Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Look What You Could Have Won!

It was scheduled to be raised for one of Robert Moses' most cherished projects, the Lower Manhattan Expressway. This road would have slashed clean across Manhattan Island, from the East River to the Hudson, and torn down or sealed off large parts of the South and West Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. As plans for the expressway gathered momentum, many industrial tenants left the area, anticipating its destruction. But then, in the early and mid-1960s, a remarkable coalition of diverse and generally antagonistic groups - young and old, radical and reactionary, Jews, Italians, WASPS, Puerto Ricans and Chinese - fought fervidly for years and finally, to their amazement, won and wiped Moses' project off the map.

This epic triumph over Moloch left a sudden abundance of prime loft space available at unusually low rents, which turned out to be ideal for New York's rapidly growing artist population. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, thousands of artists moved in and, within a few years, turned this anonymous space into the world's leading centre for the production of art. This amazing transformation infused SoHo's dreary and crumbling streets with a unique vitality and intensity.

Much of the neighbourhood's aura arises from its interplay between its nineteenth-century-modern streets and buildings and the late-twentieth-century-modern art that is created and displayed inside them. Another way to see it might be as a dialectic of the neighbourhood's old and new modes of production: factories that produce cord and rope and cardboard boxes and small engine and machine parts, that collect and process old paper and rags and scrap, and modes of art that collect and compress and connect and recycle these materials in very special ways of their own.

SoHo has emerged as an arena for the liberation of women artists, who have burst on the scene with unprecedented numbers, talent and self-confidence, and fought to establish their identity in a neighbourhood that was fighting to establish its own. Their individual and collective presence is at the heart of SoHo's aura. Early one fall evening, I saw a lovely young woman in a glamourous red-wine-coloured suit, clearly returning from "Uptown" (a show? a grant? a job?) and climbing the long flights of stairs to her loft. In one arm she supported a big bag of groceries, with protruding French bread, while on the other, balanced delicately on her shoulder, was a great bundle of stretchers five feet long: a perfect expression, it seemed to me, of the modern sexuality and spirituality of our time. But just around the corner, alas, has lurked another archetypically modern figure, the real estate man, whose frantic speculations in the 1970s have made many fortunes in SoHo, and driven from their homes many artists who could not hope to afford the prices that their presence helped to create. Here, as in so many modern scenes, the ambiguities of development roll on.

Marshall Berman. All that is Solid Melts Into Air, 1982, 337-8

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