SoHo: Artists of the Past Fight for the Present

Julie Finch Judd with Flavin Judd and Rainer Judd, 101 Spring Street, New York, 1970. The Donald Judd Papers, Judd Foundation Archives, Marfa, Texas. Photo Donald Judd © Judd Foundation.

SoHo is at a crossroads. 

Just like its transition from a textile factory zone to an artists’ colony in the late 20th century, today’s SoHo is again in turmoil. While New Yorkers face an unprecedented affordable housing crisis, SoHo’s residents are battling a new round of rezoning that threatens to attenuate SoHo’s artistic atmosphere that had long established SoHo as an archetypal example of an artists’ colony.

On November 9, 2021, Julie Finch joined several other SoHo artists at the final Zoom public hearing meeting held by the City Planning Council for former Mayor Bill De Blasio’s SoHo Neighborhood Plan. The plan aims at a wide reconstruction of SoHo, the neighborhood that stretches from Canal Street to Houston Street and lies between the Hudson River and Lafayette Street. Speaking from her home in Maine, with Save SoHo/NoHo posters hung behind her, Finch enumerated concerns about the plan’s uncertain guarantee of affordable housing, its scant mention of its neighbor Chinatown’s future and the harm it would do to SoHo’s art ecosystem. She and her colleagues feared the plan would give real estate developers more permission to build luxury hotels which will result in displacing more residential units in the vicinity.  

Finch and several other artists who testified that day, including Yukie Ohta and Leigh Behnke, joined hundreds who turned a session scheduled for two hours into a nine-hour marathon, despite a 2-minute limit on each person’s remarks. 

The meeting was one part of a long-running conflict over SoHo’s character and its distinctive mix of galleries, historic architecture and trendy stores. Once a textile manufacturing zone, it evolved after the Second World War into an iconic artists’ colony. More recently, as this part of Manhattan became a playground for the ultra-wealthy and a magnet for high-end real estate developers, SoHo residents – especially its artists – have struggled to preserve it as an affordable home for artists.

Finch, a dancer who is married to Donald Judd, the former SoHo resident and American artist, has witnessed SoHo’s transformation firsthand.

In 1968, Julie and Donald were immediately drawn to a 19th-century five-story house on 101 Spring Street. Because of its location at the corner of Spring Street and Mercer Street, it allowed sunshine to penetrate from two sides of the windows facing the streets. They bought it for $68,000 and became two of the first artists to move to the abandoned warehouse district, later known as SoHo. That same year, the Paula Cooper Gallery was the first gallery to move into the area that focused on conceptual and minimalist art. Legendary art dealer Leo Castelli followed, purchasing a space at 420 West Broadway in 1971. The galleries’ exhibitions benefitted artists like Judd by providing platforms for their work. An artist’s community gradually grew. 

People who are new to SoHo may not know about its history as a textile factory zone, but the cast iron architecture tells a story. The strong cast iron curved window frames and high ceilings made interiors large enough for manufacturing. As SoHo and New York City experienced a decline in manufacturing, SoHo landlords desperately needed people to fill the giant empty spaces. As a result, emerging artists, who needed more space, adequate sunlight and affordable rents for their studios, were attracted to the neighborhood.

Not long after they moved in, Judd started to gain a reputation and following after he switched from painting to sculpture and architecture. Their space there provided enough room for both Judd’s life and artistic imagination, where art pieces could coexist with daily life. When asked how they kept their cats and two children, born and raised in this space, away from all the art work, Finch said, “just by harsh words——don’t touch the arts!”

In 1969, Finch played a vital role organizing artists to oppose the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, a ten-lane elevated highway that would have connected the Hudson and the East River, and required the demolition of historic buildings in SoHo and Little Italy. She reached out to artists, art dealers and surveyed around SoHo, and eventually she united 73 artists who lived there. Based on their research and collaboration with scientists and architects, Judd and Finch found evidence of this plan’s fatal flaws. “Broome Street went into the Holland Tunnel but the Holland Tunnel was so narrow, it would be backed up traffic, anyway,” Finch recalled. “So, it is what we call a boondoggle. That is going to be a failure.”

They won – an inspiration for today’ struggle against the city’s redevelopment plan.

Leigh Behnke, a painter and professor at School of Visual Arts, recalled when she and her husband first moved into an apartment near Broome and Green Street right after graduation in 1977, they received one year of free rent. Behnke explained that it was because landlords were trying to fill their big, abandoned buildings at a time when the Lower Manhattan Expressway was planned to pave through this area. 

Although most of the then-SoHo buildings were not zoned for residential living, artists long violated the zoning regulations and lived there under poor living conditions. Behnke’s building was 5,000 square feet and had 100-foot ceilings, but like Finch, they built their own bathroom and a big wall to separate from other residents on the same floor. “It was like camping out,” she said.

After her first marriage ended, she left SoHo and lived in Greenwich Village with her mentor for a while until she met her second husband, who is also an artist. They thought of moving back to SoHo because of its huge space and cheap housing expense. In 1984, they bought the loft between Prince and Spring Street for $150,000, long before SoHo’s real estate began to skyrocket in 1980s as more stores moved in that made SoHo a popular destination for shopping and sightseeing. Behnke, who still lives in the loft, recalled that the first SoHo apartment that she rented had more funky and more bohemian decoration. The later one “was still all artists, but it was a little more established. A little more professional, but still casual compared to what SoHo has become since then,” she said.

