Peanut Butter and Matchsticks

West Broadway between Prince & Broome Streets, 1986 (source: wikipedia)

On January 20, 1971, the City Planning Commission voted 4 to 0 to recommend to the Board of Estimate that artists be permitted to reside in the manufacturing buildings of SoHo.  On January 28, the Board of Estimate made that recommendation law.  This law was ultimately passed due to the SoHo Artists’ Association’s two-year battle with the city for the legalization of loft living in SoHo and set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas.  Then, on January 29, the question on everyone’s mind was, what is an artist?  What are the criteria to qualify as an artist?  Who will decide who is an artist and who is not?  Parameters had to be drawn around an amorphous, murky area that defied confinement.

Because the law was meant to keep fine artists in affordable spaces in SoHo and to keep others, including commercial artists who could afford market rents, out, the definition of an artist for loft law purposes had to take this into account.  First of all, unlike in the art world in general, artist certification in SoHo was not based on the quality of work, but on commitment to work, on the seriousness and duration of one’s involvement, no matter what medium.  Certification was also determined by a need for space.  According to the February 10, 1971 SoHo Newsletter, one’s status as an artist was to be determined by the following:

  1. A description of the artist’s work.
  2. A description of the artist’s need for space.
  3. A biographical sketch including data the artist feels is pertinent; education, professional training, public exhibitions or performances, reviews, or grants.
  4. Other data.  If the artist does not feel properly represented by 1, 2, or 3, above, he can: a) present documentation of his work n the form of slides, photographs or other data which will back up his commitment and space needs—but not his aesthetics, or b) ask a few members of the Committee to visit his studio or working space to discuss his situation.
  5. The names of two people who are familiar with the artist’s work and who can testify to his commitment and his need for loft space.

The Criteria Committee that judged applications consisted of 20 people, 10 artists and 10 non-artists who have been active in an arts-related organization.   The non-artists were included to prevent decisions biased toward aesthetic considerations.  There was also an appeals committee, a de-certification procedure to “defrock” applicants who were wrongly certified, and a re-certification process, where artists needed to renew their status, as attrition in their line of work was (and still is) quite high.

These criteria were carefully developed to ensure that SoHo lofts were reserved for committed artists, including those whose work was not well-known, well-liked, or well-bought.  As the film and theater director Joellen Johnson, who was very active in drawing up the guidelines for artists, stated, “If you work big in peanut butter and matchsticks, you’ll be ok.”

No system, no matter how well-intentioned, is perfect, however. My friend, a SoHo resident since 1977 and lifelong composer and musician in multiple musical genres, applied for certification when the Loft Law was passed.   In the first go-around, his application was rejected because being a rock and roll musician was considered the equivalent of being a commercial graphic artist and rock music was not considered a fine art for the purposes of the application.  So my friend resubmitted his application, this time removing all references to his gigs in rock clubs, and asked a couple of established musicians to write letters on his behalf.  He played up the fact that he composed music for dancers and played jazz, which was considered a fine art.  And, lo and behold, he was accepted and has lived in the same loft for 35 years now.

Until the Loft Law was made permanent two years ago, however, my friend, like many others in his situation, was living in a kind of limbo  because there was a chance that, once expired, the Loft Law might not be renewed.   As a result, he and other long-time SoHo residents living under the Law never felt that they could invest much into their lofts because they could possibly lose them at any time.  Once the law was made permanent, they were able to breathe a sign of relief and finally begin settling in (after 33 years!).

Even in the beginning, there were non-artists who slipped in through the cracks and legitimate artists who were rejected, and as time went on, things began to get more and more loosey goosey until the present day, when the Loft Law is still in effect, but there are only a few hundred artists remaining in SoHo, at best.  Every non-artist who moves into SoHo could still be told to move out unless he or she can prove artistic legitimacy, but the probability of that aspect of the law being enforced is close to nil.  And what IS an artist these days anyway?  An investment banker could also describe himself as a financial expressionist, a book editor could say she is a literary choreographer, and a rock guitarist could claim to be a musician.  What has this world come to?

