From Rags to Riches

An A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) sign. These signs were often posted at the entrance to industrial buildings to indicate to the FDNY that someone was living in the building and on what floor.

By the time my parents had arrived in the US in the mid-1960’s, aside from die and mold manufaturing, SoHo was dominated by the rag trade.  Businesses would collect fabric scraps, separate them by type of fiber, and send them out to be recycled.  But then along came synthetic fabrics such as nylon and Dacron, which cannot easily be reused, and the rag business died out, leaving landlords with empty lofts that were too small (about 2500 square feet) to be used for manufacturing.  Many lofts remained empty for quite a while until artists, desperate for studio space, began moving in.  The catch was that the neighborhood was an “M” Zone, permitting light manufacturing and commercial use, but not residential use.  The artists, almost all of whom also lived in their work spaces, were there illegally.  For a while, no one seemed to notice or care, the city pretty much looked the other way, but when non-artists looking for investment opportunities began noticing the profit potential of such spaces, artists, who, until then, chose to remain anonymous and hidden, came together to form the SoHo Tenants’ Association and  incorporated as The SoHo Artists Association in order to to help legalize loft dwellings and fight to keep SoHo an affordable place for artists to work.

Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance explains:

Since artists were living here in violation of the zoning, and theoretically depriving manufacturers of cheaper manufacturing space, thus depriving the city (and unskilled workers) of manufacturing jobs and a manufacturing-based economy, many manufacturers and law-and-order types at the Buildings Dept, sought an enforcement of the laws that prohibited living in an M zone.  However, they could not stop the influx of folk wanting to live here, even illegally, despite the harassments and fines and eviction threats.  So, the SoHo Artists Association, the forerunner of the Alliance, was formed in 1968 to reach a compromise and to get artist-living here legalized. The construct or the conceit used to justify their living here was that artists do manufacture — they manufacture art!    So, the only ones who could live in SoHo/NoHo were manufacturers of art, i.e., artists basically, although musicians could live here if they composed (manufactured) music, but could not live here if they solely used it as a rehearsal space. Same with dancers.  Choreographing enabled you live in your loft. You manufactured dance. Using it just for dance practice did not.

Now, who was an artist and who was a bullshit artist? That was to be determined by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, who were pretty arbitrary in their criteria, leading to much frustration.  Further, there was a general amnesty in 1987 to those non-artists living here prior to that year. But, again, no one enforced the JLWQA (Joint Live/Work Quarters for Artists) requirement, so more “illegals” continued to come into SoHo in the 80s and 90s and today.

This is just a primer for a long and complicated history of zoning laws, power struggles, and “gentrification” that spanned the second half of the twentieth century.  The evolution of SoHo set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas.  Community-building is an ongoing, open-ended struggle.  Many of those who arrived here in “rags” were forced out of the neighborhood, by either necessity or choice, before they could enjoy any “riches” that resulted from their valiant efforts. Although SoHo has changed almost unrecognizably over the past decades, I nonetheless feel lucky to still be here and salute those who came before me.

P.S.  The SoHo Alliance is staffed entirely by volunteers, but, like all non-profits, it has expenses to meet: lawyers, consultants, computer maintenance, office charges, etc.  Please visit their website to find out more and to donate funds to help keep SoHo the neighborhood you want it to be.

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6 Responses to “From Rags to Riches”

  1. Carol Goodden Says:

    Yukie, your version of the transformation of SoHo is more accurate, as I remember it, than Sean Sweeney’s. Artists were not depriving manufacturers of cheaper space – those lofts were standing empty because, as you say, the rag business was dying out and further, manufacturers were finding out they could operate more efficiently in single-level buildings, which they could find in New Jersey, across the Hudson. So on the Q.T., landlords would rent out their empty spaces,many as large as 5,000 sq. ft. (which is what we had) to artists who manufactured their art (and lived there, secretly). Because the 29 block area, which had at one time in the late 1800s been important department stores and the like, was now, in the 1960s-70s, not economically viable, NYC announced it was going to put through the Broome St. Expressway, a large interchange highway from New Jersey to Brooklyn. Julie Finch Judd, almost singlehandedly, mounted a lawsuit against the city backed by Bob Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Jim Rosenquist, and others because the city did not have finalized plans. She legally found that they could not just condemn those loft buildings and she won the lawsuit. Then the Artists Alliance was formed and AIRs were instated so that “artists” could legally live there … least they were noticeable to the fire department. Then the comercialization started and the “second tier” artists started, lofts started being carved up into smaller spaces….and, you know the rest.

