OCTOBER 12, 2016
OCCASSIONALLY, ON WEEKENDS, I lead historical walking tours of New York neighborhoods. In my view, it’s the best way to explore Gotham, the quintessential pedestrian city. With my urban historian’s cap on, I approach the built environment as a text with many layers of meaning. Often, I focus on a particular building to illustrate a point about a broader trend.
On a recent tour of SoHo in Lower Manhattan, I discussed the Little Singer Building on 561 Broadway. It was a Saturday afternoon, and, not surprisingly, the area was teeming with tourists. Amid the hustle and bustle on the sidewalk, I described the 12-story gem, designed by the Beaux Arts–trained architect Ernest Flagg in 1902. The structure initially housed Singer Manufacturing Company corporate offices and industrial facilities. In 1979, as loft living became fashionable in New York, the manufacturing building underwent an alteration. The owners engaged in illegal residential loft conversions, and the city, concerned about the displacement of industrial tenants, responded with a lawsuit. Though the owners prevailed, the case eventually led to regulation of the loft conversion process in New York. In 2016, the Little Singer Building boasts 22 residential lofts, excellent subway access, and close proximity to fine restaurants; MNG Mango, a women’s fashion chain from Spain, occupies the ground floor. Not long ago, a 2,300-square-foot loft in the high-rise went on the market. I read an excerpt of the real estate ad to my tour-goers: “Original hardwood floors and French doors work with distinctive elements like custom walnut cabinetry and a Venetian plaster wall, making this space more than just a home, but a memorable work of art that pays homage to the building’s architectural presence.” The asking price? A cool $6,250,000.
In many ways, the Little Singer Building embodies the transformation of SoHo since the 1950s, from a gritty industrial district to a chic mixed-use area for artists and manufacturers, to an upscale neighborhood with spacious residential lofts for the one percent. How did it get to be this way? Frequently oversimplified, gentrification is variously explained as affluent white people modernizing low-income minority neighborhoods or, in the case of SoHo and other former manufacturing areas, as the process of industry vacating a decaying district, artists moving in, and white-collar professionals pricing the artists out. In The Lofts of SoHo, historian Aaron Shkuda demolishes the stick-figure myth of pioneering artists, greedy landlords, and entitled professionals and illuminates the complexity of gentrification. In doing so, he reveals the origins of the idea that the arts possess the capacity to revitalize derelict city districts.
Shkuda, project manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities at Princeton University, examines the development of SoHo in the context of the “urban crisis” of the 1960s and ’70s, when Northeastern and Midwestern cities witnessed a decline in manufacturing, the exodus of middle-class residents to the suburbs, and a rise in violent crime. Until the postwar era, SoHo, an acronym for South of Houston Street, was associated with light industry. The district’s 19th-century cast-iron buildings functioned largely as garment factories, plastics warehouses, printing plants, and paper recycling facilities. SoHo’s industrial facilities paled in comparison to modern factories constructed after World War II. Though many local firms generated profits, others struggled to compete. Still others relocated to different parts of the country or closed altogether. The number of vacancies in the buildings increased, and a spate of fires in the area prompted the fire department to label the district “Hell’s Hundred Acres.”
This was also an era of large-scale urban renewal, marked by the efforts of city planners to stem economic decline through slum clearance, high-rise residential construction, expressway building, and other projects. Led by master builder Robert Moses, a champion of the automobile and residential towers, urban renewal reshaped New York from the 1930s to the 1960s. Under Moses, the New York metropolitan region built more highway miles than Los Angeles. “Those who can, build,” Moses declared. Predictably, planners and their allies targeted SoHo for modernization. The City Club of New York, an advocacy group devoted to housing redevelopment, deemed the area “The Wastelands of New York.”
But in the 1960s, a growing chorus of critics, led by Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), denounced the authoritarian methods of modern urban planners, the razing of poor and working-class neighborhoods, and the process of relocating uprooted residents. As attitudes about city planning changed, SoHo was spared from urban renewal twice in the 1960s. In 1963, in a report for the City Planning Commission, University of Pennsylvania urban planning professor Chester Rapkin illustrated the economic and social value to the city of SoHo’s manufacturing buildings and small firms, persuading municipal officials to reject a proposal by a civic organization to replace the industrial district with a housing project. And in 1969, after decades of deliberation, local activists thwarted Robert Moses and his coalition in their attempt to construct a 10-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway along Broome Street in SoHo and Little Italy. The victory, a textbook example of effective grassroots activism, was part of the larger “freeway revolt” happening in cities nationwide. On another level, Shkuda comments, the SoHo battles signaled the interest of city leaders in an alternative form of urban redevelopment.
