Soho: The Afterlife
Soho is a place where the heroic heady talk of self-creation is to be performed. ?Steven Koch, "Reflections on Soho," SOHO: Downtown Manhattan (catalog, Akademie der Kunste, Berlin, 1976)
My principle of collectivism?running the cooperatives not necessarily in a legalistically correct way, but in a way to benefit the collective good. ?George Maciunas, The Fluxhouse Newsletter, 1968
Please describe your particular art form and...why it demands a large space for its creation. ?Application for Artist's Certification, 1970
KENZO TO OPEN IN SOHO ?press release, Sept. 1, 2000
Five years ago, you couldn't buy a tube of lipstick in Soho, but now this is considered the cosmetics center of the world. ?Susan Penzner, realtor, Vogue, 1999
For me, the often-proclaimed death of Soho is confirmed at 5:59 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 20, 2000. Sprawled on the floor in artmaking exhaustion, I suddenly sense little kisses all over my body. Dirty, dirty water is pouring down through hideous fissures in my ceiling never seen before.
The Fire Dept. will later say it hears from my 911 operator at 6:14 a.m., 15 minutes later, then rushes to Soho's birthplace, my studio on Wooster St. It's Soho's birthplace because George Maciunas, the late Fluxus saint?the man who colonized this neighborhood when it was mostly empty, rotting factories?thought most of it out here, on the spot, with Jonas Mekas, Yoko Ono, Jim Stratton?followed, a bit later, by Robert Watts, John Lennon, Trisha Brown, Nam June Paik, La Monte Young and, finally, me. He probably nailed those high beams?now gushing soiled refuse?with his own hands.
Am I going to drown here in the ultimate Fluxperformance, rattling Maciunas' ghost? Like Tim Leary, George turned his demise from cancer into a performance, upstairs on the street floor, in 1978. He will hate it if I out-die him. Paik, a tough competitor, will be furious, too, over on Mercer St. I reach for my video camera, but suddenly the firefighters arrive.
They race down to see what's happening, then charge back up the steps, one of them calling out: "We're breaking into that fucking boutique." Five minutes later, one fireman returns, wet boots glistening. "Know anything about that new toilet?" I shake my head. "The pipe broke hours ago. We turned off the water but that won't stop the gallons up there from leaking down. Get some buckets and pray."
I mutter obscenities about world-class Kenzo, Inc. above my head. I point out they always storm ahead without consulting anybody living under or near them. "We've been fighting them all summer."
"You just lost," he replies. "Big time."
Soho the Endangered Artist's District is a story worthy of a big independent film produced by Julian Schnabel, directed by Ed Harris, with local stars like David Bowie, Courtney Love, Mike Piazza and Spalding Gray. The market for this film would be international. "Soho" came to mean "renewal" in every language, if not "renaissance." Its urban lesson?bringing vagabond artists into an old, decaying neighborhood makes much wealth?has been learned. When I'm in Ireland, Australia, Japan, Russia, Argentina, and admit where I live, I am immediately told, "We have a Soho, too."
That's the leader. But what followed Maciunas walking on water in the 70s and early 80s is complicated and contradictory. By contrast, what happened in the garish, painful 90s and 00s seems deceptively simple. The "certified artist's district" has been transformed. On my block it's names like Kenzo and Yves Saint Laurent, with an unnamed behemoth soon to follow, replacing Printed Matter (deserted to Chelsea) across the street. Around the corner on Spring, it's Chanel and Helena Rubinstein, primed with a basement spa, J. Lindberg of Stockholm and Salvatore Ferragamo coming soon. On W. Broadway it's Armani and the nameless condo palace poised to rise out of the gutting of the 420 building, where the galleries of Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend and Charles Cowles once reigned.
On Prince, in the place of Food, Whole Foods and (probably) Jerry's, among other tiny enclaves, we've seen the arrival of one slick boutique after another, topped by H&M, the big Swedish clothing chain, which just opened on the corner across Broadway. Where the Reese Palley Gallery once squatted on the near corner, flanking Mercer, are the Mercer Hotel and Mercer Kitchen. Across Mercer, the stillborn Guggenheim Soho is handing most of its gallery space to Prada, which at least had the wit to hire Rem Koolhaas, once a proponent of "delirious New York," now a proper designer primed to please a gilded client.