  2. Mark Gabor Says:

    I’d like to second Carol Goodden’s response to Sweeney’s take on the development of SoHo, especially during the early days of the SoHo Artists Association (SAA) in ’69 & ’70.

    My own recollection of those first contentious meetings was the conflict among the artists themselves — between those who wanted to remain “anonymous and hidden” vs. those who wanted to establish SoHo as an area “legalized” for artists living and working there. [There were a few scattered AIR lofts in the area which, I believe, were thought to be legal, but whose status was never clearly proven one way or the other.]

    It seemed the more vocal and impassioned SAA faction was in favor of staying under the City’s radar — it was considered more radical, less bourgeois; while the opposing group (myself among them) was for legalization, arguing that it was only a matter of time before the “non-artists looking for investment opportunities” began forcing out the the poorer artists (which was most of us) — and that we stood a far better chance of keeping our lofts LONGER if we were recognized by the City, establishing our presence by way of liaising with the Fire Department and the Police Department.

    To this day, I’ll never know which was the better choice. Time has a curious way of warping history. I’d like to know if anyone else recalls the issues as I now do.

  3. Mark Gabor Says:

    Addendum to my comment: We also connected with the City thru the Sanitation Department — which gave us schedules and locations for legal garbage pick-up. Before that, we were compelled to drop our personal garbage in public trash cans on street corners, mostly outside the SoHo area. It was a hassle, but a favorite underground memory!

  4. Yukie Says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories and for filling in some gaps for me, as I was only a small child when all of this was going on!

    I think when Sean says that artists were THEORETICALLY depriving manufacturers of cheaper manufacturing space, I do not think that he’s saying that’s what they did, I think he’s referring to the Rapkin Study* which explicitly stated this, thus giving officials a reason to go after artists living in SoHo illegally. I assume that is the point that Carol and Mark take issue with. The rest of his explanation seems pretty straightforward.

    *In 1962, Chester Rapkin, the New York City Commissioner of Planning and urban planning theorist, published a report titled “The South Houston Industrial Area” (also known as the “Rapkin Study”)

  5. Sean Says:

    What a lively discussion!

    Yes, Yukie, you paraphrased me well.

    Btw, here is the best available link to the Rapkin Report. It is not really online or for sale. (This copy was courtesy of Davide Gentile who went to the Municipal Building to reproduce it and post it online.)

    Rapkin claims that, despite what Moses was saying, the lofts were not empty. Some blocks only had a 3% vacancy rate; others had as high as 12%, not dissimilar from commercial vacancy rates currently in Manhattan. Rapkin noted that landlords kept “For Rent” signs up permanently, in order to have a roster of tenants available, not because there was widespread vacancy.

    If any lofts were empty, wasn’t it because the tenants feared locating there if the building was going to be torn down for LOMEX, not because the spaces were unsuitable or manufacturing dead?

    In fact, it was the Rapkin Report that “saved ” SoHo, since it dispelled the notion that there was widespread vacancy, when, in fact, the opposite was true: it was a thriving manufacturing zone.

    The rag trade may have been an important industry, but others also were widespread. In my building, there was a zipper manufacturer, a brass company, a leather company, an elevator company. Nearby were many garment manufacturing factories, cardboard box storage warehouses, printers, furniture refinishing, automotive use, twine suppliers, metal-working shops, steel shelf companies, several electrical component manufacturers. They remained until the 80s and beyond, until they were priced out of the market or sold because the land was worth more than the business.

    IMO, these viable businesses were priced out due to the ability of “artists” to pay higher rent, not because business was bad.
    In fact, at 131-135 Greene Street, there was a rag store on the ground floor operating well into the mid-90s, contradicting the notion that that type of business didn’t flourish in SoHo for decades. It closed only when the owner retired.

  6. The Taxman Cometh « The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] was made, according to Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance (as quoted in a previous post about loft regulation), when: the SoHo Artists Association, the forerunner of the Alliance, was formed in 1968 to reach a […]

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