Posts Tagged ‘gentrification’

Pravda: The SoHo Nightclub That Never Was

October 1, 2018

Rudolf Pieper, Jim Fourrat and friends (including Janis Savitt) at Pravda, 43 Crosby Street (image: Allan Tannenbaum)

“We should have seen the end coming because in ’79 this club called Pravda was scheduled to open on Crosby Street,” says writer and music critic Peter Occhiogrosso in a recent conversation with the late Stephen Saban, legendary chronicler of New York nightlife, with whom he worked at the SoHo Weekly News. The “end” to which Occhiogrosso refers, is the end of artists’ SoHo.

Pravda, an arts venue or nightclub (depending on who you ask), was a collaboration between stockbroker-turned-restauranteur-turned-nightclub-owner Rudolf Pieper and Jim Fourrat, the duo behind Danceteria, one of the hottest New York nightclubs of the 1980s. Slated to open in late-1979, Pravda opened for one night, November 8, and for one night only. Regardless of its ill fate, however, the venue and its failed opening symbolized a sea change in SoHo, as it straddled a line between the SoHo art world of the 1970’s that had already begun to fade and the glitzy glamour of the 1980’s fame and fashion world to come.

Ron Lusker and Rudolf Pieper of Pravda (photo: Allan Tannenbaum for SoHo Weekly News)

Residents of SoHo, as well as New York club scene insiders, had heard about Pravda long before it (almost) opened. The was a buzz around the project from the beginning. Fourret was the booker for Hurrah, a successful dance club on 62nd Street. It was rumored that Sean Cassette (who originally introduced Rudolph and Fourret), a hot British deejay who played punk music, was coming on board. Even more buzz-worthy in SoHo, however, was Ron Lusker, a partner in the enterprise, who rubbed the community the wrong way from the get go. Lusker had “managed to insult, alienate and, in many cases even threaten, just about every individual and agency in the community,” writes Alan Platt in a December 1979 article for the SoHo Weekly News.

Crowd in front of the Mudd Club, 1979 (Image Bob Gruen via: nytimes.com)

Although Pravda was proposed as an avant-garde artists’ cabaret with live music (Human League and Lounge Lizards were on the slate), a deejay who would play what we now call “alternative” music, and a daytime art gallery (Ken Tisa and William Coupon were to have inaugural exhibitions), the community was worried that it would become another Mudd Club, a venue for underground music in Tribeca where rowdy clubgoers disturbed its neighbors at all hours of the night. Despite a soundproofing system at Pravda designed by sound engineer Jack Weisberg that was to prevent any sound leakage, concerns abounded.

The interior of Pravda was rather slick for an arts venue of that era, described by Occhiogrosso as “Nouveau Bauhaus with bars that jutted out at strange angles like the prow of a ship.” Much money was invested in a sophisticated sound system and state of the art lighting to feature three floors of performance art, live and recorded music and gallery shows. It did not resemble other typical avant-garde art spaces that were more DIY and AS IS. This space was DONE UP. This space looked like a nightclub.

The Fiorucci+Wet party at Pravda on November 8, 1979 (photo: Allan Tannenbaum for SoHo Weekly News)

And then November 8 happened. Once the construction for Pravda was finished, but before it was to officially open, Fiorucci, the then “it” fashion “concept store” with fans such as Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie Onassis, threw a pre-opening fashion show and party for Wet: The Magazine for Gourmet Bathing. What exactly is gourmet bathing? Nobody was sure. The magazine itself is described by Steven Heller in The Atlantic as a “screwball arts publication that ended up influencing a generation of designers, writers, and editors—and maybe even a few bathers” and “an archetype for a new subgenre of stylish, irreverent magazines.” With a list of contributors that included Matt Groenig and Herb Ritts, Wet, like Fiorucci, was a hip new trendsetter.

A Fiorucci advertisement from the late 1970s

That night, before the sun even went down, hundreds of people showed up for the party on quiet Crosby Street causing a scene the likes of which SoHo had never seen. Once the crowd was admitted, the narrow staircases (left over from the building’s factory days) caused a logjam in the rush for the open bar. FDNY, NYPD and the buildings department were called in by neighbors. Pravda was shut down, never to open again.

Covers from Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing (image via The Atlantic)

In Tim Lawrence’s Life And Death On the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, Pieper is quoted as saying “The neighbors wanted to keep SoHo as an exclusive artistic enclave… They were too fucking serious and did not understand the concept of uniting art and nightlife.”

