Posts Tagged ‘SoHo Alliance’

Keeping Watch: The SoHo Alliance and the Preservation of SoHo

July 1, 2014
An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post)

NYU 2031–An architect’s rendering of proposed plans for new facilities.Photo: AP Photo/New York University (via NY Post) The SoHo Alliance and other community groups lobbied against NYU’s expansion plan.

In a recent email regarding community opposition to NYU’s 2031 plan, Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance, announced:

In a stunning victory for our community, a State Supreme Court justice ruled that the City acted illegally in giving away parkland on Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place to NYU to be used as a construction staging-area for the university’s planned 20-year expansion program.  NYU had planned to squeeze 1.9 million square feet of high-rise buildings into the two super-blocks above Houston Street. (Read more about the plan here.)

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

Sean Sweeney on the cover of SoHo Life magazine

The SoHo Alliance, with the tireless and fearless Sweeney at its helm, was instrumental in this victory. As a matter of fact, Sweeney and his associates who form the all-volunteer SoHo Alliance have been working for decades to preserve SoHo’s quality of life by actively monitoring proposed development and opposing developers who attempt to overreach the boundaries of regulatory laws.

In a profile of Sweeney in the now-defunct SoHo Life magazine, he states, “The SoHo Alliance strives for controlled and appropriate development – a balance between residential and retail, seeking a quality-of-life that benefits everyone who visits, lives or works in SoHo.” Without the SoHo Alliance, our neighborhood, believe it or not, would most certainly be far more commercially developed than it is today, with bars and nightclubs on every corner late-night revelers disturbing our peace at every hour.

Alliance members serve in key leadership positions on Community Board #2, providing our neighborhood a direct voice in City government. A few of their many accomplishments this past year (click here to see more) include: (more…)

The Taxman Cometh

November 26, 2011

I had the honor and privilege of sitting in on a small business audit at the IRS the other day.  A good portion of the audit was spent on going over the “cost of goods sold” for abstract paintings created during 2009 and 2010.  Apparently, although there have been artists since pretty much the beginning of civilization, there is still a huge grey area in tax law when it comes to artists, art, and defining the cost of goods, sold or unsold.

My parents, like scores of other SoHo residents, had the most complicated tax returns with countless schedules, income credits and other mysterious forms that are also attached to my own 1040’s but that I barely understand mysel.   My father’s friend paints food (he makes pictures of food, he doesn’t color cucumbers purple), so does that mean every meal he eats is inspiration and therefore deductible?  My ex-plumber (he retired) and SoHo old timer declared long ago that his LIFE, every moment of it, is his art, so is everything deductible for him, including toilet paper and vodka?

One would have thought that there have been many precedents that would have at least begun to account for what it is that those creative types do in their downtown lofts all day.  After all, this is the IRS.  They are an inclusive institution.  However, although there are a few cases presently making their way up the tax courts, I was told that things are still, for the most part, pretty loosey-goosey (my words, not theirs!), a term not usually used to describe the taxman.

In 1987, a new tax law was passed that permitted only the cost of goods actually sold in that tax year to be deducted.  An article by Douglas C. McGill in the April 7, 2008 New York Times states that:

The intent of the law, according to sources who were close to the process of its drafting, was to apply a uniform set of rules to all ”producers of personal property,” in the language of the law, whether they were large or small businesses, mass manufacturers or freelances….In essence, the law ends the practice of automatically deducting all expenses in the year they are incurred. Instead, artists and other freelances will now be required to follow a more complex accounting method called capitalization.

This law was contested by Artists for Tax Equity, a lobbying group, and an exemption was made for fine artists, who were and are still permitted to deduct the total of the cost of “goods,” whether sold or not.  The argument was that if artists had to “manufacture” work that they think will sell in a particular year, this would hamper artistic experimentation and innovation and that the law did not distinguish between the mass manufacturing of products and the creation of unique works of art.  So it seems that, at least in this instance, artists are not strictly considered manufacturers of goods, but rather creators of something that is more difficult to define and price in monetary terms.

It is ironic that the opposite argument 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 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.

Although it seems that there are two conflicting definitions here of what an artist is and does, to me, these two definitions do not point to a double standard or any kind of hypocrisy.  Rather, I feel that our language and culture have not yet come to terms, so to speak, with the role of the artist in society, absurd as that may seem.  So how can we expect our regulating bodies to do the same?

I grew up in a culture where trading, bartering, scavenging, sharing, and borrowing were quotidian.  Bank accounts, insurance, degrees, passports, leases, and contracts were optional at best.  My preschool tuition was paid in time and love and havarti cheese.  My father’s artwork was composed, in partnership with another artist, of objects found around the house and in the streets.  We paid our $125 rent in cash every month to a big man behind a big desk whose office was just above a liquor store, no questions asked, not complaints made.

So as I sat through the seemingly endless audit where we were actually able to produce proof of every penny spent on paint, canvas, and brushes, I was tempted to ask our auditor (a very humane and reasonable face of the IRS, by the way) why, when the rules are so vague to begin with, they were questioning the compliance of someone with so little income to justify what he made when there were much bigger fish whose finances are much more fishy.  I guess it was because it is far easier to catch a goldfish than an eel.

From Rags to Riches

October 22, 2011

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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