Walk up and down any Soho street and look for an art gallery on the first floor. You won't find more than a handful. Performances? Way down toward Canal maybe you'll find a few, at Artist's Space, Jack Tilton, David Zwirner, the Drawing Center, American Fine Arts. Independent theater still lives on Wooster, on my block, at Ohio and the Performing Garage. But keep going north past semi-historic Fluxhouse, across Spring: you see now an immense flag hanging out from 104 Wooster, a building once jammed with the artmaking elite. It's a neat placard, the words spaded by a commercial draftsman:
LUXURY CONDOMINIUM LOFTS 343-3665 CORCORAN GROUP MARKETING www.corcoran.com
When you call and ask how much, they tell you, "We have a few smaller spaces for $2.5 million."
The change seemed slick and fast, funded by bankers here, in Frankfurt, in Paris, in Tokyo. Soho has come to resemble an American or British or Soviet colony, ruled by absentee dukes, generals, commissars and politicians who rarely set foot here. Lord Kenzo innocently destroyed my ceiling without knowing it, just as Count Armani, blissfully soaking on a beach in Corsica, allegedly fired toxic fumes up the stairs at 167 Spring St. this winter, affecting one bird and two small children.
That's global corporate practice, or so the line goes, and it's said to be unstoppable.
But the takeover has not proceeded without some resistance. Time and again, in court after court, roughneck capitalists have been successfully opposed?a form of warning for the Gucci-shoed smoothies following in their wake. For instance, my co-op, allied with others, defeated three applications in a row to install a loud, blaring disco at 76 Wooster, next door to me (though they're sure to try again).
In the 90s, up to 1997, these proposals routinely rolled past the State Liquor Authority. Then an idealistic lawyer named Barry Mallin?allied with City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed?won a landmark case in state court. He killed a disco proposed for 72 Grand St. The judge explicitly confirmed that you can't justify loud, ugly intrusions into neighborhoods simply because they bring "profit and jobs."
Now, in 2001, Mallin has won 16 straight cases against rampant imperialism on Greene St., Crosby St. and beyond, in Williamsburg, the Village and Chelsea. By rousing the residents to protest all-night bars and discos?as well as permanent rooftop revelry?Mallin is proving (with his associate, Eric Rubenstein) that the 1997 decision has teeth. The protesters jam community and State Liquor Authority hearings, flood politicians with letters and phone calls.
The Soho Alliance?heir to the first Soho Artists Association created by Stratton, Maciunas and others?has also resisted the complete Armanification of the neighborhood. The moment the landlord at 599 Broadway (at Houston St.) threatened to destroy Forrest Myers' classic The Wall?the cantilevered sculpture that's straddled the building's Houston St. facade since 1972?the Alliance gang-jammed the sidewalk for a protest and press conference.
To combat the general impression that there are no working artists left in Soho anymore, Sean Sweeney, president of the Soho Alliance, commissioned Columbia University to study Soho's demographics in 1996. The study indicated that 56 percent of the neighborhood's residents were still working artists?and that lots of art galleries?226 to be exact?were still in the neighborhood, only hiding up above the ground floor.
Granted, those figures are now five years old, and since then artists have continued to leave, selling out for high prices. But Sweeney argues, "It's wrong to say all the artists are leaving. Even a 1999-2000 survey by the Noho B.I.D. [a business association, not particularly friendly to artists] had 40 percent of the respondents as artists, still very high considering only one member of a household must be a working artist."
No one thinks Soho is still the artmaking scourge it once was, though. I'm thinking of a photograph of Trisha Brown's beatific Roof Piece (1973), in which her dancers are spread across the tops of four buildings, one of them seeming to prance across Fluxhouse itself. I think of the ghostly image of Scott Burton walking nude down Lispenard at midnight in 1969, the triumph of self-creation. And I remember the daily video art showings at Anthology Film Archives, on the first floor of Fluxhouse, precisely where Kenzo now thrives.
The Birth of Soho
Why did art rise up so vigorously in Soho from the 60s into the early 80s, then give way so easily to svelte commerce in the 90s? Did art create its own Frankenstein? Should we all have known in 1970 that the city's promise to keep Soho "safe" for artists was well-meaning deception?
