How Artists Fought to Keep SoHo Rents Affordable—and Why It Matters Today
When a group of artists journeyed from Lower Manhattan to Albany in the early 1980s, they came armed. Intent on lobbying New York state lawmakers to preserve their expansive lofts, they brought elaborate displays, sculptures, and “little shows” to demonstrate what these live/work spaces were and why they mattered to the artists and other creative types who lived in them.
The lawmakers “didn’t know about what a loft was and they didn’t care about what a loft was, but they enjoyed the show,” said Arthur Atlas, an architect who was involved with advocacy efforts that led to the 1982 passage of the state’s Loft Law, which obliged landlords to bring buildings up to livable standards, protected residents from eviction, and allowed loft-dwellers to remain at stabilized rents. He noted that many artists were familiar with the protest politics of the antiwar movement, and were inherently creatively resourceful.
The story of how artists lobbied for this obscure law illustrates the central and complex role artists played in New York’s urban development during the 1970s and ’80s, offering a case study in how artists can be both agents and victims of what is now called “gentrification.”
SoHo’s famous lofts were built in the mid-1800s to house department stores, but by the early 1900s they had been largely converted for industrial usage. By 1962, SoHo had around 650 manufacturing and warehouse firms, including many in the textile and apparel sectors, according to Aaron Shkuda, a Princeton University historian and author of The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980.
But as the 1960s wore on, industrial production moved outside of the city and the high-ceilinged, light-filled spaces drew artists. Early SoHo residents included video art pioneer Nam June Paik and painter Chuck Close, who paid meager sums (a 1961 article in the New York Times put rents at $50 to $125 a month) that satisfied landlords whose only other option was vacancy. These artists invested “sweat equity” to improve their homes, installing bathrooms, kitchens, plumbing, and the occasional wall—often with the help of fellow artist-neighbors—and transformed them from factory floors into large studios with living quarters.
Lofts and location shaped the art of the period
By virtue of their size and sturdy construction, lofts could accommodate the newer, larger, and even heavier paintings and sculptures that artists such as Richard Serra and Donald Judd were creating. As Ann Fensterstock wrote in Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond, her account of New York’s peripatetic art scene:
“By the time the Abstract Expressionists were producing their huge paint-flung canvases…the low ceilings and tight elevators of many midtown or Madison Avenue galleries were problematic.…The wide-open, light-filled, freight elevator-serviced and cheap, albeit illegal, lofts that could be found in the abandoned factories and sweatshops of the South Houston Industrial District provided the perfect facility for producing huge canvases, staging performance art or developing massive sculpture. What couldn’t be scavenged from the streets and rolled into a new work could be bought cheaply from the hardware outlets along Canal Street. The galleries then needed comparable premises to show the work.”
As dealers moved from staid (and relatively cramped) viewing rooms on 57th Street to large, drafty ground-level and upper-floor SoHo galleries, the neighborhood began to exert centrifugal force. “While the New York press covered five major SoHo art dealers in 1970, by 1973 there were more than 80 galleries in and around SoHo. By 1979, this number had risen to more than 100,” Shkuda wrote in an article on the neighborhood’s gentrification.
“To have one of the city’s major gallery districts be in a vibrant artists’ neighborhood is something that’s a fundamental change in the geography of the city,” he said, noting that previously, artists had lived downtown while galleries were uptown—convenient for Midtown’s corporate offices or wealthy visitors from Westchester and Scarsdale who alit at Grand Central train station.
Tenants at the legendary 420 West Broadway building included Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend, and John Weber, showing artists like James Rosenquist, Dan Flavin, and Robert Rauschenberg. They were joined in the area by nonprofit arts organizations such as The Kitchen, the Performing Garage, and the Byrd Hoffman Foundation, three stories on Spring Street that were home to Robert Wilson’s experimental dance and theater. The density of artists in the area provided ready audiences and participants for the burgeoning media of performance art and experimental music, pioneered by the likes of the actor Spalding Gray and composer John Cage.