In 1971, New York passed the Artist-in-residence Zoning Law to allow 200 SoHo lofts to be used for artists’ residential use. Behnke recalled that, initially, it was hard for them to get a Certificate of Occupancy unless they showed proof that all residents were artists. But once they managed to receive one, wealthy non-artists began to show interest. 

New York real estate attorney Steven Wagner said that around the 80s and 90s, the city realized people were in great need of residential lofts in SoHo, so they wanted to expand the purchasing permission for SoHo real estate from artist-exclusive to more potential buyers. So they came up with the “Soho Letter,” a statement that non-artist buyers can sign that signals their awareness of the need for an Artist In Residence (AIR) certificate, on the assumption that the city won’t actually enforce AIR. “The Soho letter was working to allow people who really shouldn’t have been living in the apartments, to live in the apartments that they would pay a lot of money for them,” he said.  

In reality, buyers were actually rarely asked to validate their artist status for the AIR certificate, so wealthy non-artist buyers became more competitive, resulting in the vicious cycle of gentrification. Wagner said that the SoHo Letter benefits people who are prone to developing and people who wanted to live in SoHo. But it also created issues for New York City’s manufacturing base, which is gradually losing usable space to residential use.

As of October, 2021, Behnke said that in her 18-unit apartment on Spring Street, only 14 of her artist neighbors remain in the apartment. She said that a ceramicist neighbor couldn’t afford to live in the building as living expenses kept rising, so he sold his loft for $2 million which he bought for $7,000 in 1982 and moved to Mexico where he lives comfortably. 

“I am very upset about that. It seems the city is selling us out to turn Broadway into something like Times Square,” Behnke said. Behnke is fortunate to continue living there as she owns the loft as an artist, but she is deeply worried about the non-artists neighbors who are likely to face the forced conversion required by the upzoning plan’s affordable housing projects. She said it is really hard for the space to be converted to residential housing because it’s a long, skinny bowling alley-type layout with windows only at one end. “They’ve given us an impossible situation, and just shoving it through without listening to us,” she said. She is not optimistic about the upzoning plan because she says all of the departments are just passing the buck.

Meanwhile, there are people striving to preserve SoHo’s uniqueness. Yukie Ohta has a brighter outlook for the neighborhood. Ohta is an archivist and founder of the SoHo Memory Project, a nonprofit organization that celebrates the history of SoHo which began as a blog in 2011 and has expanded into various forms. She first moved to SoHo in 1969 with her painter father, and also witnessed SoHo’s transformation, as she grew up playing with Julie Finch and Donald Judd’s kids. The ecosystem of arts that the SoHo artists created was so fascinating, unique, and influential to her, that in 2011, she decided to start memorializing it.

Initially, she published on a personal blog that aimed to document the history of SoHo in the late-1960’s through the early 1980’s. But, as she gathered more stories, a community began to form that helped her win more trust. In 2015, The New York Times Sunday Metropolitan Section published her story, and since then, SoHo residents have spontaneously gone to her to share their experiences. “I think that tells you that it really is a special place, that people really have invested themselves, because they want to be there,” said Ohta.

That same year, with help from a Kickstarter campaign that totaled $20,000 in donations, she built a mobile museum where people could smell glass jars that contained SoHo’s scents. Ohta cut off leather, rubbed whole peppercorns and shook them up in jars so that people could smell the scents that remind her of SoHo as a factory zone: the spicy pepper factory, a sweet bakery shop, and leather wholesalers on a summer day. “Our sense of smell is like the most directly related to your memories because it’s directly connected to your brain. So something that you smell from when you were a child in SoHo will instantly bring back that memory,” she said.     

However, as much as some SoHo residents continue to look to the neighborhood’s future with compromise in mind, some residents have felt that their voices are neglected. Sean Sweeney, president of the SoHo Alliance, said that he stopped joining public hearings because hundreds of people’s efforts over the past two years are in vain. “They ignore us and do what they want,” he said. After several public hearings where hundreds of SoHo residents read their testimony against the rezoning plan, last Oct. 20, CPC approved the SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan with minor changes that residents said are far from substantive. After that, it went on to the City Council where members like Margret Chin are known to be fond of development. On Dec. 15, the SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan was officially approved.

On the same day, former Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a celebration statement that “this rezoning victory sends a powerful message that every community can and should join the fight to help solve our affordable housing crisis and make this city accessible for working families.” 

Although many SoHo residents believe that Mayor Eric Adams will greenlight the upzoning plan, they keep striving for changes. Mayor Adams’ office declined repeated requests for comment on the execution date and timeline. Meanwhile, a new group, the Coalition for Fairness in SoHo and NoHo, is currently fundraising for a lawsuit against the rezoning and quickly reached its first-phase goal of fundraising $250,000 in early January. 

And, many SoHo residents are prepared for a long-term fight against the upzoning plan after the plan’s implementation kicks off.

Finch is not optimistic about the future of SoHo, but she is not giving up. “We just keep doing little things, little fights with public hearings. We just keep doing what we can do,” she said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of Prince Street.

About the author(s)

Vera Shang is a multimedia journalist at Columbia Journalism School with a focus on visual and long-form storytelling.