Before then, post-World War II, there were decades of open warfare in downtown Manhattan between artists and the city's stolid Buildings Dept.?determined to oust the vagabonds who were taking over deserted, illegal spaces and upgrading them. "We...moved here in 1963, when there were only nine lights on high up in the old buildings," one pioneer recalls. "But the light manufacturers were still here, and we saw ourselves, as artists did then, as light manufacturers who needed to live where we worked because we couldn't afford anything else."
Suddenly, stunningly, the city capitulated in 1971. Nearly all the revolutionaries still alive say the key event was the unlikely pairing of one daring rascal, George Maciunas, and one daring, highly prestigious foundation, the Kaplan Fund, in 1967.
Hoping to keep artists from following corporate offices and light manufacturers out to the suburbs, Kaplan gave $100,000 to Maciunas and colleagues to "convert" the neighborhood's deserted cast-iron buildings. (Kaplan also funded the beginning of artist housing at Westbeth.) Maciunas began with "Fluxhouse 2" at 80 Wooster St., then seeded a string of Flux co-ops, each one offering lots of space for minimal down payments?and all against the law at that time. The Soho Artists Association rose up at the same time to defy the city, and found themselves backed by a friendly, intrigued press.
In January 1971 (several months after I hailed Soho's potential in my very first treatise on art for Newsweek, based on Ivan Karp's brash new O.K. Harris Gallery on W. Broadway), Donald Elliott, the city's planning chief, gave the upstart SAA more than it originally wanted: a district where only artists could be "legal" owners and residents. To live or work inside the landmark 43-square-block neighborhood, as owner or renter, you now had to obtain an "Artist's Certification" document (mostly proving that your artmaking needed a big space) from the Dept. of Cultural Affairs.
The city had stopped resisting Maciunas and his pioneers for a solid political and practical reason. In the 1960s, inner cities were considered to be dying all over the country. Plugging artists into cheap loft spaces was one way to stem the outflowing tide. But the artist's certification process (still managed by Cultural Affairs to this day) could not keep nonartists away, particularly if they were collectors, art dealers, banker/stockbroker spouses, etc.?that was the job of a brilliantly pacified Buildings Dept. There was plenty of pro-art idealism in the administrations of the charismatic Mayor Lindsay and the art-collecting Gov. Rockefeller. But these exotic liberal Republicans welcomed what was officially known as "JLWQA" ("Joint Living and Working Quarters for Artists") because it was an innovative way to save a slice of the dying inner city.
"When we were negotiating with the city in the late 60s to avoid eviction, the artists' idea for Soho was simple," one pioneer recalls. "You should be legal if you needed to live with your work, no matter what you were doing. The idea of an exclusive artist's certification neighborhood was the idea of planners and publicists. It made the city look good. But it was always a smoke screen."
In the end, JLWQA proved not only an enlightened smoke screen: the artists' enclave attracted nonartists like moths to the flame?the rich and the powerful, the celebrities and designers, who are now transforming it again.
But early Soho was still a rich, yeasty miracle of innovation. How did this decrepit manufacturing center become the center of the world of vanguard art? George Maciunas and his Fluxus esthetic is the long-ignored answer.
In his carefully researched book, Soho: The Artist in the City (U. Chicago Press, 1981), Charles R. Simpson concluded: "Soho is by necessity a political community." But if it hadn't been much more than real estate and politics?if it hadn't flaunted an art esthetic as contiguous as its floral cast-iron architecture?the ideal of Soho as artists' preserve probably would have quickly collapsed, with the developers and bankers moving into the perfectly positioned landmark district far earlier than they eventually did.
Early Soho was driven by a radical, often frightening idea, born in the Fluxus movement: that raw, unmediated life?a clump of honey, say, singing with your mouth full, dancing bare, collaging varieties of insect excrement?could be art. This obsession, variously expressed, distinguishes Soho, I believe, from its would-be clones in Williamsburg, Chelsea and DUMBO. For almost a decade after I moved here, Soho was a kind of forbidden zone, an artistic red-light district that scared away many of the affluent and commercial types it eventually seduced. Driven by an esthetic to oppose rather than indulge the mainstream art world, Flux-inspired Soho rarely stooped simply to hanging paintings on walls. The residents performed, filmed, sang, talked to animals (Joseph Beuys' classic conversation with a coyote on Spring St., 1974), created their own "Cable Soho" for video art. They cavorted and paraded out on the streets, in the bars, the stores, around my backyard tree (planted by Yoko and Maciunas), beside potholes around which the likes of John Lennon, Yvonne Rainer and Dick Higgins danced.
