by Sharon Zukin
Providing space in the city for artists is more complicated than it appears. Although the idea originates in philanthropy- as a payment or a subsidy in kind rather than in money- it often has the effect of enhancing property values, and so it becomes a springboard for real estate development. This phenomenon is not peculiar to New York. By the mid-sixties, even local elites in Sun Belt cities, notably Dallas and Los Angeles, planned to redevelop their downtown around an arts presence. The early-twentieth century “civic centers,” which were planned and built by earlier local elites, suggest a precedent for concentrating cultural facilities near, but not in, the downtown area. The more recent construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, in the late 1950s, set another important example. Although Lincoln Center’s destruction of housing stock in stable, low-income communities was not really defensible, its construction of arts facilities was deemed socially acceptable. Moreover, the amenity that a concentrated arts presence offers to middle-class and upper-class arts consumers makes it possible to charge high prices for the housing that is eventually built nearby. Lincoln Center demonstrated that placing infrastructure for the arts in a devalorized area can work wonders for real estate development. Ten years later, the lofts of SoHo provided unexpected confirmation of this rule.
To a degree, as the discussion of the artist’s studio suggests, an arts presence is attractive for purely symbolic reasons. However, the history of modern art markets and state support for the arts indicates that the symbolism is also connected with motifs of power. There is yet a third factor that explains the value of an arts presence to contemporary cities. This refers to the crucial role that arts production – involving the creation as well as the presentation or the performance of artwork- plays in deindustrialization. Both materially and symbolically, artists’ lofts serve as infra-structure of a very special sort in the transition from an industrial to a deindustrialized urban economy. On the one hand, they are a place where “post-industrial” production is really carried out. On the other hand, they embody the switch in orientation from an industrial political economy to one that is dominated by the service sector. As both site and symbol, the artist’s loft serves a purpose in a world city of a new type: the capital of banking, finance, and art markets. In this sense it is not surprising that declining manufacturing centers like New York have hailed artists as an “industry.” Moreover, art is a growth industry for a period of economic no-growth, a sector in which quality, not size, is determinant. “The arts may be small in economic terms even in this region,” says Dick Netzer, pro-arts advocate and member of New York City’s powerful Municipal Assistance Corporation, “but the arts ‘industry’ is one of our few growth industries …. The concentration of the arts in New York is one of the attributes that makes it distinctive, and distinctive in a positive sense: the arts in New York are a magnet for the rest of the world.”
Nevertheless, in the course of subsidizing artists’ physical infrastructure, there emerged several contradictions between the intentions and the consequences of state support. First, artists’ access to loft space was championed by two constituencies different sets of goals: an upper-class group of patrons of the arts and patrician politicians who wanted to promote artists and save old buildings and a middle-class group of urban homeowners – including artists – who wanted to protect their neighborhoods. Eventually the success of both constituencies opened up loft areas to real estate developers. Second, the spread of loft living to a larger middle-class group of housing consumers caused a conflict in the loft market between two basically “nonproductive” uses: arts infrastructure and housing. In time, competition over the finite amount of space in old loft buildings turned the artists’ subsidy into the pivot of a new market. Third, the people who moved into lofts and created their own, loft dwellers’ constituency defended their right to live in lofts but opposed real estate development. To their chagrin, they found they couldn’t have it both ways. A subsidy for artists’ housing finally created demand for a market in living lofts.
