Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

The Endgame, or the Next-Big-Change Game

The many articles decrying the loss of the Ohio Theatre and lamenting the soullessness of Soho come from a genuine frustration about the lack of sustainable spaces for arts organizations, but they're also in some ways related to that flag-planting impulse that Lyons described earlier. Part of the disappointment ultimately reflects a kind of nostalgia for something that was never built to last. The reality is that there are very few neighborhoods in New York that are or ever have been static for any period of time and very few small arts organizations have figured out a business model that ensures a lengthy life for the organization or that includes a permanent space. Urban centers are almost constantly in flux—as illustrated by the earlier history exercise. Any kind of stasis in New York is fleeting. And those changes are driven less often by individual choices to move one place or another, but more often by much larger economic forces that dictate what kind of industry is or isn't driving both the city and the country (i.e. how many and what kind of jobs are available in a given place). If manufacturing had remained a major industry in New York, there's a good chance the artists wouldn't have been able to move into those lofts in the first place. There seems to be something similar at play way out in Jan Francisco's Bushwick right now. But as I mentioned earlier, the "Soho Effect" is never the same twice, and it would be foolish to ignore the significant and long-standing residential populations in Bushwick that these artists are displacing, at the same time that some are indeed moving into former manufacturing sites.

Small towns are folding while cities across the US, including those in the middle states, are experiencing a population resurgence. Skilled labor, not manufacturing, is the law of the land these days, despite a smattering of boutique farms and handmade goods companies providing baubles for the wealthy in places like New York. Soho is now primarily luxury and commercial real estate. Some parts of Williamsburg have begun to take on a similar character, though Williamsburg is far more residential. But the real point is that more people are moving to New York City in general. Given that fact, over the long term it seems clear that housing stock will continue to become more expensive if left entirely up to the market, and that low income residents will continue to be pushed out if sustainable housing isn’t mandated and development is left unchecked.

What's at issue, in a more quotidian sense, for many people, when it comes to these shifting neighborhoods, is the sense that they quickly become centers of homogeneity. While living with a bunch of people who look and think and act like you can be comforting and stabilizing for some, it ultimately promotes a conservative ideal of sameness and statis—I think of that cloying, claustrophobic feeling that comes from being surrounded by so many similar people at the Bedford Avenue L stop.

Homogeneity is bad. It's bad on a biological level (hence the whole anti-incest thing), and it's bad for society. New ideas don't typically come of sitting around doing the same thing over and over again with the same group of people. I read the trend over the past decade toward handmade goods (particularly the vogue for crafts) as a reaction to the very real commercial homogeneity created by big box stores, global brands, and the ubiquity of American pop culture in many parts of the world. But it's unclear to me how deep the understanding that homogeneity is a negative thing runs with those who have embraced handmade goods. In other words, it's hard to decipher where that impulse slips from simply wanting to have something that no one else has to actually wanting to own something that was conceived of and created by another person with the aim of that thing enduring and that person being fairly compensated for their work instead of toiling in a factory setting as they race to create hundreds of the exact same thing so they can collect their meager pay for the day. The difference between those two mindsets represents a continuum, not a binary opposition. I just hope it skews toward the latter for most people.

The interesting part of this that relates back to real estate and the "Soho Effect" is that we're at a moment where some residents of largely homogenous neighborhoods are not only aware of the negativity of the situation, but also actively looking for ways to counteract it—though some are only interested in change that's palatable for them and controllable.