‘Battle for the Soul of SoHo’: A Debate on Gentrification, Race and Wealth

The Manhattan neighborhood is locked in a contentious battle with city officials over whether, and how, it should change.,

Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Does SoHo, Haven for Art and Wealth, Have Room for Affordable Housing?

The Manhattan neighborhood is locked in a contentious battle with city officials over whether, and how, it should change.

Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

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As a child growing up in SoHo, Akeela Azcuy remembers seeing her father, the drummer Rashied Ali, talking music with neighbors like the renowned jazz performer Ornette Coleman, who lived over on Grand Street.

Artists of all incomes and backgrounds had descended onto the formerly industrial New York City neighborhood to make use of the open space, great light and extremely tolerant neighbors: Because the buildings were mostly empty, painters could freely stink up the hallways with smells of turpentine, and musicians like Ms. Azcuy’s father could practice for hours without interruption.

Decades later, Ms. Azcuy still lives in the neighborhood, which has lost much of that artistry — and diversity.

SoHo is now better known as a glitzy retail and dining district, one where it is easier to find a table at a restaurant than a reasonably priced apartment. And it is decidedly white.

A plan to bring new development to SoHo and NoHo, its sister neighborhood, aspires to change that. A proposed rezoning would allow 3,200 additional apartments over the next 10 years, including approximately 800 affordable units in an area that had fewer than 8,000 residents in the 2010 census. And by doing so in a place internationally synonymous with affluence and style, it could also become a symbol for racial and economic integration everywhere.

ImageAkeela Azcuy, center, with her mother, Patricia Ali, and daughter, Soleil Azcuy, thinks the city’s rezoning plan for SoHo is meant to cater to business interests.
Akeela Azcuy, center, with her mother, Patricia Ali, and daughter, Soleil Azcuy, thinks the city’s rezoning plan for SoHo is meant to cater to business interests.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

But longtime residents are pushing back against the plan, saying it will bring big retailers and more modern high-rise buildings that will change the character of the neighborhood, known for its 19th-century architecture and cobblestone streets. They say they support increased diversity but contend that city officials are overstating the number of low-cost apartments that would be created, a claim the city disputes.

The battle might be a sign of what’s ahead as American cities begin to reopen and confront the realities of inequality and segregation exposed both by the pandemic and the racial protests over the summer — and the economic pressure from emptied office buildings, closed businesses and falling revenue. Any new construction could be a welcome gift to offset these burdens. And the Biden administration has introduced an infrastructure plan that includes $200 billion for building and improving affordable housing nationwide.

The proposed rezoning highlights the difficulty of integrating a city that is known for its diversity, yet remains divided from one neighborhood to the next. The rarity of such a proposal is twofold: that there is space in prime Manhattan for new housing construction, and that a white, wealthy neighborhood would be expected to shoulder changes that are usually relegated to other communities.

“The pandemic and the movement for racial justice make clear that all neighborhoods must pull their weight to provide safe, affordable housing options,” Vicki Been, deputy mayor for housing and economic development, said in a statement last year when the city made its recommendations public. In an interview last week, she underscored that the jobs and housing opportunities created by the rezoning would be critical to New York’s post-pandemic recovery.

Under the proposal, developers would have to set aside 20 to 30 percent of new housing as affordable, though the exact rent levels have not yet been determined. The plan would also amend commercial zoning, including replacing an outdated regulation that requires new retailers to get special permission to occupy ground-floor space.

The changes could usher in yet another evolution for the Lower Manhattan neighborhood. In the late 19th century, the area south of Houston Street was a manufacturing hub, but it began to empty out as industries left the city. Artists started moving into the neighborhood in the 1960s, often dwelling illegally in nonresidential spaces.

These new residents fought to have the lofts zoned for residential use, winning their battle in 1971. In order to inhabit SoHo legally, residents had to be officially certified as artists through the Department of Cultural Affairs.

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The Revolutionary Ensemble, with Sirone on bass, Jerome Cooper on piano and drums and Leroy Jenkins on violin, at Axis in SoHo in 1977. The space was an art gallery by day and a jazz club at night.Credit…Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

As the neighborhood’s cachet — and rent — increased, it was no longer an affordable option for many artists. In the 1970s and ’80s, the city certified hundreds of artists to live in SoHo every year; in 2020, it certified four.

Today, in order to live in the neighborhood legally, prospective buyers or renters must either become certified or sign a “SoHo Letter” acknowledging that they may be asked to prove their certification in the future — a provision the city has rarely enforced.

As SoHo became less welcoming to the non-wealthy, another shift was happening in New York. With the federal government reducing its support for building and maintaining public housing, the city began to rely on developers to fill the need. In exchange for incorporating a certain number of low-cost rentals, builders were allowed to erect tall towers filled mostly with luxury apartments, and with stores at street level. The imposing new buildings have irked people living in the older, low-rise streets around them.