A Housing Subsidy for Artists
Although the impetus for subsidizing artists’ housing in loft neighborhoods originated in the upper-class patron-artist connection, the idea became popular because of the active support of a middle-class arts constituency. This constituency played the midwife’s role in the curious sequence of events that led up to the birth of the Greenwich Street co-op. Their background is significant to the story. At the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties, a number of middle-class families had bought homes among the Federal-style brick and mid-nineteenth-century brownstone townhouses in the West Village around Greenwich Street. The residential properties that these new homeowners so proudly renovated abutted the area’s warehouses, printing plants, and garages- the commercial and light industrial facilities which, together with the houses, created the ideal type of mixed-use neighborhood that Jane Jacobs praises in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In fact, this was the neighborhood where Jacobs lived at the time. The middle-class families who were her neighbors formed the base of the grass-roots movement for neighborhood preservation that she inspired. It is important to know that the area’s residents owed their mobilization to a plan put forward by Mayor Wagner. Sharing the objectives of local business and political elites in many declining cities of the Northeast and Midwest, Wagner wanted to have the West Village declared a “blighted area” in order to qualify for federal urban redevelopment subsidies. Once the area established an entitlement to Title I funds, the city could use the money to build low-income housing there. Isolated between the unused piers on the Hudson River and the warehouses of Greenwich and Hudson streets, the “projects” would be practically invisible. Nor would they encroach upon potentially revalorized Lower Manhattan land. Needless to say, this plan sparked opposition among the West Village’s middle-class homeowners. They saw that if the projects were built next-door to their homes, their modest investments would be eroded by declining property values and their mixed-use neighborhood would be destroyed by blockbusting real estate agents. Organized by Jane Jacobs, the West Village homeowners fought City Hall. When Wagner ran for reelection as a liberal in 1961, he was forced to concede the issue.
This initiation into local politics left two imprints on the West Village. First, the old Jane Jacobs constituency remained mobilized and formed a new, more permanent base in the area’s Reform Democratic Club and the community board. Second, the homeowners remained sensitive to issues of neighborhood preservation. When buildings in their purview were put up for sale or vacated, they were vigilant. In 1967 the local city council member started a chain reaction when she heard that a loft building in the neighborhood was going to be auctioned off by the city government for payment of back taxes. The chain ran through the West Village liberal constituency’s organizational links and personal connections to the J. M. Kaplan Fund. At the auction, a Fund representative bought the loft building on Greenwich Street with the idea of turning it over to an artists’ co-op. Before the Fund announced its intention, however, a Committee for Artists’ Housing from the community board issued a call for artists’ housing in the West Village. With great timeliness, the Kaplans were able to respond to this call.
Aside from the developers of Lincoln Center, the West Village homeowners showed a new awareness, at least implicitly, that an arts presence would affect real estate development in the city. The middle-class constituency was most concerned about two issues: the use of space and property values. Fearing disruption by, on the one hand, high-rise new construction and, on the other hand, subdivision of existing units, the homeowners sought a strategy that would counter the spatial consequences of current housing market trends. But as the homeowners’ fight against Mayor Wagner had suggested, they also wanted to maintain the emerging middle-class character of the neighborhood without either increasing or decreasing property values. So in this sense, too, the West Villagers wanted a strategy to fight market forces. The artists’ presence in the neighborhood as both producers and residents seemed to hedge all bets. Because artists wanted to live and work in lofts the way they were, they offered the possibility of having a stabilizing rather than an accelerating effect on a neighborhood in transition. Surely this seemed reasonable at the time.
Initially, the same middle-class dream also dominated the efforts of SoHo’s artist-residents to secure the right to their lofts. But SoHo was different from the West Village. In contrast to the narrow strip of land along the Hudson, SoHo took up a sizable chunk of the middle of the island. As a future gateway to a redeveloped Lower Manhattan, the area attracted the interest of big real estate investors and planners. There were also the zoning regulations that prohibited residential use in a manufacturing zone. So in order to assure a housing subsidy in SoHo, artists had to rely on the direct intervention of powerful forces: the upper-class arts constituency and their patrician politicians. “People with money saved SoHo,” an early activist in the SoHo Artists’ Tenants’ Association says. Another SoHo artist recalls, “We all had ‘uptown friends.'” He explains:
“We had gallery owners. Many of us worked in schools and universities. There were wealthy collectors we had sold to. There were some very influential artists in the area – Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Indiana, Julie Judd [wife of Minimalist artist Donald Judd] -who could call on curators and museum board members. Others of us had only an occasional wealthy person who had bought something from us. We all put together the names of who we could talk to and found that between us we had a rather impressive list. It ranged from people who had nothing to do with art, like the chairmen of the boards of banks, to curators and international art dealers. We started to call these people up to let them know, “Hey, there’s a unique phenomenon going on right here that nobody knows about, and if we don’t do something, it’ll be destroyed.”
