Walk down any given SoHo street today and you’ll see a mix of trendy shops, bargain-hunting tourists and Instagram-bait pop-up eateries – New York City’s retail-themed amusement park. But 60 years ago the area was known for industry, steel and fire — before a group of artists changed it forever.
SoHo has been through many iterations as a neighborhood, especially since its humble beginnings as the location of a giant pond. In the 1700s and early 1800s, Collect Pond was an expanse of water in the area used both for recreation and as a reservoir, Bowery Boys History reports. After the pond was diverted to the Hudson River in the 1820s, the nabe played host to the city’s first red-light district. Part of Lorenz Street (now West Broadway) was apparently given the label the ‘rotten row’ due to the number of brothels housed there.
The Civil War period that followed brought manufacturing to the area. It was around this time that a new method of construction emerged; the building material cast iron was relatively inexpensive, and its solidity allowed for more spacious interiors for buildings, including higher ceilings. Large cast-iron buildings started to dominate the neighborhood and can still be seen today, like the EV Haughwout Building, built in 1857 and the location of the world’s first passenger elevator.
The industrial companies working out of these buildings began to leave after World War II, when manufacturing moved to the Southern states or out of the US completely. This led to an increasing number of empty structures that turned out to be less safe than was previously hoped.
“[The cast-iron buildings] were essentially built out of brick, but the cast-iron columns that were load-bearing elements of the buildings were right at the center,” says Aaron Shkuda, author of The Lofts of Soho: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980. “If a fire occurred and they were heated up, and the fire department sprayed the building with water, the cast iron cooled rapidly and could crack. And that could potentially lead them to collapse.”
Over the course of the 1940s and ’50s, tragedies helped put forth a new name for the neighborhood. The number of fires in the area, coupled with its general emptiness – especially at night when all the workers had left – gave rise to the moniker ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres.’ A fire on Wooster Street in 1958, for example, cost five firefighters their lives, according to the blog Ephemeral New York. One of the most prominent people to introduce the name Hell’s Hundred Acres was Edward F Cavanagh Jr, a former New York City fire commissioner. Cavanaugh’s New York Times obituary says he brought in fire-safety programs to combat the number of blazes in SoHo.
But by the end of the 1950s, the area had new tenants. The vast buildings left empty by industry were perfect for artists, like early SoHo pioneers Nam June Paik and Chuck Close, who were looking for affordable creative space in Manhattan. Shkuda says these spaces were large enough for both a studio and living quarters.
These artists quickly found they had several battles on their hands, as New York looked to clean up Hell’s Hundred Acres. For one thing, it was illegal to live in SoHo.
“Around 1961, that’s when the city starts discovering the artists living there illegally and notes this and says, ‘Hey, this is illegal,’ and evicts them,” says Shkuda.
The next year a group called the City Club published a not-so-subtly-titled study called The Wastelands of New York City that recommended that a large part of what is now SoHo be completely demolished as there were “no buildings worth saving.” An alternative report by Chester Rapkin, the New York City commissioner of planning, published the same year and titled The South Houston Industrial Area, gave those looking to save the neighborhood hope with a more positive outlook, and would also later inspire the name SoHo.
So the artists fought back in a battle that took place over decades, according to website Artsy. In 1961, local artists banded together to form the Artist Tenants Association and campaigned for legalized loft living. That year artists across the city went on strike and refused to have their work displayed in the city’s galleries until their living situation was improved. By August the mayor agreed artists who were certified by a special committee could live in the lofts provided they alerted the city’s building department and hung a sign saying “Artist in Residence” on the building entrance.
This appeared to satisfy both sides until 1963, when the city rezoned SoHo as a light industrial area and began to reject all applications for artist-in-residence agreements. In April 1964 artists again went on strike, this time forcing the closure of 80 of the city’s galleries. The same day as the strike, artists marched on City Hall and demanded the full legalization of living in SoHo. These efforts led the city to permit “certified artists” to rent live/work spaces.
The art community also fought alongside civil leaders such as Jane Jacobs, Tony D’Apolito and Margot Gayle to kill plans that would have simply obliterated SoHo as a neighborhood. The Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX, was first proposed in the 1930s but gained popularity in the 1950s and ’60s. Championed by Robert Moses, the so-called ‘Master Builder’ of New York City, the highway would have connected New Jersey to Brooklyn, ploughing across the whole of Lower Manhattan. The project was finally rejected in 1969.
At the start of the 1970s, the neighborhood was widely being referred to as SoHo, and the SoHo Artists Association was formed. That decade the area was rezoned again, and artists were finally given full permission to work and live there.
“By 1976 you start to have a higher residential than industrial demand,” says Shkuda. “So that was a tipping point from a mixed-use neighborhood with some industry and some artists to one that eventually becomes all residents and even the artists start getting pushed out.”
SoHo today bears next to no resemblance to the neighborhood once labeled Hell’s Hundred Acres for its seedy side. But the art community’s battle to belong in old factories, warehouses and manufacturing buildings left a lasting impression on the area, which – through art, fashion and media – still retains the creative DNA that first rescued it decades ago.
Our debut short film, The Soul of Soho, explores neighborhoods separated by oceans, history and culture but united by craft community and change. Neighborhoods bound by one name: Soho. Intimate portraits of city living in the Sohos of London, New York and Hong Kong reveal rich stories of the people who bring life to these iconic neighborhoods. Explore Soho here.