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5 Responses to “Peanut Butter and Matchsticks”

  1. Carol Goodden Says:

    Very interesting and well-researched. What is missing here is the “color” of the fight for SoHo artists to be allowed to live in their lofts. Artists, like Mark DiSuvero and James Rosenquist found lofts in the Fulton Fish Market, when it was in lower Manhattan, and they began making large works. This caught on very quickly. Artists as a whole were interested. The art center was changing from Paris to NYC, sort of during the Pop era, as a gravitation from impressionism and Fauvism, etc.

    At the same time, economic difficulties were being experienced in Manhattan. Many of the “light manufacturing” businesses, like rag balers, knife sharpeners, box makers, found it too difficult to operate in multi-floors where their employees would get stuck behind bales, beyond CCTV reach, to smoke pot. So they began moving their operations to New Jersey where they could get massive spaces all on one floor. On top of that, but NYC announced they they would condemn all the buildings in SoHo as they had the intention of putting in the Broome St. Expressway, from Jersey to Brooklyn.

    As a number of lofts were empty, and the buildings were not paying taxes and in jeopardy of being “in rem,” landlords began succumbing to artist’s to lease those empty lofts. As soon as the artists (painters, sculptors, dancers) moved into their lofts, they built decent bathrooms, kitchens, sleeping lofts, and work spaces. But like war black-outs, black curtains were put over the windows, no plants were put out on the fire escapes, no rugs hung out to air.

    Then an amazing thing happened right at the end of the ’60s and 1970 – the prices of buildings in SoHo dropped as landlords believed the Broome St. Expressway was going to come through, their buildings would be condemned, and worthless. So they sold whole buildings to artists for as little as $5,000. Trisha Brown was on Wooster St. Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden were also. Jeffrey Lew was on Greene St. Ruschenberg was already in NoHo. Phillip Glass and others were in Chinatown. I decided to open FOOD in SoHo for there to be a place artists to eat. Works were large and exciting. Donald Judd had a whole building with six lofts, all to himself and family. Julie Judd, his wife, almost singlehandedly fought the city against the Broome St. Expressway, stating that they had no right to condemn the SoHo buildings as there were no approved plans for the Expressway. Using signatures of Bob Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and other well-known names, they promoted the need for artists to have working spaces, the importance of NYC being the art center of the world.

    Julie Judd won the fight and suddenly there was no more Broome St. Expressway on the docket: the beautiful cast-iron buildings in SoHo would not be condemned and destroyed. Now galleries from mid-town started moving in to the lower floors and “artists” of all kinds, as Yukie describes, after the AIR (artists in residence – for fire alerts) designation was decreed, moved in. The prices of the buildings skyrocketed to over $300,000 in a matter of two or three years. Many solid artists kept their original spaces. Others divided their lofts and charged for improvements. These were not co-ops, but rather had designation under some “agricultural” law. Many of the artists moved out, if they didn’t own their own building, as rents were being tripled and quadrupled. The atmosphere went from local workers coming and going, to uptown people coming to browse; the Comidas Criollas (which closed at 3 p.m) FOOD replaced.) ; workers and artists having drinks at Fanelli’s became artists and uptown folk having drinks at the Spring St. Bar; Empty lots for parking trucks behind fences, became dog-walking lots. Cats and tomato plants were now seen on balconies. The windows were no longer curtained – they could see the gorgeous Hudson River and all the way to the Statue of Liberty, before the WTC was built, and long before it was destroyed. Memories.

  2. Yukie Ohta Says:

    Carol! Many thanks for writing in and sharing such lovely memories. Yes, Julie Judd almost single-handedly saved SoHo. Many people mention Jane Jacobs and fail to mention Julie who was so central in the fight against LOMEX. Cats and tomato plants. Those were the days.

  3. The SoHo Effect: Artists as Bait « The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] in turn, is one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live.  In my last post (Peanut Butter and Matchsticks, September 8, 2012), I outlined the definition of an “artist” that the New York City loft board […]

  4. Sean Says:

    I had never known of Julie Judd or her efforts until her talk this spring at the MOMA that we attended, Yukie.. She would make an interesting contributor to a column on her preservation efforts.

  5. Archivism as Activism: The Preservation of SoHo | The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] The Loft Law and Loft Board (read my post about artist certification here) […]

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