Despite initial misgivings about a common cause, the SoHo artists also allied themselves with the historical preservation constituency in the form of the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture (FCI). An offshoot of the patrician Municipal Arts Society, this organization was formed in 1970, in the midst of the struggle for “saving” SoHo. The group was made up of people with money and power. Several times during the 1960s, these people had suggested that a landmark “Cast Iron District” be declared in SoHo to protect the distinctive loft buildings on Greene Street from being torn down. But the big real estate developers who wanted to redevelop the area had held the historic preservationists to small-scale tactics. Once the artists joined them, the preservationists launched a real offensive. Artists did much of the archival research that buttressed the argument for a landmark district. “We compounded the developers’ difficulties by using historic preservation,” an artist-activist says, and when the smoke had cleared over the ruins of the developers’ plans, an official landmark district remained.
SoHo artists also learned the value of the print media, beginning with the highly favorable 1970 article in Life magazine, “Living Big in a Loft.” “Suddenly, following the Life story, we were a national phenomenon,” an artist says. “We were too big for them to ignore. We became known personally. Then I could call up Donald Elliott [the city planning commissioner] and sometimes get through to him. We had a deputy mayor assigned to us.” “We learned to use the foreign media,” another artist recalls. “Stories about us appeared in newspapers in France or Germany. Our embassies sent them back to the State Department, and the State Department sent them to Mayor Lindsay.” Facing a city administration that had visions of presiding over a world capital, the artists realized that these news stories had an effect on City Hall. “We made a policy decision to cooperate with publicity,” an activist says. “Many of the group were against it and we agonized over it. We saw what publicity and legalization [of loft living] might lead to. But if we hadn’t done it, SoHo wouldn’t exist at all today.”
Despite their anxiety, the SoHo artists enjoyed certain political advantages in the struggle. “One thing that has never been adequately acknowledged,” an early activist says, “is the importance of John Lindsay. We had in the mayor a cultured, sensitive, educated man who understood~ the value of art in the life of this city. SoHo would not have been established under Wagner and certainly never under Beame. The Lindsay administration was absolutely vital to our success. Throughout the struggle, we had the support of Lindsay and his personal aides. It was aides to the mayor who told us how to argue our case before the Planning Commission.”
Although the artists’ original patrician support had been based on elements of cultural patronage, their bid for open political support\depended on an economic argument. The advice that Mayor Lindsay’s aides gave them was “to show our worth in terms of money. Some of the artists balked,” an activist says, “but the rest of us came up with statistics on art employment, tourism, supplies- numbers the commission could understand.” In this discussion, Art evidently yielded to the arts economy. “When we worked for the zoning changes we never talked aesthetics,” another activist says. “We let them talk aesthetics. We took the approach that we were workers who need to work where we live for both economic reasons and the nature of our work. We hit them with vacancy rates and employment figures. We offered to put property back on the tax rolls.” A certain amount of organizational confusion also aided their efforts. “We had friends on people’s staffs,” an early SoHo loft dweller sums up, “especially on the City Planning Commission …. We used interagency negotiation and countervailing areas of responsibility to muddle bureaucratic efforts to harass us.”
Moreover, by the 1970s, art suggested a new platform to politicians who were tired of dealing with urban poverty. “I’ll tell you a nasty little story,” an authoritative source on the SoHo artists offers.
“At the fmal hearing where the Board of Estimate voted to approve SoHo as an artists’ district, there were lots of other groups giving testimony on other matters. Poor people from the South Bronx and Bed-Stuy complaining about rats, rent control, and things like that. The board just shelved those matters and moved right along. They didn’t know how to proceed. Then they carne to us. All the press secretaries were there, and the journalists. The klieg lights went on, and the cameras started to roll. And all these guys started making speeches about the importance of art to New York City. Those same guys who had fought us every inch of the way! It was sickening.”
 Fragments from chapter 5 of Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, p. 111-124.
 The Board of Estimate, made up of the highest citywide elected officials, acts as a court of final appeal on land use issues. The South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, are racial and ethnic ghettos.