They rented or created their own galleries and wide-open sites in the classic avant-garde manner, as did Manet. The "alternative space," now hallowed art history, boomed in Soho in the 70s. These spaces shaped the perimeter of the culture?the Kitchen on Broome St., Jonas Mekas' Anthology, Artist's Space, the Drawing Center, A.I.R. (a woman's cooperative), 98 Greene St., 141 Greene St., Dia, the Clocktower (below Canal, but feeding off Soho?later to spawn P.S. 1 in Queens). The best symbol of early Soho was Gordon Matta-Clark's "interactive" dumpster sitting out on Greene St., filled with witty gobs of trash contributed each day by his colleagues. That dumpster frightened as many minds as it attracted.
These were years when lots of taxi drivers and museum curators simply didn't want to know how to get to Soho. Nor did my Newsweek colleagues. Nor did the Upper East Side collectors, who patronized the uptown Castelli in the 70s, or Andre Emmerich on 57th St.
If the conclusion isn't simple, it's still clear. The Fluxus-inspired cadre of Soho artists built a gilded Frankenstein by pretending they didn't care about success?exactly as the city pretended it wanted only threadbare artists living there. Driven by Maciunas' wheeling-dealing madness, the first generation played this game with ferocity. They made Soho something far more than just a "legal residential place" for artists. It stood for something more than real estate or mere style; it stood for an unleashed, pushed-to-the margin attitude. Soho's Something Wild reputation, which at first kept the commercial types at bay, is exactly what finally fascinated and attracted them.
As one staffer in the Yves Saint Laurent store puts it now: "Yes, it is true that a lot of our customers come down here to feel a part of an exciting artists' community. Soon they find this isn't the case, but they enjoy something new anyway." Or, as filmmaker Mark Rappaport says to me, "We the artists have made Soho safe for entrepreneurs."
Was it inevitable? In 1977, when I went to live in Berlin to co-create a satellite video broadcast with Beuys and Paik, I discovered that the prestigious Akademie der Kunste was doing a big exhibition and catalog on Soho. Roof Piece was on the catalog's cover. Inside, the show's main curator Rene Block presciently declared:
"Obviously it will not be long before the tourist buses start arriving every Saturday and the boutiques...begin their invasion."
The Art of Commerce
Still, not even Block imagined the level to which Soho would be colonized by the global corporate chains that started to invade in the late 80s and now dominate at street level. They have chased out the old Flux crudity and bluntness, and replaced it with a sleek anonymity. Today, when you ask a Soho store manager who "owns" the chain?H&M, say, or Kenzo, for whom they work?you get a genuinely blank stare. In the global era it's a wise child who knows the signature on his check. Very different from a decade ago, when the art studio kids who manned Food knew who their mama was.
"I am old enough to remember when Greenwich Village was the artists' and writers' neighborhood," artist Joan Semmel recalls. "Remember Bohemia? There are some of those writers and artists still dug in amongst the boutiques and restaurants in the Village, just as we will fight to retain what we can of Soho as we knew it. The remaining community here is stranded in an alien country, one of fashion, and money, which is essentially oblivious to our concerns as artists, except to use us as exotic fauna to promote the neighborhood, when there aren't any fashion models available."
"Who can afford to sell and move?" longtime Flux resident Caroline Stone complains. "Where would one go for an equivalent situation in terms of economics and space? I am not willing to lose the pleasure of the esthetics of these buildings and the neighborhood itself."
Much as the neighborhood's resident artists often position themselves as pure victims in this takeover, the truth, as I've suggested, is more subtle. Everyone here is now immersed in a form of corporate stealth, if only because the sheer volume of dollars now riding on every co-op vote about who can rent a building's commercial first floor?to say nothing of that tricky JLWQA code, still routinely ignored?makes conversations guarded. Many vintage Soho titans are involved. Inside "guilty" co-ops, nobody rats on anybody else?or will admit, when I ask, how many illegal owners are now in their buildings.
