Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

The eulogies for the Ohio Theatre are popping up on blogs and in newspapers across the city. It is among the last of a small group of arts organizations born during the arts boom in Soho in the 70s and early 80s that have held out into the aughts. Most of them, like the Ohio, are quickly approaching the end of their run. Since its founding in 1980 thousands of artists, and many more audience members, have trudged across the theater's boards. A number of those artists have gone on to receive international acclaim for their work since those early days—Anne Bogart, Maria Irene Fornes, and Tony Kushner, to name but a few. But in the grand scheme of Soho's history, the Ohio was a short-term resident and a late-comer amidst the artist-driven changes that started in the neighborhood as early as the 50s.

While the phrase the "Soho Effect" may not be one that you've heard much before, its meaning is likely lodged somewhere in the periphery of your understanding of the flux of certain neighborhoods in New York City—the most well-known contemporary example being Williamsburg. It refers to the artist-led gentrification of urban neighborhoods and came about, as you can imagine, because of what happened in a certain corner of Manhattan's 8th Ward early in the second half of the last century, around the time when the area was affectionately referred to as Hell's Hundred Acres.

Artist-led gentrification in New York City neighborhoods has been an inescapable cycle since at least the 70s, though the conditions for each iteration vary. In fact, it's such a common phenomenon (or so economists and urban planners would have us believe) that most "urban renewal" or "urban redevelopment" plans around the country, and in many parts of the developed world, include plans to bring artists' studios and housing into economically depressed areas as a means of stimulating change.

The "Soho Effect" is so well known and so often referred to in contemporary New York that it seems to be part of the city's m.o. See the constant features in magazines like Time Out or New York for proof, each one lauding the latest "hip" neighborhood, inevitably touting the handful of crusty artists who have been inhabiting the odd space here and there. The obvious implication in these pieces being that these neighborhoods were once scary, crime-infested places likely populated almost entirely by at least one minority group, somehow made "safe" and comfortable by these brave artistic souls who have ventured into unknown territory and helped colonize the wilds (i.e. convinced the bodegas to stock your favorite organic, vanilla, low fat soy milk), so it's okay for you to move in now. Though you better do it fast, before prices skyrocket.

The notion of the "Soho Effect" is an incredibly short-sighted idea, and, more importantly in today's New York, it seems to ignore the shifting economics over a wider swath of the city and during a longer period that drive many of these neighborhood changes. Not to mention the side-stepping of more complicated ramifications in situations where entire populations are being displaced by new residents, as opposed to those where artists are moving into otherwise unoccupied former manufacturing spaces.