Volume 75, Number 17 | September 14 - 20, 2005

Photo by Jefferson Siegel

Members of the performance group theArtcorps take their “Red Spontaneous Vivacious Party (RSVP)” to the streets of Soho.

Homeward Bound: Parade tries to draw artists back to Soho

By Jefferson Siegel

This past Saturday, a four-block long extravaganza of marching bands, inflatable sculptures, and a 16-foot-long subway car with cutouts of Patrick Swayze and Bill Clinton wended its way through Soho. The event, organized by gallery owner Jeffery Deitch, was meant to remind the city that art still thrives on the narrow thoroughfares below Houston Street.

Part East Village Howl festival, part West Village Halloween parade and a dash of Williamsburg panache, 500 parading artists literally stopped traffic as police blocked Broadway, allowing the Scissor Sisters, the Conundrums and the Tarantula Mobile to proceed west on Grand Street. “Miss Ft. Gotham Indian Princess” waved to the crowds from atop a horse, a sash draped across her torso. A float of musical performers, “The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black,” blasted music to get the party started.

“A lot of the galleries are gone but the spirit is still here,” Deitc hobserved as a Kenny Scharf-designed 1961 Cadillac drove by and marchers gathered on Wooster Street for an outdoor post-parade party. “I love the history of Soho as an artist’s neighborhood, and we’re celebrating that.”

After two hundred years, Soho has come full circle. In the 1800s, Soho was a population center for a young city. By mid-century many had left the narrow, overcrowded streets and moved to the northern reaches of Manhattan. Commerce filled the void left behind. The cast-iron buildings, with airy spaces and large windows, were perfect for sales floors and spacious window displays. The shops eventually followed the population north, settling in another cast-iron district, the “Ladies Mile” spread over Broadway, 5th and 6th Avenues from 8th to 23rd Streets.

Artists discovered a neighborhood full of abandoned lofts and warehouses in the late 1960s. Many moved into the raw spaces, discretely renovating the huge floors and adding heat, water and electricity. Some landlords turned a blind eye to the improvements, happy to have their property upgraded at no cost to them.

The galleries came next. By 1974, when Jeffery Deitch moved into the neighborhood, “the whole art world was right here in this six-block area.”

Art is long but leases are short, so as interest in the new "it" neighborhood heightened, rents increased. Residential tenants, fearful of losing their low-cost ateliers, banded together and after several years forced the state legislature to pass the “Loft Law” in June 1982. It granted most loft-dwellers protections similar to the rent stabilization laws.

Commercial rent regulation, however, continues to be non-existent, so as store leases expired, rents spiraled up and galleries were forced out. Now, shoppers crowd the cobblestone streets, filling name-brand apparel stores and relaxing in well-appointed wine bars. The galleries, meanwhile, moved into the next undiscovered neighborhood of warehouses and spacious areas: Chelsea.

The “Art Parade,” which Deitch hopes will become an annual event, is his attempt to bring the artists back.

Several hundred lined the parade route on a warm, sunny afternoon, many unaware of the extravaganza until they happened upon it. Brooklyn teacher Brian Piersol browsed an art project offering “100% discounts” on printed images of shoes and clothing.

“When it was really going full-steam and there were so many openings and so many great parties and wonderful shows,” he recalled. Soho, he says, has now “become more of an out-priced area where only very wealthy people can live and the art activity is no longer here.” His 8-year-old daughter, Kalliope, added that there should be more parades.

The colorful procession offered artists an opportunity to “exhibit” on the streets of Manhattan, but the event provided no immediate solutions to the dearth of art galleries in Soho. Last month, a 3,600 square foot loft on Prince Street sold for almost $4 million. Though art galleries coexist among the overheated real-estate projects, they are overwhelmed by Dolce & Gabbaba, Otto Tootsie Plohound, Swatch and the design-oriented Apple Store.

Still, some, like Burrow, a designer collective at 31 Crosby Street created last May, have found a way for galleries to return to Soho and profit.

“There are 19 designers and we all share in the rent,” explained Rebecca Zimmerman, a Burrow member who designs and sells her own belts, earrings and handbags. “Each designer works 2 days a month so we don’t have to pay salespeople,” she added as
she walked through the street party on Wooster Street, handing out store post cards with miniature candies attached.

“I definitely think this is the way to make it (art) accessible for people who don’t have that much money,” Zimmerman said as Koji Shimizu’s inflatable floating cat drifted by.

“A lot of artists still live here,” Deitch points out. “It’s still a really good place for artists to meet and congregate.” And as for the parade, he says,

“It’s a natural outgrowth of what we do in the gallery. We’re very involved in performance art, the music that comes out of the art scene, so it’s natural for us. There’s a great tradition of artists parades and processions.” Pausing to look at the unexpectedly large crowd, he added, “I guess a lot of people agree.”

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