Shkuda, the historian, noted that much of this non-commercial activity was possible thanks to an unprecedented wave of public arts funding, channeled through the National Endowment of the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, whose budgets expanded from the late 1960s. That, in turn, drew avant-garde retail stores and a slow trickle of restaurants. SoHo’s petri dish of loft living, a commercial arts scene, and experimental non-profit spaces produced a cultural focal point of unprecedented vibrancy; Richard Kostelanetz, author of SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony, called it “a cultural hothouse unlike anything anywhere else or any community before in American life.”
But despite their desirable location, the lofts were neither safe nor legal because of SoHo’s designation for industrial use. Today, residential living is not permitted in designated industrial business zones, a restriction that covers significant parts of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Because the loft buildings didn’t meet safety standards, residents were vulnerable to eviction by city officials.
SoHo’s artists fought their battle in three phases. The first, between 1961 and 1971, was for the right to live and work in their lofts, which were still zoned for industrial use. As the neighborhood grew in stature and real estate investors moved in, artists sought to limit the rezoning and conversion of lofts for residential use, under the theory that keeping loft housing illegal would discourage yuppie newcomers from swarming lower Manhattan. By the late 1970s, artists needed protections from the effects of gentrification, eventually resulting in the Loft Law, with its rental protections for tenants.
In 1961, locals joined together to form the Artist Tenants Association to campaign for the legalization of loft living. They argued that guaranteeing affordable artist housing would support New York City’s lucrative art market, an economic bright spot in a city facing the loss of its manufacturing base. Their allies included Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived downtown, and James Rorimer, then the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. High-profile artists including Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Ad Reinhardt, and Robert Motherwell, among others, agreed to “withdraw their works from galleries and museums for as long as it would take for the city to legalize their living and working spaces” as part of a planned artists’ strike in the fall of that year, Shkuda writes.
By August, Mayor Robert Wagner, whose brother was an artist, announced a policy that permitted artists to live in industrial buildings, so long as they alerted the Building Department and hung a sign noting “Artist in Residence” (or “A.I.R.”) and the floor they lived on near the building’s door, so firefighters would know where to look in case of emergency. Artists were certified by a committee at the Department of Cultural Affairs, made up mostly of artists, and applicants provided slides of their work.
That détente proved tenuous. When SoHo was rezoned in 1963 as a light industrial area, the city started rejecting all A.I.R. applications. By April 1964, the Artist Tenants Association organized another artist strike, which saw more than 80 of the city’s top galleries close. The same day, artists marched on City Hall, demanding their homes be legalized. These advocacy efforts led to the passage the following month of an amendment to the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law, which permitted “certified artists” to occupy live/work spaces, the first public policy statement committing to preventing artists from leaving New York City, according to Shkuda.
The SoHo Artists Association (SAA), formed in 1970, continued to lobby for more permanent status. They launched the SoHo Artists Festival, which included open-door tours of artists’ lofts. The Village Voice reported breathlessly that “clamber[ing] through the lofts and living rooms and bedrooms and studios and among the people who live and work there, [visitors can] feel and breathe the energy and excitement of the birth of a new community, rather than the more usual death of one area or another of New York,” underscoring SoHo’s unique position in a city that was just a few years away from bankruptcy.
In 1971, the City Planning Commission rezoned SoHo to permit artists certified by the Department of Cultural Affairs to remain in their lofts. The mayor at the time, John Lindsay, said the newly created SoHo artists district would “insure New York’s position as the art capital of the nation and one of the great creative centers of the world.”
Artists were now legally allowed to stay in their lofts. But paradoxically, their awareness-raising had glamorized the loft aesthetic, and by the mid-1970s, real estate investors and young professionals wanted in. Some artists went so far as to argue against legalizing further loft conversions, in areas such as TriBeCa or NoHo, for fear of attracting “doctors, lawyers and other professional people,” in the words of one. The city’s response exemplified its ambivalent attitude towards development: In mid-1976, it passed one ordinance reserving NoHo lofts for artists only. Around the same time, it passed another ordinance allowing non-artists to convert lofts in TriBeCa for the first time.
