Listening to the mayor’s office and the army of real estate lobbyists behind its proposal to remake the zoning of Soho, Noho, and a piece of Chinatown to allow taller construction and big box retail stores, you might think that the artists of Soho are pretty awful people. They’ve been called racists and “segregationists” determined to keep Black people and low-income housing recipients out of their posh enclave. As occurs in every rezoning during Bill de Blasio’s administration, the power of big real estate, combined with lack of public trust in the Department of City Planning, has poisoned the well, leading to fears and smears.
This rezoning presents more than the typical showdown over gentrification, displacement, and “affordable housing.” It also gives rise to a debate about the now elderly generation who built a world-famous community of arts and culture, and about the survival of live-work spaces generally. If the city refuses to protect threatened arts communities, art world participants should rally together in opposition.
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The charge that the residents of Soho (many of whom remain artists, with a variety of income, despite the city’s failure to do proper demographic study) oppose the plan due to overt racism is a diversionary, oxygen-sucking provocation. Local opposition has less to do with a feared decline in property values (which recent rezonings never trigger) and more to do with a selectively targeted tax on the sales of artist lofts, threats to historic landmarks, and the legalization of big box retail. Even if someone were to entertain the calumny that the Soho residents are “old,” “white,” “rich” bigots against the arrival of Black residents, the diversionary intent is clear since few take seriously the assertion that new high-rise development would lead to more than a sliver of truly affordable housing or would “diversify” the neighborhood.
As has become a constant refrain in the history of the arts and gentrification, the artists of Soho succeeded too well. In the 1960s and 1970s, when manufacturing had declined and Robert Moses proposed the mass demolition of Soho, artists boldly appropriated factory spaces for living and working. They cooperatively modified lofts for residency and often had no proper heating. The Joint Live-Work Quarters for Artists regulations (JLWQA) built into zoning in 1971 after years of determined struggle to legalize these arrangements (including strikes) made Soho a uniquely protected location for artists. The Loft Law, passed in 1982, extended the successful model to other manufacturing areas, including nearby Tribeca and Chelsea. Loft Law units were rent regulated and shielded residents from eviction. Many buildings under both the Loft Law and JLWQA were transformed into artist-run co-ops after former owners would not maintain them or bring them up to code.
Lofts undeniably supported an artistic explosion in New York City — in film, fashion, photography, dance, painting, sculpture, gallery space, and music. It is hard to fully appreciate how much of New York City’s creative reputation is linked to the spacious workspaces and affordable housing assured in this era.
So, when the question of whether younger artists can afford New York most often seems to have “no” as the answer, and when artists of color are excelling and might seek to build on the legacy of the Soho pioneers, it would be wise to maintain or even expand live-work programs with more affordability provisions. New York City’s success in attracting film production is another sign of the economic impact of the arts. Boutique Soho retail, rather than big box chains, also supports local creators. Will New York wake up one day and discover that speculation has cannibalized its creative industries, which underpinned the desirability of the real estate itself?
The current rezoning proposal represents the final abandonment of the live-work legacy of Soho. For years, the city slowed down certifying permits, making it difficult for artists to join the community legally. At the same time, the city stopped enforcing its own occupancy regulations, generating no consequences when non-artists seized spaces intended to be live-work. Loft Law provisions related to rent control and eviction have been hollowed out in successive regulatory updates or simply not enforced.
Under the Department of City Planning’s proposal, there is only one future destination for live-work spaces: elimination. Zero new artist spaces would be established legally, and artists would be incentivized into selling their lofts at market-rate, fueling division within co-op boards and conflicts when new residents discover that they may be forced to endure loud music or paint smells.
Despite robust rhetoric in the earlier “Envision SoHo/NoHo” report about finding ways to reform and sustain the JLWQA, the latest message is that the city has decided that artist live-work spaces, as a general proposition under zoning, are archaic and incompatible with “equity” and “fair housing” goals. This shift occurred while the final plan dropped all provisions to deter displacement and protect rent-regulated units. Real estate speculators are licking their lips.
Even though Soho artists express a broad desire to sustain their community’s legacy, it is conceivable that a good number of aging owners are not entirely devastated by the possibility of legally selling their lofts as normal residences at a profit. But a decision to tax them at the moment of residential conversion (including when gifting to their children) has unified artists in opposition. Revenues, rather than support residences for other artists, would purportedly fund arts organizations, in and outside of Soho, at the discretion of the Department of Cultural Affairs. What these nonprofits will do without artists is the elephant in the room. And, unsurprisingly, the luxury developers and tax-averse tech firms that benefit the most from the upzoning aren’t required to contribute.
The city absurdly claims that it can keep Soho’s arts legacy alive with the limited “affordable housing” in new high rises that artists might hypothetically secure. But, let’s be honest, what kind of arts community is going to develop if the requirement for entry is winning a citywide lottery for a normal rental, with no artist preference?
There are many problems with the rezoning related to historic preservation and the dubious promises of affordability. But one thing is clear: There is a strong arts case against it, which deserves broad and vocal articulation.