New York City buildings

The SoHo Series Part 4: The Artist Move-In of the 1960s

Published on Feb 21, 2020 by Dan Melwani

If there’s one thing we at Rawspace know about SoHo, it’s that this amazing, vibrant neighborhood is made all the more wondrous by its incredible contingent of artists. From our fashion designers, to our theatre companies, to the outstanding bevy of performance artists who push the boundaries of our imagination, SoHo has clearly become a headquarters for the creatively inclined. 

What’s most astounding is the fact that SoHo’s position as a haven for artists exists directly in tune with the neighborhood’s history. And as the neighborhood progresses further into the future, what we realize is that the two entities exist in a symbiotic relationship. The artists shape the neighborhood, and the neighborhood, in turn, shapes the artist. 

So with that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at the incredible forces that have come to make SoHo the artistic capital of the world. 

SoHo’s early history is defined by its function as a manufacturing center during the city’s Industrial Revolution. Ultimately though, the neighborhood’s sprawling factories and open concept spaces would be quickly abandoned during the 1940s when the demands of World War II required even larger real estate, shifting the manufacturing center outside of the bounds of Manhattan and into neighboring suburban districts of Brooklyn and New Jersey. 

Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn

What followed for SoHo was a series of decades defined by rapid business abandonment, vacancies, and fires, in effect turning the district into a ghost town. By the 1960s, SoHo would soon garner the disparaging nick-name; “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” 

But with that abandonment came a surprising development. Soon, flocks of artists would take advantage of the cheap rents, open spaces, and high number of vacancies, transforming the abandoned neighborhood into a cultural hotbed of creativity nearly overnight. 

Yukie Ohta, the founder of NYC’s SoHo Memory Project, speaks on the concept of “adaptive reuse”, the phenomenon that inevitably led to this artist explosion.

 “Artists moved to SoHo because there were abandoned factory buildings where they could have a studio and a place to live at the same time.” She notes that at first, artists would occupy these spaces illegally as the lofts were deemed by regulators as unfit for habitation. 

Eventually, through the power of continual migration, the city was forced to shift its policies. “This was the first time where a neighborhood outlived the usefulness of what its original built environment was: people came in and changed it,” Ohta says. “Now, people build apartments as lofts, but this is where the idea first came from.”

With the artists fully entrenched inside the world of SoHo, the neighborhood continued to warp and adapt to this new contingent of occupant. In 1965, when the district was threatened by local politicians with a proposed “superhighway”, a stretch of road that would connect the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges and effectively cut off SoHo from neighboring NoHo, artists banded together to protest the policy and eventually succeeded in having the neighborhood designated as protected historic district. 

These are the stories we love most at Rawspace; the tales of a co-existent city, artist, and community and the wealth of inspiration and opportunity that stems from these bonds. 

At Rawspace, we know that SoHo is so much more than a neighborhood. It’s a vibrant ecosystem, one with a storied history and a promising future. Let’s keep building it together.

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