side of West Broadway (and also north of Broome) acquired a slightly different zoning from the areas east of Mercer Street (to Lafayette Street) and south of Broome Street (to Canal Street). Whereas the former was M1-5a, the latter was M1-5b. The difference in the last letter was crucial. Whereas retail spaces could occupy the ground floors in northwest SoHo (M1-5a), as could watering holes and restaurants, ground floors in the other parts of SoHo (M1-5b) were reserved for light manufacturing and wholesale outlets. The fact that several galleries and restaurants nonetheless opened to streets designated M1-5b reflected either an outlaw mentality or the successful efforts of a pricey lawyer. Even as late as 2002, a savings bank purportedly in New York City refused to give me a residential co-op home loan on the grounds that SoHo is still zoned for light manufacturing. As indeed it is yet a decade later, notwithstanding more numerous residential neighbors.

In another development protecting the new artists’ colony New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs formed an Artist Certification Committee composed of twenty people—mostly artists to be sure, but including others involved in the arts or housing. Only those applicants who could explain why their work “demands a large space for its creation,” to quote the application, could obtain a “variance” legally to reside in the A.I.R. buildings, initially in SoHo and later in a designated zone north of Houston Street, conveniently called NoHo by the early 1970s. (Look on the street maps reprinted in Caroline Ware’s 1934 sociological study Greenwich Village, 1920–1930, and you can see that all these areas east of West Broadway are off the map, so to speak.) Only one member of a family needed ceritification for his or her relatives to reside legally with the artist. (No wonder you sometimes wondered whether a lover new in your life desired your address more than you. I remember one, who resided in a tiny apartment, taking visible pride in inviting her friends to my larger space.)

As a member of the committee, Elliott Barowitz recalls:

While over the years many non-artists slipped through and were certified, the artist members of the Certification Committee knew many of the applicants. It would recognize genuine exhibitions. Potential ‘cheaters’ were exposed by crude edges that are a mark of Sunday painters or by labels that peeled off slides revealing names or dates or work did not agree with those printed on the slide mounts. [Such discoveries must have been amusing.] Also, while aesthetic considerations were not a factor in certification, knowledge of the field churned up the rank amateurs. When the committee was uncertain as to who was an artist and how the space was or might be used, we would often try to setup a studio visit. If no appointment could be made, then no certification was issued. This often happened.

Nonetheless, accrediting could become problematic. The SoHo lawyer Margaret Baisley told me around 2002 that the chief of city artists’ accreditations told her in 1987 that “she would not certify any rap musicians because she did not consider their work to be music or art.”

The Department of Cultural Affairs once denied certification to a photographer client of mine because she was ‘too young’ at age 22 to be a ‘serious’ artist, even though her work had been shown publicly. The nebulous edict that you must be a ‘serious and committed’ fine arts artist is difficult to quantify. So an unrecognized Picasso has no hope of success with the DCA. He must wait for his NEA grant or for discovery by an art gallery. What happens to the spouse of an artist who dies in his loft? She must be evicted, according to the Department of Cultural Affairs, because the certification is not in her name.

Around 2014 newspapers reported that an NYC ceritification committee has three anonymous members who meet every other months. Though their mandated criteria are reportedly more stringent than those used before, their effect isn’t invisible.

Eventually wanna-bes became less plentiful in SoHo than has-beens, who hadn’t exhibited for years and may no longer have produced new work for which they purportedly needed SoHo-sized interior space. Since the city didn’t require artists to renew their certification, much as the car-drivers’ licences, by contrast, need to be renewed, they were implicitly “grandfathered in,” so to speak, entitled to spend, if they wished, the rest of their lives in SoHo, sometimes leaving behind their children while the artist-certified parents moved elsewhere. Into the second decade of the twenty-first century one couple who had settled in the 1970s, Lynn Mayocole and Sam Weiner, would throw a New Year’s Day party where SoHo old-timers could acknowledge that they were, yes, still alive and around.

Though the committee couldn’t evict frauds and the city rarely did, banks became the enforcers by requiring from every co-op member certification affidavits for mortgage loans. So did the city’s Department of Buildings enforce by requiring documents from every tenant whenever a landlord or co-op applied for a new or revised Certificate of Occupancy. Since approximately 3,500 people received certification, SoHo became, as noted before, an artists’ colony far more populous than any before not only in America but anywhere else in the world, perhaps ever. Twas said in the days when the National Endowment for the Arts was still awarding fellowships to individual artists that 25 percent of the applications came from the zip codes 10012 and 10013, which includes SoHo, NoHo, and Tribeca (for Triangle Below Canal Street).