Meanwhile, artists, in need of inexpensive living and work space, were increasingly moving into SoHo’s vacant industrial lofts and transforming them into their homes and studios. Shkuda adeptly chronicles the birth of the residential loft. “Through hard work and ingenuity,” he observes, “artists (and smaller numbers of nonartists) converted what amounted to factory interiors — cavernous rooms filled with decades’ worth of accumulated trash, old paint, and machinery — into attractive, light-filled apartments and work spaces.” At a glance, the situation seemed ideal. Rent was cheap and space abundant.
But the problem was that the artists were living illegally in a district zoned for manufacturing and commercial use. Facing the threat of eviction from building inspectors, they formed the SoHo Artists Association (SAA) in 1968 to lobby city officials for the legalization of their residency in the loft buildings. The SAA had a precedent in Greenwich Village’s Westbeth, a nonprofit housing complex dedicated to affordable living and work space for artists, surprisingly overlooked in Shkuda’s account. The organization also had a sympathetic ear in Mayor John Lindsay, acquainted with the struggles of artists from his days as a congressman representing part of the Village. The SAA stressed the economic significance of art in the city and established a potent political and cultural coalition to advance their cause. In 1971, they convinced the City Planning Commission to legalize residency for certified artists in particular lofts in SoHo.
The gentrification of the neighborhood began in the 1970s, driven by various actors — not least, Shkuda points out, the artists themselves. Commercial and cooperative art galleries opened up and attracted throngs of visitors, especially on weekends. Restaurants and boutiques followed, catering to the tourists. In 1973, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated SoHo a historic district in recognition of the distinct cast-iron buildings. Through media coverage, organized tours, and art festivals, the public learned about artist lofts. Interior design critics praised the spacious dwellings as smart and stylish, a blend of a minimalist and industrial aesthetic. City officials applauded the creative reuse of manufacturing space and the birth of an exuberant neighborhood, accomplished without the social and economic costs of urban renewal. In 1974, New York magazine, a middle-class cultural arbiter, described SoHo as the “most exciting place to live in the city.” Unsurprisingly, “Bloomingdale types” started to move in, avoiding the weakly enforced artists-only provision.
The fascination with SoHo sparked a rise in demand for lofts, leading to higher rents, greater real estate investment, clashes between landlords and tenants, and the displacement of many artists. The outline of the narrative will be familiar but the particulars are unique, and Shkuda tells the story in depth. In 1976, the City Planning Commission legalized loft living for artists in NoHo and for nonartists in Tribeca, industrial districts in decline adjacent to SoHo. The conversion policies were ambiguous, and the regulatory framework was ineffective, exploited by landlords and developers. In the wake of the 1975 fiscal crisis, city agencies were short of personnel and unable to prosecute cases of misconduct, hampered by an austerity budget implemented by the Ed Koch administration. At least 165 illegal loft conversions occurred in SoHo from 1977 to 1979. Shkuda details the origins of the 1982 loft law that curbed abuses but also expanded the geography for further conversions. In the process, he forgoes the opportunity to link the gentrification with neoliberal policies that characterized the governance of the city after the fiscal crisis. The Koch administration, supported by real estate and financial interest groups, provided tax breaks for developers and other incentives that fueled gentrification in the 1980s not only in SoHo but in other Manhattan neighborhoods, such as the Upper West Side and the East Village.
SoHo was, at bottom, an experiment in urban planning, developed on an ad hoc basis, with often unanticipated consequences. This fine book shows that the policies that shaped the famous neighborhood were contingent on a peculiar set of circumstances during an era of deindustrialization. From 1968 to 1977, New York City lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs. During this period of federal disinvestment in cities, SoHo became a symbol of the recovery from the urban crisis. Subsequent urban planners in New York, and throughout the nation and beyond, employed strategies associated with SoHo in redevelopment schemes, whether the residential loft, the innovative reuse of manufacturing space, or revitalization through the arts. SoHo, Shkuda concludes, had a “worldwide impact.”
Stephen Petrus is a historian at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives at La Guardia Community College and a historical walking tour guide for Big Onion Walking Tours. He is co-author of Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (Oxford University Press, 2015).