Guest Post Series: Jim Stratton

Jim Stratton, ca. 1977

In 1977, Jim Stratton, former UPI reporter, urban affairs columnist for the SoHo Weekly News and veteran SoHo loft dweller, published a book entitled Pioneering in the Urban Wilderness about the pioneering spirit he encountered in “the dilapidated and underused spaces of America’s disaster areas” in cities across the United States, including New York, where people had converted non-residential buildings into alternative living areas.  The following is an excerpt from this book entitled “Loft Childen,” about how his own children found amusement and education while growing up in the chaotic environment of ongoing construction, something all of us “loft children” can relate to!

Loft Children

by Jim Stratton

How loft construction affects the child's perceptions. Jeremy (age 5) conceives of his loft building in three stories. His double-bunk shares the top floor with a bowling alley, there's a carpentry shop in Two, and a kitchen and bathroom on One. Note the mouse still in residence on the second floor.

A loft under construction—which is most of the time—may cause an adult to stagger, but children seem to take it easily in their shorter strides.  There are many interesting things to play with, if their parents don’t catch them first.  Nails can make an exciting clatter as they pour out on the floor, and the gleam brightly when distributed uniformly across a large space.  Taping compound is fun when you take the top off a tin and make the gloop into little balls—then dry rock hard on whatever surface they may have left on, and it can be fun watching parents chisel them off again.  Sawdust can be even more fun if it’s mixed with something runny, like chocolate syrup.  And until the downstairs neighbor comes running up to tell mommy, those holes in the floor can be wonderful places to put small pieces of brick and glasses of water.

I constructed a good part of my first loft with the first born small one, Jeffrey, hanging onto the ladder behind me.  This toddler was observing the progress of construction with an active interest that rivaled even that in “Sesame Street.”  Before he could hold a crayon, Jeffrey could hold a hammer; and before he could draw the alphabet he could construct it out of short pieces of lumber on the floor.

Even after Jeffrey had learned the usefulness of a piece of paper, this early training stuck with him; his first letter “E,” for example, was drawn like this:

The little dots, of course, are nails.

Some of the training in construction was not exactly what daddy had hoped to pass along to his son.  After watching daddy wage a long and private war with recalcitrant lumber, Jeffrey set out on his own with a board and an hammer.  He would swing at the board and shout, “Got bam it!” after every stroke.

If the city bureaucracy thought they were dealing with an organized group in SoHo, they would have paled at meeting the really heavy military mechanism of the neighborhood:  the child-care cooperative called the SoHo Children’s Playgroup.  The “mothers of SoHo”—which included a fair number of fathers—renovated a basement, blitzed the emerging community with bake and rummage sales, and organized some of the finest fund-raising parties in local memory.  While the little urchins dreamed of playing with blocks, paints, and lengths of lumber in their homestead basement, the parents danced late into the night, counted the proceeds, and plotted the next week’s child care and lunch schedules with the efficiency of a computer.

The loft babies, growing up with all that space, art, and fun material around them, naturally began to build their own dream houses.  Second-born Jeremy designed the one on this page: notice the bowling alley on the top floor opposite the kids’ bunk bed, the mouse on the floor below, and the happy chap in the bathtub.  Unlike apartment houses, where a myriad of tiny cubicles is confusingly oriented and monotonously the same, loft building s offer simple layers with special and unusual things on each floor.

Of course, Jeremy has his own ideal space in mind.  “Daddy,” he once said to me, “next time why can’t we live in an apartment?’

Excerpted with permission from Stratton, Jim. 1977. Pioneering in the urban wilderness. New York: Urizen Books.

To purchase this title, click here.

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8 Responses to “Guest Post Series: Jim Stratton”

  1. mark gabor Says:

    Perfectly lovely entry. Brings back all kinds of parental memories.
    Thanks Jim!

  2. momonan Says:

    I loved Jeremy’s comment about the apartment, as I had carried the embarrassment of the same comment made by Jesse and Ellie. One day, they went to play at with a friend who lived in one of the nearby highrise apartment houses. We had all left apartment living to settle in SoHo and thought we were so cool living were all the elevators had accordian gates and required a rope to be pulled or a wheel to be turned (we even had to yell into the elevator shaft to get it brought to our floor).

    My kids came home and begged to some day be allowed to live in a building where you only needed to push a button to get the elevator to move. They wanted what we had rejected. Go figure!

  3. Davide-NYC Says:

    A good friend of mine (also a loft kid) once told me that as a child he pined for wall-to-wall carpeting. Thinking at the “if only” he had wall to wall carpeting all of his teen angst would dissipate. (or something to that effect)

  4. srule brachman Says:

    We brought up our daughter in SOHO and we loved Jim’s work!

    Yelena, my daughter told Ronnie and I that she just wanted to live like ‘normal’ people. Yet she loved to ride her bike in our loft and learned to roller skate in it too. She couldn’t do that in a Sullivan St. apartment. It’s true, ‘go figure.

    What I wouldn’t give to have that again, without the bs of converting the building and all the crazed co-owners of the building. On second thought, forget it! Once was enough!

    • Yukie Says:

      Once was certainly enough! I bet nobody would have actually gone through the whole process if they knew in advance what they were getting into. But thanks to you all we, the second generation, had rich, interesting childhoods. I, too, yearned for carpeting, a “real” elevator, a second floor, and a yard. The grass is always greener, I guess. But I would never trade my childhood for another!

  5. srule brachman Says:

    Yukie, I believe Yelena feels the same way in retrospect.
    The loft conversation process for us was a horror and the folks in the building could easily turn on one another. I know it happened in other buildings.
    I live in Portland, Oregon now and there’s nothing like it here. I know there are some SOHO type places in other cities, but the entire process has been gentrified all over and most artists just can’t afford it.
    This is fun!

  6. Bill Stratton Says:

    This has been a wonderful re-visit of the early days of the Jim Stratton SOHO Loft construction Company. Great post.

    • Yukie Ohta Says:

      Thank, Bill, for tuning in! I was just today talking to Jim about old times. The smell of sawdust always takes me back to my childhood…..

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