Soho

Within the city's literary world, nothing appears to define a writer's allegiances, or to classify both him and his work, more distinctly than where he lives. Writers residing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan are considerably different from those on the Upper East Side, while both in turn have little in common with those on the Lower East. What all these distinctions suggest, in short, is that New York has not one literary community but several, each of which has its own life styles and gathering places, as well as its characteristic impact upon its literary residents; several milieus, each of which has only occasional contact with the others.

As for downtown New York, it has become customary to refer to everything south of 14th Street as “the village”, or “Greenwich Village”; but this area turns out to be as various as the city itself. There are at least four distinct “villages” whose differences can be sensed by anyone walking cross-town from one river to the other-the “West Village”, extending from the Hudson River to Seventh Avenue; the “middle”, which falls between Seventh Avenue on the west and Broadway on the east; and two more sections to the east of Broadway; and each of these villages, inevitably, harbors its own breed of writers.

“Living In Manhattan” (1969)

In its mix of the shabby with the chic, with cracked sidewalk pavement and cobblestone streets, with its plateglass displays at the base of industrial buildings, SoHo looks at once too poor and too plush and thus forbidding, to native New Yorkers as well as tourists here.

The density of galleries complemented the density of artists, producing in sum a kind of esthetic hothouse whose nurture was palpable. To SoHo came artists and (aspiring artists) from all over the world. As they came to see and hear about contemporary art, the neighborhood became a de facto university.

Individual residential buildings were customarily known by the name of their most famous artist (who wasn't necessarily the wealthiest); and since everybody knew each other or, at least, about each other, the joke was you could never have a surreptitious affair in SoHo. If an artist, especially a well-known one, were seen entering a building not his or her own several times in a week, the neighbors would ask each other why. The anonymity typical of big-city life wasn't possible in SoHo, which had the character of a small town within the larger city.

From the historical point of view, the interesting thing about SoHo is that nobody planned it to become this way. There were no city policies mandating this or that, no subsidies to manipulate behavior, no major developers to systematize reconstruction. The "Arts Councils" had no effect. As late as the 1960s, it was often said that most of the industrial slum should be razed for an expressway connecting Brooklyn to New Jersey; some of its northern edges were razed a few years earlier for the expansion of Houston Street. Precisely because Hell's Hundred Acres was open territory, the pioneers came, and behind these artists came the culture that is here now--an assortment of enterprises claiming advanced taste. In touring through SoHo now, you can see how it became a model for renovations elsewhere of industrial slums, not only in America but elsewhere in Europe; for as the art produced here has become accepted elsewhere, so have other kinds of significant tastes.

“SoHo: Mecca of Advanced Taste” (1986)

As no one lived here before the artists came (indeed, as only a visionary few thought that industrial spaces could be made habitable), no one was pushed out of his or her home; no one cohabited the neighborhood in tension with the newcomers. That accounts for why a dozen years ago SoHo was a one-industry town within a larger city. That industry was contemporary art. It was produced here, critical reputations were made here, and it was sold here. By the mid-1970s, many of the most prominent uptown galleries had established here exhibition spaces several times the size of their previous showrooms on 57th Street or the Upper East Side.

“SoHo: Mecca of Advanced Taste” (1986)

From the historical point of view, the most interesting thing about SoHo is that nobody planned it to become this way. There were no city policies mandating this or that, no subsidies to manipulate behavior, no major developers to systematize reconstruction. The "Arts Councils" had no effect. As late as the 1960s, it was often said that most of the industrial slum should be razed for an expressway connecting Brooklyn to New Jersey; some of its northern edges were razed a few years earlier for the expansion of Houston Street. Precisely because Hell's Hundred Acres was open territory, the pioneers came, and behind these artists came the culture that is here now--an assortment of enterprises claiming advanced taste. In touring through SoHo now, you can see how it became a model for renovations elsewhere of industrial slums, not only in America but elsewhere in Europe; for as the art produced here has become accepted elsewhere, so have other kinds of significant tastes.

“SoHo: Mecca of Advanced Taste” (1986)