“Living big in a loft”
Collaboration, community, and co-operatives in SoHo, New York
In the early 1960s, the cast-iron loft district below Houston Street in Lower Manhattan was on the verge of demolition. Artists seeking large, inexpensive spaces to live and work in began moving into vacant industrial lofts, developing a community and new collaborative sites of performance and display that offered an alternative to the mainstream art world. By the end of the 1970s, the neighbourhood now known as “SoHo” was home to an increasingly affluent population living in co-operatively owned loft buildings, while alternative art spaces were closing to make way for commercial galleries and upscale boutiques. This paper explores the dramatic, artist-led transformation of SoHo by focusing on three texts from 1970: the inaugural show at the influential alternative art space 112 Greene Street; an LP recorded by jazz musician Ornette Coleman in his Prince Street loft; and an article from Life magazine that introduced loft living to a wider audience. 1970 is significant as the year in which the underground community of the 1960s became increasingly visible and professional, in an effort to secure the future of the neighbourhood for artists. By exploring the ways in which the space of the loft is articulated in each text, I attempt to understand the contradictory role played by artists in the development of SoHo, who were complicit in the rapid gentrification of the neighbourhood, while simultaneously conceptualising a swathe of genuinely radical collaborative practices that continue to be inspirational to artistic communities today.
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