After initially wanting New York City to leave them alone, artists learned other ways to exploit local politicians to support their aims. In the wake of the final defeat of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission in 1973 designated the largest gathering of extant cast-iron architecture in the world as a protected “Historic District.” Nothing could be torn down or even altered externally, even with less distinguished buildings, without advance approval by the tight-assed commission. One early threat was a proposal to build a twenty-story sports complex between Canal and Grand, Wooster and West Broadway, mostly in a parking lot that for decades remained a parking lot. Other politically connected developers would later be defeated, one of them instead constructing his SoHo Grand Hotel on the west side of West Broadway and thus outside the designated historic district (though this west side would later be incorporated into the Historic District).

When the historic cobblestones on Mercer, Greene, and Wooster streets had to be replaced, only new cobblestones were acceptable to the LPC, in contrast to the normal urban model of continuous paving. We witnessed the comedy of street-construction workers trying for weeks to do a job for which they were not adequately prepared. So visibly problematic was the recobblestoning of Mercer and Greene streets that the nouveau stone-layers never got to my Wooster Street, whose irregularly undulating roadway continue to scare away tour buses, thankfully, and make even impatient taxi drivers slow down. As the new cobblestones rose, receded, and cracked over the next years, Mercer and Greene came to resemble Wooster more and more with each passing year, as the double-decked tour buses avoided all of them in favor of coming down Broadway before turning right onto Prince. Perhaps the “historic” designation accounts for why, for instance, the corner of Wooster and Prince streets has not the customary red & green lights but a simple “Stop” sign, which is rare at Manhattan intersections.

By limiting SoHo’s industrial buildings only to wholesalers or light manufacturers, who were scarce, and artists, who were more plentiful (while legally discouraging other potential residents), the city had in the 1970s made SoHo spaces artificially cheap exclusively to artists, inadvertently creating the preconditions for an immense artists’ colony whose setting was urban, not rural, with buildings that were renovated, rather than built from scratch. (Thank God. With little enthusiasm for “Nature,” this city boy wouldn’t have survived for a month, or even a week, in some bucolic countryside.) Certain attempts to replicate SoHo both in New York and elsewhere suffered from the absence of such favorable preconditions.

Another source of the new critical enthusiasm for nineteenth-century industrial buildings was books by the Swiss historian Sigfried Giedion, for decades the most influential writer on modern architecture. His widely read Space, Time and Architecture (1941) influenced Ada Louise Huxtable, who was the New York Times’s architectural critic from 1963 to 1982 and thus writing during early SoHo settlement. A further factor distinguishing SoHo from, say, an industrial park was the lack of back entrances, thus requiring that deliveries be made off the streets that everyone necessarily used. Into the 1970s, thousands of workers were visible every weekday. As the Berlin gallerist René Block wrote about his discovery of SoHo in 1972, his enthusiasm now attaining a classic quality:

Many of the buildings had cast-iron loading ramps on the sidewalk. The trucks parked on right angles to the thoroughfare up against the ramps, thus blocking the street for hours at a time. Day after day, lines of trucks waited patiently to proceed. Absorbing books could be written about the trucks of SoHo. Never anywhere else have I seen such a richly varied, fantastic scene. No two trucks were ever alike.

To a European the chaotic pluralism of America would always be striking. Because New York City pumped water only six stories high, taller SoHo buildings necessarily had water towers of various shapes and sizes. These rooftop structures were not hidden within geometric structures common in uptown apartment buildings but exposed to the elements, creating in SoHo a unique skyline image that became the subject for at least one film, a French documentary.

Initiating a SoHo myth for Europeans, René Block continued at the time:

This peaceful co-existence of workers and artists appeared to me like the fulfillment of European dreams. For the artists, these surroundings were ideal. Not only the big new work spaces in the factory lofts, but also the equable, neutral atmosphere of the working scene made for a down-to-earth attitude and adjustment to their own work.

By the 1970s SoHo became a haven for those rare people who organize their lives to spend most of their days applying paint to canvas, words to paper, and sounds to the air, while surrounded by people who respected their passions, at once protecting and inspiring them. Whereas hobbyists would dream of spending most of their days working with paints, materials, musical notes, or the expressive possibilities of their own bodies, we actually did so. All you have in life is time (not money, contrary to myth), which we SoHo’s artists wanted to exploit in the most profitable ways.

Only when non-artists wanted to live in SoHo, the restrictions forbidding them notwithstanding, did the prices rise, eventually astronomically, driving out the small businessmen if they rented or persuading them to sell if they owned. By the 1980s, the neighborhood had changed decisively. Few have noticed RESTORE then as now, that this model for contemporary “urban renewal,” to recall a “planning” slogan popular at the time, cost our host, New York City, little extra beyond the excessive price of ineffective cobblestone replacement, implicitly confirming the libertarian truth that individuals can accomplish what governments can’t. And Artists’ SoHo taught not only our city but the western world how to renovate a sometime industrial slum. SoHo’s success securely placed Manhattan, a backwater only several decades before, over Paris or anywhere else as the central city for contemporary art.

_______________________

 

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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