Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

The 60s were also a time when the city was going bankrupt. Soho stood as a glaring sign of the government and the economy's failures following the boom in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, during the period between 1950 and 1990 the population decreased for the first time in New York City's history. In the early 60s, as a quick means of removing the blight, Robert Moses proposed the Lower-Manhattan Expressway, which would have seen 64-68 Wooster demolished to make way for a massive roadway bisecting the city in order to give cars coming off the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges direct access to the Holland Tunnel. It was rather famously Jane Jacobs who led the fight to quash the plan. In fact, the performance group Les Freres Corbusier presented their musical, Boozy, in 2005 at the Ohio riffing on this very topic.

In 1968 the SoHo Artists Association (which gave the neighborhood its enduring moniker) was founded by both artists and activists living in the area in order to advocate for their legal right to live and work in the former manufacturing zone. While much has been made of the well-documented legal battles between the city, the landlords, and the artists to rezone the area, Magistro reminded me during our phone conversation that "the landlords were just glad to have tenants." After years of fly-by-night sweatshops and rampant crime, they were happy to have anyone in their buildings making regular rent payments or even better, willing to take the buildings off their hands completely. Unlike more contemporary gentrification, the artists were not, on the whole, displacing residential tenants—the residential tenants had long ago been displaced by manufacturing in the late 1880s. So, in that regard, the "Soho Effect" term seems misapplied in situations that involve the displacement of minority and working class residents.

As is wont to happen in either case, once a "next new neighborhood" begins to gain additional services and crime statistics begin to nudge downwards, the character of the place quickly shifts in yet a different direction. Wealthier buyers with more access to people in power and the know-how and checkbooks to influence larger scale change begin to trickle in, demanding that derelict buildings be cleaned up, while also luring fancy boutiques and upscale eateries. It's a gradual process, but we all know it well by now. In 2010 the first sign of change is a fledgling and often wildly over-priced organic foods section in an otherwise rundown bodega.

Hahn and Magistro bought 64-68 Wooster in the late 70s and, according to Magistro, they had no real concept of what they were getting into: "We were very naïve. We didn't understand the market…No one was buying at that time." Previously they had lived in a loft in a former chocolate factory at 141 Prince Street, a loft that was later bought by Rupert Murdoch, and after him, the fashion designer Elie Tahari. As Magistro told me, for a time, the tenants in 64-68 Wooster had to be certified by the city as artists in order to live in the building, so that they would be in compliance with the city ordinance marking Soho out as an artists' district.

In 1982 the Loft Board was formed in order to regulate the conversion of the former manufacturing spaces into residential units and was originally also intended to make sure the buildings remained artists' spaces. But as with so much of bureaucracy, new rules, dollar signs, and weakened ideals contributed to a shift away from the notion of Soho actually being an artists' district in more than name. In the same way that suburban Home Owners Associations are a means of controlling new residents and rooting out those that don't fit with the bureaucrats' ideals, people stopped paying attention to the ordinance making it an artists' neighborhood and a new, much wealthier sort of resident started to move in (see earlier note about Murdoch).