"Yes, we have several Wall Street couples in the co-op," one anonymous resident admits. "They are nice people?don't quote me, as I have to live with them and there is still an artists' majority, but it's in trouble. A few weeks ago somebody here sold a small, 1800-square-foot loft with two windows for $1 million. Artists can't pay that kind of money."
The city is just as reticent to talk as many residents are. When I ask the Cultural Affairs office how many JLWQA residents are now living in Soho, I'm told they have no "current figures." When I ask the Buildings Dept., which once ran illegal residents out of Soho, whether they're ejecting illegal nonartists, I'm again told they have "no count." (But I suspect they do: it's zero.)
"We moved the store here in 1982 because we liked the art gallery environment," Judy Auchincloss, co-owner of Ad Hoc, recalls. "It brought people with visual smarts?artists and collectors both. We paid $20 a square foot then, $6000 per month to be at the center of the most famous intersection in the world [W. Broadway and Spring St.]. Armani has replaced us, paying $675,000 per year. We weren't even given the chance to bid against them?so we moved way up north, near Prince on Wooster. The owners used to run an art gallery. Now they are in Westchester living the horse-owner life. Why not? Soho has been called the most successful uncovered mall in the world."
"We began to hear construction noises from 420 W. Broadway out our back window," reports composer Daniel Goode, who lives with critic Ann Snitow above Armani. "Slowly I figured out a penthouse was rising up over the fifth floor, where Cowles used to be. The owner won't tell us what's happening, but it sure looks like expensive condo apartments. And I bet the King is going to live up on top."
Obviously, Soho 2001 ain't Soho 1971. But if the "serious" galleries have mostly deserted to Chelsea, the brainpower jammed into all the floors above the street is denser, more diversified, more impressive than ever. Thirty years ago the word "information" belonged to MIT. Today it's not only an industry but an entirely new mode of art-thinking and -making. Photoshop and the Web are steadily replacing the drawing pencil. Even after the decimation of Silicon Alley in recent months, there are still a lot of dangerous dotcom minds between Houston and Canal Sts.
In that sense, "the death of Soho" is a media bromide that ignores the inevitability of change. What died were old styles of artmaking. Fluxus, video and street art went the way of all vanguards, into the museums and history books. Why must new provocations be made only in what must now be called "traditional" alternative spaces? Why must the "artist" of the new century evolve out of the old-boy art school network? Why shouldn't the artist emerge as entrepreneur, programmer, designer of video games, stockings, hats, perfumes?
Barry Mallin agrees. He has probably won more Soho cases in courts of all kinds than any single downtown lawyer. He lives on Mercer St. with his playwright wife, with whom he once coproduced plays in Greenport, LI.
"When we won the case in 1997 on Grand St.," he says, "it was the first time such a high court ruled in favor of the community lifestyle against a commercial company. This awareness is spreading. I don't believe the situation now is any more threatening than in the early 60s, when the city was trying to evict artists all over lower Manhattan. You organized in Soho, you raised hell and it changed everything. I agree the corporations present a subtler threat, but they are mainly a first-floor threat. The big commercial spaces are blinding us to the people power above, which is where your strength lives."
Kathryn Freed, now running for public advocate to replace Mark Green, has lived in Soho since the early 70s. She helped Jim Stratton?who later wrote the first book about urban art renewal (Pioneering in the Urban Wilderness, 1977)?and others form the SAA. She fought to get this largest cast-iron neighborhood in the world historic landmark status. On the city council, she browbeat her colleagues and the Mayor into giving Soho its first library (opening soon on Lafayette St.).
Freed argues that Soho's remaining artists and its newer corporate residents can get along, but opposes an influx of too many new residents. "There are plenty of artists still here," she insists. "Why wouldn't the big chains want to be good citizens? Already they are closing down promptly at night, and hiring workers to clean the sidewalks. Yes, the courts and commissions are following Giuliani's lead. They're permitting ridiculous penthouse condos, like the two buildings going up on the Houston St. parking lot, with small apartments for nonartists. The Mayor is dead wrong to think the city can handle thousands of new tenants down here. Those numbers would burst the bubble and prices will drop. You don't have infrastructure in Soho to handle them?I mean water, electricity, streets you can walk down without being trampled, parks, pools, schools. Soho is a great place for artists to live. They can put up with anything. But it's not great for everybody else."
