Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

The U.S. and the globe are urbanizing at a rate that the five boroughs are currently unlikely to be able to sustain, even with all that vacant, glass-fronted housing stock along the river in Williamsburg. According to the UN's World Urbanization Prospects, in 1950 roughly 30 percent of the world's population was urban; by 2005 that figure had jumped to 49 percent, and estimates indicate that by 2030 60 percent of the world's population will be living in urban centers.

New York is a global city, it's always been known for attracting people from around the country and the world. People with the means and desire to travel to and live in New York have more access to the city than ever before. But the infrastructure of the city, particularly after the latest round of budget cuts slashing essential and already strained city services like public transportation and libraries, indicate that the city is likely not going to be in such good shape come 2030.

The ideas that are traditionally talked about when people trot out the "Soho Effect" demonstrate a distinct myopia, and even more importantly an economist's lack of imagination—just because it happened a certain way in the past, doesn't mean it's ever going to happen that way again. It's not enough to look at what's happening right now, or even within the past one or two generations. To really understand a place, you've got to have a bit of a longer view and you've got to take yourself out of the picture as much as possible. As Robert Lyons, the Artistic Director of the Soho Think Tank and the man who has been running the Ohio Theatre since 1988, put it when I spoke to him about the history of the Ohio's building and the neighborhood: "People plant their flags when they arrive…people who arrived 10 years ago say it was better 10 years ago, people who arrived 30 years ago say it was better then." The flag-planting image has an appropriately colonialist bent to it, one that conveniently negates the existence of anything before the new residents' arrival.

With all that in mind, I want to give you a longer view of the "Soho Effect," because we tend to forget that dramatic and unpredicted changes are the norm in New York, not the exception. Rather than take on all of Soho, I think it's much more interesting to look at a single plot of land, a microcosm of the city. In this case, that plot will be 64-68 Wooster Street, soon to be the former home of the Ohio Theatre.