The same year, Atlas, the architect, signed a five-year lease for 5,000 square feet in a former sportswear factory on West 18th Street for $600 a month; he and a friend split the space and the rent straight down the middle. Atlas was mindful of his precarious position, having seen others before him move into an illegal loft dwelling, improve it with, say, hot water or a kitchen, then get booted by the landlord in favor of a deeper-pocketed tenant.
Atlas joined the advocacy group known as the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants when it was founded in 1979. With rents on the rise, the group prioritized protection from evictions and better regulation of landlords’ obligations to make lofts safe and habitable. Its campaign garnered the support of artists and performers such as Andy Warhol, Rosenquist, Christo, Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Meryl Streep, who signed petitions on the loft-dwellers’ behalf.
This round of lobbying yielded the 1982 Loft Law, which provided rent stabilization protection for existing tenants, and set out landlords’ obligations to bring lofts up to code and become eligible for a valuable Certificate of Occupancy for residential use. Landlords are technically allowed to pass on those costs to tenants over a 10- to 15-year time frame, but Atlas said the paperwork is so onerous that most just swallow the costs. Additionally, the law protects tenants from eviction, and makes rent increases contingent on the landlord’s meeting milestones for improvements to the building.
The Loft Law provides a unique path
Versions of the Loft Law have governed conversions until this year, when the application deadline for coverage passed on June 15th. New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs worked with the Buildings Department to spread the word among its community, sending out reminders beginning in late April.
Over its 35-year existence, roughly a thousand buildings were converted under the law; of those, about 200 came under a 2010 extension, according to research conducted by Angela Co, Julie Torres Moskovitz, and Xiaoyin Li during a 2016 fellowship at the Institute for Public Architecture (IPA). The three architects mapped the city’s loft conversions, and interviewed current tenants of several Brooklyn buildings on how their live/work lofts make possible the kinds of creative livelihoods that seem increasingly untenable in New York—artist, musician, dancer, gallerist, DJ, chef, journalist—and encourage collaboration and community.
Moskovitz said her research into the Loft Law deepened her appreciation for how laws like it protect artists and residents, both from her perspective as an architect who is concerned first and foremost with a building’s safety, and as a self-employed worker who can’t afford a separate office, and lives and works in her Williamsburg loft.
She said the unique protections of New York’s Loft Law were especially salient in the wake of the tragic fire at the Oakland warehouse Ghost Ship, which took the lives of 36 people, many young artists or musicians, who were living in what were revealed to be unsafe conditions.
“The fact that our city has Loft Law as a pathway to making a building safer without kicking out tenants is amazing,” she said, noting it has become a model for other cities. A representative from City of Oakland Fire Safety Task Force met with Loft Board staff members in May, a spokesman for New York City’s Department of Buildings confirmed.
Moskovitz’s own building, which she moved into 17 years ago when it was still zoned for industrial use, is undergoing conversion. She didn’t know the building was illegal when she moved in; she said, “I just knew everyone who was living in it was cool.” Many of those original cool neighbors are still there, having traded roommates for spouses and children in the intervening years.
She has also taken up the mantle of tenant activism, using the document that resulted from the IPA’s project, dense with photos and personal narratives, to show the human face of loft tenants to lawmakers in Albany. (Thirty-five years later, may of the legislators still think of loft-dwellers as squatters.) She was joined in her efforts by cars full of artists who went from one state senator’s office to another this summer with colorful signs, masks, and costumes, explaining the importance of renewing and expanding the current iteration of the Loft Law, which contains restrictions introduced by former mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010 that advocates see as tenant-unfriendly, such as a requirement for a window that has disqualified the longtime artist tenants of a Williamsburg garage-cum-dance studio who now face eviction.
Of course, no amount of lobbying can halt the steamroller that is the New York real estate market. SoHo has long since become a playground for the rich, as has the Flatiron District, where Arthur Atlas’s neighbor across the hall pays $11,000 a month for a space exactly the same size as his, and Atlas complains he “can’t get a cup of coffee for less than $5.”
But he and others “of [his] vintage,” as he put it, remain ensconced in their massive, rent-stabilized homes, and the next generation of loft-dwellers continues the battle for affordable housing in New York City.
—Anna Louie Sussman