The Place to Flee or the Place to Be
by Orlee Shohamy

The past five centuries of SoHo’s history have included the highs and lows of a roller coaster ride. From an intimate agrarian village SoHo deteriorated into a poisonous swamp. Later, it swung between thriving as an upscale residential community to being abandoned and declared an industrial wasteland. And of course, SoHo’s most recent swing has been from its 1960s and 1970s fame as the center for the arts to its current inter-national prestige as the center for fashion.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, SoHo was home to a black com-munity of slaves brought to the United States by the Dutch West India Company and freed in 1644. They settled in the hilly farmland ‘far North’ of the town of Nieuw Amsterdam, known today as the Financial District. During the next 100 years, the neighborhood grew more populated as the Island of Manhattan accelerated its develop-ment, but the rural SoHo area (which by then was a mixed community of blacks and whites) began to physically deteriorate. The stream that ran along Canal Street had been turned into a sluggish sewer, causing the entire neighborhood to be transformed into a mosquito-infested swamp.

In 1800 SoHo experienced its first revival when its hills were leveled to fill in the offensive areas. Soon after the makeover, the rich and prominent began moving in, settling around Broadway and Spring Street. By 1825 SoHo was the place to be with the developer John Jacob Astor buying up large chunks of SoHo property. Four-story town houses lined the cobblestone roads of this now peaceful upscale residential neighborhood. But as some of us know from observing the New York of our own times, the trendiest neighborhoods always invite commerce to join in. Thus, cast iron palaces were abruptly erected to house the flagship stores of Lord & Taylor, E.V. Haughwout, and Tiffany & Co. Homes were torn down to make room for theaters, music halls, and fancy hotels. Residents reacted to the commercialization of SoHo and began to flee further North, with a quarter of SoHo’s residents leaving the neighborhood between 1860 and 1865. In turn, merchants and manufacturing firms took over the vacated spaces, and SoHo lost its residential character all together. As SoHo reached a cultural and commercial peak in the first decades of the 20th century, it was time to begin its journey back to abandonment and anonymity. In the early 1930s the city’s planning commission began strategizing to construct a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would run river to river, and subsequently demolish most of SoHo (see above drawing). Over the next 30 years (as City Hall saw many different politicians inhabit its offices), the City remained unclear about its plans for the Expressway. In the face of such uncertainties, all growth and development of the neighborhood came to a halt. Buildings were left to disintegrate and businesses and manu-facturers chose not to renew their leases. (Some started fires on their properties as a last attempt to boost revenues with insurance money before shutting down.) When Mayor Lindsay officially canceled the plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway in 1969, the neighbor-hood and its buildings remained deserted and uncelebratory with unswept streets, broken stoops, peeling paint, and cracked window panes. Once SoHo had returned to a very low point (being abandoned even by indus- rialization), it was now ripe for a revival, and surprisingly, it did not come from wealthy business developers or city planners. It began with the artists of New York. Painters and sculptors moved into the spacious SoHo lofts and converted them into art studios. As artists began living in SoHo illegally (the district was zoned as com-mercial at the time and residency was not permitted), human color and creativity were restored to the malnourished neighborhood. As more artists moved in, buildings began carrying the stone label ‘A.I.R.’, standing for Artist In Residence, so that the fire department would know that the buildings were occupied by residents even though they were zoned as commercial. Artists such as Chuck Close, Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Cindy Sherman made SoHo their bohemian home - studio hopping and exchanging ideas in the local soup kitchens, as none had real kitchens in their lofts. In 1971, SoHo was officially rezoned as a residential neighborhood and two years later, thanks to the work of the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture, a 26-block area of SoHo was designated as an historic district, assuring the preser-vation of the largest concentration of cast-iron buildings in the world. From this peak of creativity and livelihood, the neigh-borhood was primed for yet another change. In the push for legalization of their residences, SoHo artists exchanged their social anonymity for overwhel-ming fame. Once SoHo received legal recognition as an artistic center, tourists, gallery goers, and anyone in search of ‘the scene’ began flooding the neighborhood’s narrow streets. SoHo artists spoke of how they preferred their squatting days of running from building inspectors rather than their new reality of being pointed out by tourists like animals in a zoo. In 1974, only three years after the rezoning of SoHo, a New York Times article entitled ‘SoHo – A Victim of Its Own Success’, claimed that real artists could no longer afford to live in the new SoHo of post-legalization.

Nevertheless, in the 1980s, SoHo continued to enrich itself on the path towards commercialization by becoming a center for art dealership rather than art creation. Galleries (able to pay the higher rent) flooded the neighborhood, while artists moved South to the less developed neighbor-hood of TriBeCa, and more recently across the East River into Williamsburg and Dumbo. In the 1990s, upscale restaurants, spas, trendy bars and exclusive lounges transformed SoHo into an international luxury neighborhood. The largest European fashion houses chose to center their US presence in SoHo. Graphic design firms, film production houses, Internet companies and modeling agencies began renting offices in the upper levels of SoHo buildings, wishing to associate themselves with the young, ‘downtown’ style that the neighbor-hood continues to represent. Three luxury hotels have recently opened to cater to tourists and international business people. Over the centuries SoHo’s threats have been as diverse as its transfor-mations. Be it swamps from the Canal Street River, city plans to replace the neighborhood with a freeway, burning factories, or the current force of commercialization, SoHo continues to swallow each danger, making it part of its appeal. And as SoHo continues to adjust its character to the highs and lows that come its way, only one thing is certain about its future: It will, no doubt, continue to change.

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