Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

A smattering of the artists managed to protect themselves with rent control or by getting enough money together to purchase their lofts, while others were quickly pushed out or slowly bought out, one by one. It took 64-68 Wooster's new owner, Zar Properties, four years to convince Hahn and Magistro to sell. In some of the older Soho buildings, artists who have held out in their rent-controlled apartments live inches away from tenants who have paid millions for their updated lofts. I interviewed an artist a couple of years ago in one of those rent-controlled lofts and it was every bit the stuff of legend—an entire floor, with a middle room that was used as a rehearsal studio, one of three rooms that each were far larger than many that I've paid nearly $20 an hour to rent for rehearsals. Of course the real story there is that a large chunk of the roof of the apartment had recently collapsed and the landlord, who was literally bankrupt despite a couple of multi-million dollar market-rate tenants a couple floors down, took months to repair it. Even with a smattering of ultra-expensive units, the cost of maintaining those old buildings is not small, to say the least (though the landlord's hesitance in that particular situation was more than likely also driven by a hope that the artist would simply give up and vacate the space).

There are still some artists holding out at 64-68 Wooster who remain despite the change in ownership. At least a couple of them are likely protected under old rent control laws. According to public record some of the artists still living and/or working in the building include the Nigerian sculptor Billy Omabegho, the artist Joe Breed, and the well-known fashion photographer Steven Meisel.

Before the Ohio Theatre came into being, the Open Space Theatre Experiment, founded by Lynn Michaels created work in the space beginning in the mid-70s. The Ohio opened its doors in 1980. Lyons began running the space in 1988 and later founded the Soho Think Tank in 1995, which has been the producing and managing body behind the theater ever since.

When I asked Lyons what the neighborhood was like at the time he started working there, he told me that one of his most vivid memories of those early days is of being mugged by four men right in front of the theater after returning from a run to the deli on the corner (back when there were such things as delis in Soho). He still bears the scar on his chin, marking the spot where the group split it open with what he thinks was a broom handle, though someone scared them off before they got his wallet or broke any bones. He also spoke about the Prince Street Bar at the corner with Wooster. Apparently it was a popular outpost for Ohio audiences and performers alike and many of the bartenders and wait staff ended up being in Ohio shows. In fact, because Lyons brought so much business into the place, he drank for free (hard not to be nostalgic for years of free drinks). But the Prince Street Bar is now a shoe store. As Lyons told me this he recalled a study he'd read that had determined that the number of shoe stores in a neighborhood is proportional to the value of the real estate. In other words, when there's a glut of shoe stores, the real estate is likely overvalued. I searched around for a reference to the study and couldn't find one, but given the countless shoe stores on Broadway, I would imagine there's something to the idea.

The Ohio's neighbors have included a handful of other important performing arts organizations such as The Kitchen, which used to be right at the corner with Broome, as well as the Performing Garage a bit further down Wooster, which rarely hosts performances any more, and more recently the gallery Deitch Projects, which closed in May.

If you've ever spent much time on the block of Wooster between Broome and Spring you know that most times of day there's not much of anything going on, particularly at night. Usually the most you'll find is a few stragglers walking their dogs while talking on their cell phones or drunk friends or couples stumbling around looking for a cab or a subway station. The occasional taxi rattling down the cobblestones is often the only reminder that you're actually in New York City.