Mary Breasted, writing for SoHo Weekly News in 1979, comments, “How much trendiness can Soho bear before it destroys its original purpose and sends its artists fleeing to new neighborhoods? Can a community reach a point of critical mass in “in-ness”?”

In the end, bureaucratic and financial problems as much as neighbor complaints prevented Pravda from ever (re)opening. “The opening was also the closing,” laments Saban to Occhiogrosso. Yet on the night of November 8, in the twilight of the 1970s, the tragicomedy that was to be SoHo in the 1980s played itself out in a brief few hours. That night, the avant-garde arts venue was overrun by the new guard (the apres-garde?) of popular culture, and this incident would prevent said arts venue from ever seeing the light of day (or night) again.

SoHo Swan Song

July 1, 2017

Today’s guest post is by my (former) neighbor Michael Gentile, who recently moved out of SoHo after being in, out, and around the neighborhood for the last 30 years. He expresses the sentiments of a growing number of long-time residents who lament the fact that SoHo has transformed to a point of being unrecognizable to them. I wrote about my own coming to terms with this fact a while back in my post “Where is New York?”  Here, Gentile weaves the neighborhood’s long history into his observations of present day in this swan song to the neighborhood he once called home.

Soho’s Not So Grand

A NYC neighborhood in flux

Soho’s current sugar high is a real buzzkill. This neighborhood, New York City’s birthplace of hyper-gentrification, originally called “Hell’s Hundred Acres,” houses the most breathtaking, fully restored 19th-century cast-iron building facades in the world. Fortunately, the successful efforts of architectural historic preservation and community boards have saved many buildings. However, Soho’s history has become diminished and lost with the results of the neighborhood’s ever-changing crossover, which gives comfort to the crowds seeking out sameness, but at a cost.

The enthusiastic transition to megastore retail, restaurants, hotels, and condominiums has claimed victims. Former loft residents, factory workers, artists, and political radicals vanished, and were not included in the neighborhood’s future.

A walk through Soho today is difficult. It’s an atmosphere of vulgarity: wayward tourists, distraught models, fist-bumping high-fivers, girly gigglers, techno design geeks, backward-cap bros, and vacuous throngs from all over, filling the streets.

Is creativity still at work in Soho? Sort of. On the steps of Prada, lifestyle and image are crafted. Supreme hoodie kids on Adderall snap iPhone selfies while sipping $17 hemp smoothies. At the Mercer Hotel across the street, anxious Twitter users wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fleeing Kardashian. On the sidewalks, fashion wannabe Snapchatters hurriedly clip-clop to double-parked, glossy-black, Suburban Uber-Lyfts. Flag-raised tour guide groups shuffle along, overflowing into the streets. Soho’s a playground for the wealthy, who look poor and shop rich.

Dystopian nightmare or growing pains? Depends on who’s talking. Soho’s present state could be perceived as a negative development in New York culture.

Business leaders, city planners, and politicians always get worked up over the idea of development. Real estate developers’ rote answers offer little comfort to the continuing gentrification problems, high rents, and empty storefronts. It’s disingenuous, hand-feeding the public a generic shopping experience structured at a marketing meeting by executives wanting to up their game. What’s the point? Money.

The daily crime scares some away. The setting is perfect. Picture any typical over-priced, high-end boutique. Enter a motley European couple—exit a pair of pricey Manolo Blahnik heels. The thieves blend into a sea of humanity.

When a grand larceny occurs, sometimes an ad-hoc protocol follows: the store empties, the staff blocks the sidewalk, the shop is put on lockdown, bummed-out employees light up and smoke. Everyone looks down, tapping away on their devices, calling the corporate office or making dinner reservations.

The NYPD set up a defensive move during peak periods: street patrols and a mobile processing “jail” station at Prince and Greene Sts. Supply and demand—where there are crowds, there are highly-organized criminals.

But crime is nothing new to Soho. During the 1860s, Mercer St. was part of the City’s “ten-cent houses” and the first red-light district, including Mrs. Van Ness’ number 149 brothel, filled with discreet prostitutes. On the same block, the recently closed, soon-to-be condo, the Mercer-Houston Street Garage, originally operated as a horse boarding stables. Then, in the 1930s as a parking garage, it housed Joseph “Black Lefty” Lapadura’s lively bootlegging operation until the FBI discovered it.

However, Soho’s most infamous moment might be the day young Elma Sands’ dead body was found underground, floating at the bottom of a Lispenard Meadow well. The well is still there, now at 129 Spring St.

