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The New York City artist’s loft is arguably among the most romanticized and coveted living spaces in the world. It has been used as a backdrop for avant-garde films by Andy Warhol, the central scene of a musical (yes, we’re talking about Rent), and more recently, as the focus of several museum shows (for example, the Whitney’s 2013 exhibit, Rituals of Rented Island). When one thinks about a New York City artist’s loft, what likely comes to mind is an open, expansive, and unequivocally cool space—a space where anything is possible.
When one thinks about a New York City artist’s loft, what likely comes to mind is an open, expansive, and unequivocally cool space—a space where anything is possible.
While this may have been true at one point in the city’s history, in 2016, the artist’s loft is neither readily affordable nor easily attainable. When David Bowie passed away in late 2015 and fans spontaneously gathered to mourn outside his Soho loft at 285 Lafayette Street, they were strolling past some of the city’s most expensive real estate. Indeed, if you’re looking to buy in the building where Bowie once lived, you’ll need at least $11 million to purchase. If you prefer to rent, a currently available unit in the building, which is over 3,000-square-feet large and features 26-foot high ceilings, is available for $32,500 monthly.

This raises the obvious question: How did New York’s artists’ lofts, especially those located in Soho, go from accessible to virtually unobtainable in just a few decades?

 

Soho's West Broadway in the late '70s Soho's West Broadway in the late '70s

When Soho was a “Last Resort” for Artists

Today, it may be difficult for many New Yorkers to believe that in the early 1970s, Soho was considered a refuge for struggling artists. Indeed, a May 1970 headline in the New York Times declared Soho to be a “last resort” for artists. As the article explained, “Soho is the only area left in Manhattan where the loft space [artists] need is still available at reasonable rates.” But even in 1970 when Soho was still an affordable, albeit at times crime ridden, oasis for artists, there were concerns about the neighborhood’s pending transformation into a highly valued real estate enclave.
As written in the same New York Times article, by 1970, some artists were already worried that “Real estate developers would jump at the chance to replace the [neighborhood’s] stubby buildings with profitable high-rise buildings.” There was also concern that the city’s Planning Commission may simply raze the neighborhood to make way from middle-income housing. These concerns were not unfounded. Buildings that had sold for $30,000 in 1960 were, by early 1970, being sold for $150,000.
Soho's first artist collective at 112 Greene Street. The space opened in the early 1970s Soho's first artist collective at 112 Greene Street. The space opened in the early 1970s and is today home to a Stella McCartney boutique. Image via Market Fine Arts
City planners and investors, however, were not the only groups of concern to Soho’s artists at the time. As reported, “Madison Avenue dealers have also discovered the charms of Soho’s deep lofts and lower prices.” While the arrival of dealers opening gallery spaces was cited as a welcome event for some of the neighborhood’s artists (namely those who had already bought into co-op buildings), it was also cited as a potential sign of alarm for the neighborhood’s many renters.

As early as 1970, Soho’s renters rightfully feared that the arrival of uptown gallerists would eventually drive up rental prices throughout the neighborhood. In the end, the neighborhood’s renters were right to be concerned. As one artist lamented, “Pretty soon we will have boutiques here and see-the-artist tours.” He was right. Today, some of the few artists who remain in Soho now live in unlikely locales, including above the Armani store at the corner of Spring and Thompson where an 1,800 square-foot loft is currently listed at $3.6 million.
Howard Street Soho

The Establishment of the Loft Law and Loft Board

In the end, it would take somewhat longer for Soho to become out of reach for artists than originally expected. This had much to do with the city’s economic misfortunes and rising crime rates throughout the 1970s. By the early 1980s, however, the city was slowly beginning to rebound. While the East Village and Lower East Side remained highly affordable and crime ridden, Soho—with its by then established, internationally recognized art scene—was well positioned for gentrification. Adding to the gentrification process, however, was another factor—the establishment of the New York City Loft Law.
In 1982, the New York State Legislature established the New York City Loft Law and related Loft Board “to regulate the conversion of certain buildings that were constructed for commercial and manufacturing use to lawful residential use.” On the surface, the Loft Law’s intentions were not necessarily designed to target artists but simply designed to force landlords to bring illegal living spaces up to code—for example, by forcing landlords to comply with fire safety requirements. In the end, however, the establishment of the Loft Law had two immediate and ultimately devastating consequences.
In some cases, landlords responded to the new legislation by simply pushing out tenants. This was a relatively simple task since most of Soho’s renters had never held leases. After all, they had been living and working in illegal spaces. Under the Loft Law, landlords were also permitted to pass along the cost of upgrading buildings to existing tenants. Not surprisingly, this resulted in drastic rent increases throughout the neighborhood and ultimately, the exodus of many artists. Indeed, the impact of the Loft Law on Soho was so devastating that urban planners around the world now use the term “Soho Effect” as shorthand to describe how manufacturing or industrial districts are gentrified, often using local artists as a vehicle to accelerate the process.
 Listings Project Image via Listings Project

Finding a Live/Work Space in 2016

Today, there are few working artists living in Soho or even south of 14th Street. Many of the artists who remain living and working in what was once known as the “Downtown Art Scene” (an area that included Soho as well as parts of the neighboring East Village and Lower East Side) are now in their sixties to eighties. Not surprisingly, most of those artists who remain were either fortunate enough to have had the means and foresight to purchase buildings and establish co-ops in the 1970s, or to obtain and hang on to rent-stabilized or rent-controlled units. But this doesn’t mean that New York is not home to younger artists, nor does it mean that the city’s younger artists have entirely abandoned the dream of living and working together in the city.
In many respects, the Listings Project is a 21st-century made-in-NYC solution to the artist space problem. Started by a woman known to most NYC artists simply as Stephanie, the Listings Project had humble enough beginnings—artist Stephanie Diamond used her own Yahoo account to send out “listings” about available artist studios, shared rooms in artist-owned homes, and apartments for rent by and for artists. Over the years, the Listings Project, which is still sent out to subscribers every Wednesday morning in the form of an email list, has grown up. As described on the Listing Project’s own website, it is now “the leading resource for artists’ studios, creative spaces and beyond in 70+ countries and across the United States.” To keep it authentic, Diamond and her team still personally vet all subscribers to weed out any “non-artists,” as well as brokers, agents, and anyone else simply looking to profit from her list. But notably, for Diamond, the Listings Project is more than a business or service—she also understands it as an “art piece” rooted in “self-care and community building.”
Unfortunately, even on the Listings Project, one is hard pressed to find available live/work spaces that in any way resemble the artist’s lofts of earlier eras. While the Listings Project does list many art studios, the studio listings invariably stipulate “no living permitted.”

For living, the Listings Project has separate room and apartment listings. In many respects, the Listings Project is a sign of the times. While one may still find an art studio in New York City and even live with other artists, for most of the city’s working artists, the days of living and working together under the same roof are pretty much gone.
Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.
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