- The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry, 1950-1980 by Aaron Shkuda
What is the recipe for gentrification? What can be borrowed from the story of New York's SoHo to either replicate its transformation or prevent it? In The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980, Aaron Shkuda cuts through the myths of "SoHo-ization" and the marketing literature of real estate developers that promise the "next SoHo" by looking at the specific historical circumstances of New York's economic, sociopolitical, and spatial landscape in the 1960s and 70s. Shkuda looks at the transformation of the postwar urban economy that saw the decline of manufacturing and light industries leaving vacancies in warehouse and factory buildings, the rise of New York as a center of national and international art production and exhibition, and debates about slum clearance and urban renewal as a solution to the problems of the twentieth-century city. Shkuda focuses on the artists who turned old industrial spaces into studios and homes through the "sweat equity" of their own labor as well as through political mobilization challenging zoning regulations that distinguished urban space into sectors of a quickly disappearing urban economy. In the process, SoHo artists created and popularized a new form of loft living that suggested a postindustrial future for cities by reimagining industrial space as sites for housing, museums, restaurants, and other cultural amenities.
SoHo is an invented name of the late 60s that refers to the district south of Houston Street lying between Greenwich Village and the financial district of lower Manhattan. When artists first started moving into the area in the late 1950s and early 60s, they found an industrial district of light manufacturing and warehousing housed inside cast-iron buildings whose economic future was uncertain. Shkuda argues that the area's wholesale, printing, and garment industries were relocating because, by the middle of the twentieth century, the district's old six-to-ten story buildings and narrow nineteenth-century streets were increasingly seen as inefficient spaces for the production and distribution of goods. In response, urban planners focused on the district for clearance and renewal, seeing it alternately as a possible incubator for future light industries, as residential space for low and moderate-income housing or as a connecting corridor for a cross-town Lower Manhattan Expressway. The backlash (celebrated in nearby Greenwich Village) against the bulldozer approach to renewal, however, tied up future plans for the area through the 1960s—discouraging development and [End Page 1002] leaving open the question about what to do with SoHo's increasingly vacant buildings. The confluence of declining industry and indecision about how to renew the area, Shkuda argues, opened the door for artists to carve out a space for themselves in SoHo, to both invent a new form of living and challenge existing legal definitions of urban housing.
SoHo's cast-iron buildings appealed to artists in the 50s and 60s because they provided big, light-filled open spaces that could accommodate the large-scale art of the era, and they offered access to the bohemian neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Artists' rent also appealed to building owners who were having a hard time filling spaces with industrial tenants; thus they willingly ignored the kitchens, bath tubs, and bedrooms that artists built as they renovated former manufacturing spaces and turned them into artists' studios. Artists jury-rigged electricity and plumbing, hauled out refuse, and refinished floors to create a new form of loft living. These new lofts suggested a sophisticated, cosmopolitan urban lifestyle as an alternative to postwar suburbs and the cookie-cutter buildings that urban renewal had introduced to the mid-century city. But twentieth-century zoning also made them illegal.
Shkuda's primary focus in The Lofts of SoHo is on the artists who challenged New York's zoning laws. They pushed debates, Shkuda argues, about the future of cities beyond urban renewal and the defense of neighborhood identity. SoHo's artists, he says, positioned the arts at the center...