It was the cold night of December 22, 1799, when Miss Elma planned on eloping with Levi Weeks. Mr. Weeks, a carpenter, was later charged and tried for her murder in 1800. His lawyers were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It was the first recorded transcript murder trial in the United States, and the jury acquitted Weeks in only minutes. Some say the spirit of Elma Sands still roams the streets of Soho at night.

And then there are the many non-rent-paying “tenants” who’ve endured these changes and flourished: rats, estimated at 100 million citywide. One thing’s for sure, the rodents are enjoying themselves every night, running around and jumping on tied-up cardboard boxes.

Meanwhile, a sleepy Soho pauses and moans a collective sigh during the few precious moments before dawn. A walk at sunrise might turn your head for the wrong reason. Curled up in Tiffany & Co.’s elegant Greene St. doorway, a homeless person snores away. Garbage trucks barrel down the soot-stained Belgian block streets. Seafood, dairy, florist, and bakery vendors make deliveries. A dog walker silently passes a jogger in the brightening gray light. It’s all a reminder that there are no dead ends in Soho, just detours.

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The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980

April 30, 2016

Lofts of SoHoI am so very pleased to announce the publication of The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980, by SMP friend Aaron Shkuda. I’ve know Aaron since he was doing research for his dissertation (also on SoHo) a few years back. He is now a professor at Princeton and has written this fascinating book about how residents transformed the industrial neighborhood that is now called SoHo into an artist district, creating the conditions under which it evolved into an upper-income, gentrified area.

From The University of Chicago Press:

In The Lofts of SoHo, Aaron Shkuda studies the transition of the district from industrial space to artists’ enclave to affluent residential area, focusing on the legacy of urban renewal in and around SoHo and the growth of artist-led redevelopment. Shkuda explores conflicts between residents and property owners and analyzes the city’s embrace of the once-illegal loft conversion as an urban development strategy. As Shkuda explains, artists eventually lost control of SoHo’s development, but over several decades they nonetheless forced scholars, policymakers, and the general public to take them seriously as critical actors in the twentieth-century American city.

The following is an excerpt from chapter 4 of  The Lofts of SoHo:

Prince Street art fair, SoHo, by Robin Forbes, 1976. (Reproduced by permission from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Prince Street art fair, SoHo, by Robin Forbes, 1976. (Reproduced by permission from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Chapter 4
Artist Organizations, Political Advocacy, and the Creation of a Residential SoHo

In February 1961, SoHo artists faced another threat that almost ended their nascent colony. This peril was not an economic downturn, the prospect of a highway, or even the early stages of gentrification. Instead, the culprits were some of the most mundane elements of urban governance: zoning ordinances and building codes. These types of regulations are meant to protect residents, and it was the issue of resident safety that caused an acute crisis in the SoHo artist community. In late 1960 and early 1961, a series of fires broke out in industrial lofts below Houston Street, leading to the deaths of four people, including three firefighters. Though none of the fires occurred in lofts where artists lived, these blazes led the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Department of Buildings to launch a series of inspections of SoHo structures.1

Although both agencies initially reacted to a series of code violations in industrial buildings, they soon made a surprising discovery: artists living il- legally in these structures. The New York Herald-Tribune reported that city officials found at least 128 illegal apartments in the area containing “beatniks, complete with beards” living with “mattresses on the floor and works on Zen Buddhism,” along with vermin and cockroaches. In turn, Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Thomas J. Hartnett wondered how anyone could stand living in this section of Manhattan, asking, “How do they get their milk delivered?”2

This “discovery” of SoHo residents reveals an important element of the neighborhood’s early history: that the very idea of living in a loft was completely novel. Whereas lofts are now ubiquitous in urban areas worldwide, hardly any people considered living in former industrial space before the 1960s. Similarly, few observers saw artists as people with the power to trans- form neighborhoods or develop real estate, as demonstrated by the Herald-Tribune’s use of the word beatniks, the derogatory term for bohemians of that era, to describe SoHo residents; in that writer’s view, they did not even rise to the level of artist. As mentioned in the previous chapter, local building and zoning laws made no allowance for people who wanted to live in industrial buildings. As a result, when they encountered loft residents for the first time, city officials did not celebrate the possible rebirth of a struggling industrial area at the hands of artists. Instead, they threatened them with eviction.

In response to the specter of eviction, artists organized themselves politically, forming lobbying organizations and using public demonstrations and boycotts to advocate for their housing needs. SoHo artists threw the entire weight of the New York art world behind their cause. Well-known artists such as Willem de Kooning and Isamu Noguchi, as well as curators and gallery owners, spoke out in favor of loft residents. Through their advocacy, SoHo residents worked to redefine the role of the artist in society in the minds of local leaders. They argued that affordable housing for up-and-coming art- ists was crucial to New York’s future because artists were the backbone of its cultural economy, as well as the people who gave the city its reputation as the world’s leading creative and artistic center.