At Freed's suggestion, I asked the city's commissioner of cultural affairs, Schuyler Chapin, what he thinks. He was less sanguine than she.
"Values in Manhattan are going through the roof," he declares. "Artists have to think about Brooklyn...Queens... the BAM district. I have no crystal ball."
The BAM district means the Brooklyn Academy of Music's neighborhood, sinking fast into deconstructed urban decline. Harvey Lichtenstein, director of something called the BAM Local Development Corporation and a veteran mover and shaker, is certain the district can become a Soho-exurb, funded by public and private money.
"Artists are fleeing Manhattan," he says. "We're creating a nonprofit cultural district with low-cost studios and offices for small arts organizations. They are all welcome."
In Los Angeles recently I encountered Soho pioneer Jonas Mekas. Immediately he starts talking about his old Lithuanian exile buddy Maciunas. "George made Soho happen. I love talking about him. He made me a millionaire?my loft is now valued at $1.9 million." But still he protests the notion that Soho is dead. "George wouldn't be depressed over all these global chains. He would be in his element. He'd join and subvert them. He'd open Fluxshops, flux.coms, fluxspas... He wanted Soho to become Hong Kong."
Hm. I decide on the flight back that in the new Soho Maciunas' spirit would come back in a female body. (He did, after all, once crossdress in my garden.) Ms. George would be sublimely commercial, offering undergarments more subversive than Anna Sui's?bras wired with small pellet guns, say, to ward off makeout artists.
In the very next Sunday New York Times I see a full-page ad for Bernard Arnault, the Parisian mastermind who is rapidly collecting every design shop or fashion line he can find under an umbrella he calls "LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton." It is Arnault who owns Kenzo, my rainmaking upstairs neighbors?and so, it's ultimately he, emperor of mass fashion, who sends one svelte, indecisive insurance agent after another to stare at the damage...and do nothing about it.
Kenzo did invite me, and all the residents of 80 Wooster, for the first time, to an opening of its new spring line. My seething building-mates refuse, but I go and find a soft, sweet and welcoming Kenzo staff, shoving one glass of champagne into my hand after another. The reception is cosponsored by the Soho Partnership; not to be confused with the Soho Alliance, this is the privatized charity on Greene St. that hands out jobs?like sweeping streets?and tens of thousands of dollars to the homeless every year between Houston and Canal Sts. A female companion quips that it can't be long before Yves Saint Laurent and Helena Rubinstein are sponsoring "bare-assed performances" on slow weekday nights.
The next day I go to Chelsea and visit with two old neighbors.
"I moved into 420 W. Broadway in 1981 and lived in a small apartment there for a while," says art dealer Charles Cowles. "I loved Soho, but I had to go. Leo was dying, Ileana was getting older, the five owners were fighting, and we got a magnificent offer. But I come back every night and still live in Soho. It never was a pure artists' neighborhood?my building was filled with nonartists. I heard about two cases of nonartists being evicted, but I am not absolutely sure. I would argue that specialized art galleries and spaces ought to stay [in Soho]?it's still a great audience."
"We moved to Chelsea because we had to," Printed Matter's director David Platzker says. "Dia, our patron, wanted to rent the choice Wooster St. space. But the public here is mostly serious collectors and students. In Soho we had a much more lively and diverse crowd. It included artists and many arty tourists?people not of the arts but fascinated and ready to buy in our low price range. I miss the nonartists as well as the artists. And I still live there."
The following week I see a notice that Ben's Pizza on Spring St. is moving. Rizzoli, the last big art bookstore, closes. Can Metropolitan Lumber be far behind? In a nightmare I see Arnault and the Vuitton empire offering Fanelli's, the second oldest bar in the city, more money than even God could resist.
And yet... And yet: In April I am called by close friends and asked to address the Municipal Council of Jersey City. The politicians there are said to be primed to demolish a new artist's district named W.A.L.D.O., which has been rising up in one more deserted warehouse district, with the developers pushing and prodding behind the scenes. The spirit of Maciunas invades me as I speak. I literally pound the lectern.
Shocking everyone, the Council ends up voting 9-0 for preserving W.A.L.D.O. as an artists' haven. The film isn't over.