Thursday, February 16, 2012
Broadway is Broadway
When I say change, I mean radical change. Change that almost defies imagination. Change so substantial that I question my own memory. I wrote of this in Cast Iron Stomach and Six Geese a-Laying. When I first moved to New York City in 1969, SoHo was not even an acronym yet. It was strictly an industrial district, essentially an industrial slum, a neighborhood I only passed through, perhaps on the way to Chinatown or Canal Street. At one time in the 20th century, the area was known as Hell's Hundred Acres for the frequent fires that arose in the loft warehouses.
More recently, even after gentrification, alleys such as Crosby Street remained undesirable, yet pushed to ferret out every remaining square inch of what remained, Crosby Street became every bit as desirable as the rest of SoHo. There are no bargains left, or undiscovered backwaters in Lower Manhattan.
In Bleecker Tower, I wrote:
The area was dominated by industrial businesses - leather distributors like Marap Leather who occupied an entire building at 678 Broadway or Commercial Plastics at 630 Broadway. In 1980, Unique Clothing Warehouse opened at 718 Broadway at Waverly Place (president Richard Wolland closed it and filed bankruptcy in 1991 with over $2 million in debt), beginning a wave of transition. In 1983, Tower Records opened at 4th Street and Broadway (recently closed). A few months later, the elegant Blue Willow restaurant opened at 644 Broadway in the building shown in the photo.
There were early pioneers in SoHo, both individuals and businesses - places like the Park Place Gallery. Alison Knowles had rented space as far back as the late 1950s on Broadway north of Canal Street. From Illegal Living: 80 Wooster and the Evolution of SoHo:
Illegal Living is the story of the building at 80 Wooster Street in New York and the people who lived and worked there. The first of 16 artists coops started by George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus art movement, Fluxhouse Coop II spurred the development of SoHo and the spread of worldwide loft conversions. … The artists of SoHo, while focused on their art, also built community, participating in the creation of a new form of residential development. The building was a magnet for the avant-garde who were drawn to Jonas Mekas Cinematheque, a ground-floor space that hosted happenings, film screenings, dance and theater performances, concerts, and art shows. Hundreds of artists including Trisha Brown, Richard Foreman, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, John Lennon, Hermann Nitsch, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Andy Warhol showed their work in and around the building.
There were a handful of well-known early retailers, such as Dean and DeLuca. One of the earliest that I personally recall visiting was Broadway Panhandler at 520 Broadway, eventually to move due to soaring rents. Little did I know I would come to occupy the 3rd floor of that very same building in 1990, where my business remains to this day.
When I moved into the building, it was occupied entirely by sweat shops manufacturing clothing. I was the first "upscale" tenant. The landlord was very favorable towards me, seeing it as the first step in a new type of tenancy. Today, the building is occupied by media companies and businesses such as Built NY, Inc., a design firm that manufactures a neoprene bag and case line. The company holds over 180 patents, and its products are sold worldwide.
In its industrial days, SoHo was deserted at night - a ghost town. There were no retailers - manufacturers and commercial/industrial suppliers occupied even the ground floors which today command a huge premium and would make such use unthinkable. Now, the area is saturated with retailers, both of the common garden variety such as the Gap and also very high-profile merchants, including names such as Louis Vuitton, Bloomingdale's, Prada, Coach, Apple, and Topshop. Foot traffic is outrageous on a day-to-day basis. Typically the sidewalks are so crowded that I resort to walking in the street, even then to be frustrated by people, vehicles, food carts and other obstacles. Once, in complete frustration, I took to walking in the center lane against traffic, which I wrote about in Dead Man Walking.
Today's photos are taken from my office window looking up Broadway in the evening. In the past, lights on Broadway meant the theater district and Times Square. Now, we have lights here in SoHo too. It seems that everywhere you go, Broadway is Broadway...