SoHo cast- iron building, 98 Greene Street (1881).

SoHo cast- iron building, 98 Greene Street (1881).

In making these arguments, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of the debate about how to redevelop cities at a time of urban crisis. By finding value and beauty in outdated industrial structures, they also reclaimed prop- erties viewed as obsolete eyesores by urban renewal advocates. By pioneering new uses for lofts, SoHo residents created powerful arguments against slum clearance, particularly in industrial and commercial areas.

SoHo artists also shifted the terms of the ongoing debates over neighbor- hood preservation and rehabilitation. Although meeting the housing needs of lower-income populations in central cities had long been a preoccupa- tion of policy makers, artists looked to demonstrate that they were a unique group—relatively poor people with distinct housing needs but who also had the power to drive the city’s economy and give it its unique identity. They urged city leaders to help bolster one of the few things that New York still had going for it—its reputation for the arts—by allowing artists to live in the manner that best suited them: in converted industrial lofts with room to live and work affordably.

Though they fought to change zoning laws, rather than against slum clear- ance, artists developed powerful arguments that pushed the debate over the future of urban neighborhoods beyond the renewal/community defense paradigm that had dominated discourse up to that point. Unlike antirenewal protesters, who mainly focused on preserving their neighborhoods, SoHo artists posited a new future for their community. They argued that their efforts would revitalize an area shaped by deindustrialization and urban re- newal. At the same time, SoHo artists placed the arts at the center of a debate over the future of their neighborhood. To SoHo artists, urban culture could do for SoHo what other urban development schemes could not: create a vi- brant neighborhood that helped drive the city’s economy and identity. Much like the backers of projects such as Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, SoHo artists were staking out a place for culture in the city. The same New York artistic culture that could help the United States compete with the Soviet Union for cultural dominance globally could also help breathe life into moribund in- dustrial neighborhoods.3

In the end, artist groups in SoHo achieved goals that were both modest and significant. Their advocacy led to changes in two regulations that allowed only a limited number of artists to live legally in a loft. Yet these laws were the first to make it legal for anyone to live in such a structure and the first to give government sanction to anyone, artist or otherwise, to live in any former industrial space. Moreover, these policies indicated that more New Yorkers were starting to support an argument made by SoHo activists: that artists had a unique power to reinvigorate neighborhoods long ago left for dead. Thanks to artist advocacy, policy makers began to connect artist housing and urban vitality, a link that would become the foundation of theories of creative place making and the creative class several decades later. Through their actions and words, SoHo artists made the case that art could be a force for urban change.

Reprinted with permission from The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980by Aaron Shkuda, published by the University of Chicago Press. (c) 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Aaron Shkuda is Project Manager of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism & the Humanities, and holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago.

This book is available from The University of Chicago Press and at local bookstores including McNally Jackson at 52 Prince Street, and through Amazon.com.

To read another excerpt from this book please visit The Gotham Center blog.

Guest Post Series: M. Lynch

March 24, 2012

West Broadway in the late 70's or early 80's (photo: Mira Schor via The Huffington Post)

West Broadway has always been a main thoroughfare in SoHo.  What happens on West Broadway is often a good indicator of what’s going on in SoHo in general.  In the past, I’ve written posts about the possible renaming of West Broadway to Jackson Pollock Place (see the post here), about an early gallery on West Broadway that was perhaps a bit before its time (see the post here), about a proposal to build a mega-sports complex (see the post here), and about the pig roasts at the bodega (see the post here).

In an effort to include a spectrum of voices with a spectrum of approaches to SoHo memory, I would like to introduce you to the very interesting work of M. Lynch, who traced the evolution of SoHo by studying the businesses along West Broadway through the decades between the 1960’s through the 1990’s:

West Broadway is the illustrative case-in-point for the evolution of SoHo. Successive businesses along the same commercial corridor trace the ever-changing history of the neighborhood. Over the five blocks in SoHo there was a constant movement of businesses in and out of the buildings along West Broadway. In the sixties new enterprises were still industrial and commercial concerns, just different companies. From the 1970s onward the new types of businesses along West Broadway – galleries, restaurants, clothing boutiques and retail outlets – represented a shift in the orientation of SoHo from an industrial backwater into a hip and increasingly affluent residential community. (page 3)

The following is an excerpt from her thesis. (more…)


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