The rezoning proposal is nowhere near final. In the meantime, residents of all opinions are trying to make their voices heard before the planning department presents a proposal that will go to the City Council and the mayor later this year. For those who oppose the plan, the debate has put them in an uncomfortable position: Their opposition can be seen as a barrier to diversifying the neighborhood.

“I’m very sensitive to the whiteness of us all,” Frederica Sigel, a member of the local community board, said at a meeting last year. “I think the thing that’s great about New York City is that every neighborhood contributes something different, and so what we’re contributing in SoHo with our cast-iron buildings and the scale and cobblestones and art, I don’t feel that we should be responsible for producing as much affordable housing as other neighborhoods.”

“But I want to live in a diverse neighborhood,” she added.

In an interview, Ms. Sigel clarified her comments, saying that stringent city requirements, not the wishes of residents, were to blame for the homogeneity. Much of SoHo and NoHo have been designated as historic districts, granting older buildings protections and offering few opportunities to create affordable housing, she said.

Many in SoHo are especially fearful that the commercial rezoning will increase the number of mass-market retailers, bringing even more tourists and noise to the narrow cobblestone streets.

“What they’re proposing would eat away at and eventually erase what makes SoHo so special and desirable, and therefore a place where people want to live and have businesses,” said Yukie Ohta, a lifelong SoHo resident and the founder of the SoHo Memory Project, an organization dedicated to the history of the neighborhood.

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Yukie Ohta, a lifelong neighborhood resident, said the proposed rezoning would “erase what makes SoHo so special and desirable.” Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

One outstanding detail is just how tall any new buildings could be. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, an advocacy group, has produced sketches showing new glass and steel buildings towering over their historic neighbors, which are generally no taller than six stories.

City officials have called the drawings exaggerations, but so far have said only that they will impose height restrictions that will discourage developers from building towers, like a 350-foot-high hotel that already exists in the neighborhood.

The preservation society also contends that the city’s proposal encourages developers to construct commercial buildings, not residential ones, and so would fail to meet the projection of affordable units.. The group also argues that if only a quarter of the new apartments are affordable, the area’s demographics will not change significantly.

City planners say that simple economics — there is little demand for office space in SoHo now — will induce developers to build housing, not commercial space.

Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that “it is genuinely fair to wonder how this neighborhood could possibly get any whiter or wealthier.” He stressed that the plan would “finally bring permanently affordable housing to blocks that currently only have market-rate apartments.”

And now that the neighborhood has become a bastion of wealth, some current residents and housing rights activists question what preservationists are trying to protect.

“Some will argue that any new housing in SoHo would be out of character with the neighborhood,” said Aaron Carr, the founder of Housing Rights Initiative, “but I’d argue that the neighborhood of SoHo is out of character with New York.”

Some of the most striking scenes of last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations unfolded in the neighborhood. Protesters, challenging the police killing of George Floyd, marched past luxury stores like Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel that looters later vandalized; for weeks afterward, the neighborhood’s storefronts were shielded by plywood.

Some current residents, including Ms. Azcuy, who is Black, are skeptical that the city’s efforts are truly aimed at increasing diversity, and think the main goal is to cater to the neighborhood’s business interests. She still thinks about the Black residents that she grew up with who have been displaced. “The city hasn’t laid out a plan to keep people of color in their homes in our community,” she said.

Any new affordable apartments would be assigned via lottery, and applicants will face daunting odds: From 2013 to 2020, over 25 million New Yorkers submitted applications for only 40,000 such apartments throughout the city.

The average asking rent for a two-bedroom apartment in SoHo is over $8,000, according to the Department of City Planning; that is about $2,500 more than the median city household earns in a month.

Regardless of income level, SoHo is an attractive place to live. Emmanuel Felton, a reporter at BuzzFeed News, moved to SoHo in part because of the comparatively smaller police presence. Before moving to New York, he had once been woken up by a SWAT team trying to enter his apartment, looking for a previous occupant. “It’s ridiculous that you have to move to a neighborhood like this not to be overly policed as a Black guy,” he said.

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During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, SoHo store owners covered their facades with plywood. Artists, many of them Black, soon used them as canvases.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Last summer’s protests, however, and the subsequent increased police presence in SoHo made Mr. Felton realize he would start being seen more as a target than a neighbor. After one evening of looting, he was afraid to leave his apartment without ID. “I wasn’t going to be a Black man walking around SoHo without proof that I lived here,” he said.

Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor and the author of “Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change,” said a fear of losing control is what may be moving some of the opposition.

Longtime SoHo residents fought for spaces for artists to live and work “and they don’t see them as a benefits or privileges — they see them as hard-won gains, not the status quo,” said Ms. Zukin. She added: “There’s a scale issue of whether the neighborhood controls what’s built, or whether or not there’s a citywide force from the outside. How do you get racial justice in this place?”

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