SMP Founder Yukie Ohta’s Statement

SoHo Memory Project, a nonprofit organization of one that celebrates the history of SoHo as a New York City neighborhood, began as a blog in 2011 and has grown in leaps and bounds since then. My mission over the past decade has been to preserve SoHo’s past so that present generations understand our neighborhood’s rich history and can make informed decisions as we shape its future.

SoHo Memory Project is a labor of love and my way of giving back to the community that raised me. My now retired parents, a painter and a poet by nature, and a carpenter and general contractor by trade, came to SoHo from Japan in the 1960s to build a life, and what a life it was. I experienced a singular childhood spent inhabiting a magnificent built environment in a community of extraordinary creatives, all the while thinking that that was how everyone lived. Back then, I had no idea how lucky I was. With 50 years of hindsight, it is unfathomable to me that before now there was no repository that held the evidence of a now-fading artists community and the 26 blocks of cast iron buildings it fought to preserve.

I am uniquely positioned to serve as SoHo’s memory keeper. As a child of SoHo who still lives in the building where she grew up, I have a lifelong connection to those who were on the front lines of SoHo’s transformation from an all-but-abandoned manufacturing area to a thriving artists’ community at a time when the area’s buildings were considered outmoded, and powerful forces felt the City would be better off with a highway or a housing complex instead of the architectural treasures that still stand today. Thank goodness the artists who pioneered SoHo were so single-minded and crazy enough to make their homes illegally in these abandoned factories and warehouses, forfeiting even basic amenities such as heat and sometimes even hot water in exchange for vast open spaces filled with natural light to do the only thing worth doing, making art. Once ensconced in their new urban habitat, these artists joined forces with each other as well as sympathetic City officials to fight for the right to remain in their homes legally, and won. A modern-day David and Goliath story that fewer and fewer New Yorkers remember as time passes.

This is a story that needs to be told and remembered. To this end, I have been collecting archival materials dating mostly between 1960 and 1980 that document the preservation and transformation of SoHo. Grassroots activism to amend zoning to allow live-work quarters for artists and to designate SoHo a historic district propelled its transformation into a tight-knit community whose image still looms large in the public imagination. This same activism also helped defeat Robert Moses’ plan to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway and thus precipitated New York City’s first instance of widespread adaptive reuse.

These stories are told through archival documents, photographs, videos, oral histories and objects that  I share widely through the SoHo Memory Project website, a digital nexus of source materials related to SoHo history and what I hope will be a model for other neighborhoods to preserve their own histories in a flexible and universally accessible format.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to partner with many organizations to educate the public about SoHo’s creative and activist legacies. In the academic world, I’ve worked with students from Princeton, Parsons, Sotheby’s, and Stuyvesant, among other schools, to introduce them to the wonders of archival research. Through partnerships with the New York Public Library and StoryCorps I’ve collected oral histories from a variety SoHo stakeholders. Arts organizations such as Judd Foundation and The Drawing Center opened space for the SoHo Memory Project Mobile Museum, an interactive historical society on wheels that uses unconventional media such as Viewmasters and a smell station to chronicle the evolution of SoHo from farmland to high-end retail hub, charting its cycles of development and thus placing current day SoHo in the context of New York City’s history. Most recently, an unusual collaboration with Uniqlo, the clothing company, has provided SoHo Memory Project with a platform to introduce vast new audiences to SoHo’s fascinating history, the activist artists who shaped SoHo, their lasting influence on American culture, and the essence of that which makes SoHo such a special place.

Yukie Ohta
December 2021