Essays

All Wrong About Lower Manhattan: Rereading Sharon Zukin

by Richard Kostelanetz on April 24, 2014

12.New Yorker Magazine

‘New York’ magazine (May 28, 1984) at the Museum of Modern Art’s PAD/D Archive (photograph by Tiernan Morgan for Hyperallergic)

In the course of writing The Rise and Fall of Artists’ SoHo (Routledge), I read several earlier books about lofts and artists in lower Manhattan. The most embarrassing by far, in spite of some research worth crediting, was Sharon Zukin’s Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. The copy I have is a 1989 paperback reprint from Rutgers University Press that acknowledges only on its copyright page an earlier 1982 “cloth” edition from Johns Hopkins University Press. No dates appear in either of the book’s prefaces or in the “Postscript to the Paperback Edition.” The back cover says that Zukin teaches “urban sociology and urban political economy at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.” More recently, I learned, she has served as Broeklundian Professor from 1996 to 2008.

In a book riddled with errors, ignorance, and misinterpretations, a principal recurring fault is her drawing upon her own experience in a residential coop in the small loft area around East Tenth Street between University Place and Broadway to generalize about loft living in general, particularly in Artists’ SoHo, which is a larger, more famous neighborhood south of Houston Street. However, these were very different loft communities, not only in size but in legal limitations. Indicatively, nowhere did I find her acknowledging that a legal resident of SoHo proper needed to have city certification as an artist requiring loft space, thus preventing, certainly to 1980, non-artists from living there legally. One reason why such certification is not familiar to her might be that people residing in her Greenwich Village enclave, a different neighborhood, did not need it. She seems not to know that Tribeca, another neighborhood with “loft living,” was likewise a different community in the late 1970s and remains one today. What would you think of a book about “Brooklyn Colleges,” say, that generalized about all of them, including her own, mostly from impressions gleaned from experience at St. Francis?

As early as page 5, Zukin declares, “Since the end of the nineteenth century, few working-class neighborhoods remained in the heart of Manhattan, so this work force no longer lived near their jobs.” However, the factories of SoHo, including one in my building, depended upon immigrant labor from the Lower East Side that into the 1970s came down Prince Street every morning on bus #12, returning in the evenings down Spring Street. I don’t know much about Zukin’s neighborhood but know enough to know she’s often wrong about mine.

Also on page 5, Zukin declares, “In the case of lofts, the social class distinctions between old (artist) residents and new (non-artist) residents are somewhat blurred.” Quite the contrary in SoHo, nothing divided SoHo coops more than the difference in income (often to the degree of several multiples) between artists and non-artists from the early 1980s into the present. Her generalization might be true about her middle Village enclave; but here, as elsewhere in her book, she reveals that she knows little about SoHo, in spite of pretending otherwise. On page 117 Zukin quotes several SoHo artists about how they successfully manipulated New York City politicians during the John Lindsay administration. Since the statements seemed incredible to me, I reread them, wishing she had named informants who, on reconsideration, seem conveniently unidentified.

More than once I found Zukin misunderstanding her own evidence. On page 88, she claims that Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis, both successful dealers in contemporary art, received their “art education” at the Rockefeller-controlled Museum of Modern Art. “Inspired by MoMA’s professionalism as well as its missionary zeal,” Zukin writes, “they brought some quality of the museum to the art gallery. ‘What [Janis] did was of enormous importance,’ Castelli has said. “He really taught me that a gallery should be run like a museum — he had that kind of rigor.’” Hold on, you say, isn’t Castelli saying explicitly that it was Janis, not MoMA, that taught Castelli, eliminating the Rockefellers from influencing SoHo’s most prominent art gallery.

Factual errors abound, as the arts critic Peter Frank is “Peter France” on page 95 and on page 170 the 155 Wooster Street Association is identified as “a newly formed artists’ housing co-op,” rather than, as it was, a partnership among Paula Cooper, whose gallery occupied the ground floor, the photography curator Weston Naef, and the artist/professor James Seawright, who collectively rented other spaces within most of their building. Given errors discovered so far, I find it hard to believe, as Zukin says, “By 1987 only 12 of the 1,000 or so loft buildings in full or partial residential use have obtained a certificate of Occupancy,” because I remember several SoHo coops, including my own, that had obtained a certificate of occupancy well before 1987.

The most outrageous single paragraph that prompted this critique appears on page 184 where Zukin attempts to account for the origins of Washington Square Village, the extended apartment complex between West Third and Bleecker Streets, Mercer and West Broadway. “Significantly, the most vulnerable land for the university’s expansion lay to the south, in the manufacturing loft district and adjacent tenements occupied by working-class families of Italian origin that was known as the South Village.” The minor problem here is that the epithet South Village referred, then as now, to the enclave west of West Broadway, which was and still is quite different from the larger loft district to the east of West Broadway. Bear this distinction in mind as you read on.

Zukin continues, “In the late 1950s, the chairmanship of the university’s board of trustees passed to Laurence Tisch, a member of the family dynasties of builders in New York City and a graduate of NYU Law School.” This prompted me to check Laurence Tisch’s biography. His Bachelor of Science degree came from NYU and his M.B.A. in Industrial Management from Wharton. No lawyer is he. His principal position had been chief executive of a hotel corporation that is also a successful investment company. Tisch became an NYU trustee in 1966 and chairman of the board of trustees from 1978 to 1990, which is about the time Zukin is writing, but not “the late 1950s,” two decades before, when she thinks him active.

She continues: “Tisch quietly assembled the several square blocks from Washington Square Park to Houston Street, between LaGuardia Place and Broadway, and then, at no apparent profit, turned the properties over the NYU. During the next few years, the university built two high-density housing projects on the site for faculty and staff.” In fact, the developer of Washington Square Village was named Paul Tishman (1900-1996), the key element of his surname spelled differently. It was the Tishman, not the Tisch, who built Washington Square Village, along with much else around New York City. I can remember that when WSV first opened for rentals in the early 1960s it was called “Tishman’s Tenements,” and recall as well the architectural historian P. Reyner Banham telling me perhaps two decades later that, when he was invited to be a visiting professor at NYU, he was shown floor plans of Washington Square Village, where he was invited to live, that were stamped with the Tishman name.

Having won the contract to build urban renewal housing on the site, he overbuilt, which is to say constructed too many floors for the available space. The only solution was to transfer title to his buildings to a community function. NYU was conveniently available. Whether Tishman intentionally defaulted is a question still remembered, as he was indeed an NYU trustee at the time. Zukin’s confusing two German-Jewish family names might be excusable in a Midwestern professor’s lecture to undergraduates, but not in a book by a CUNY professor who purportedly lives nearby. To paraphrase Groucho, when the Tisches were mistaken for the Tishmans, that’s how conspiracies were born.

Foot already in her mouth, Zukin bites off yet more. “Whether or not Tisch remained a silent owner of properties contiguous to the university, it is important that even at a time when demand for manufacturing lofts was high, NYU’s expansion reduced the amount of loft space that was available.”  Aside from the unsubstantiated innuendo about NYU being beholden to a hidden puppeteer (incorrectly named), this passage undermines Zukin’s documentation earlier in Loft Living of the lack of commercial demand for downtown loft space in the 1960s, accounting for why SoHo landlords at that time gladly rented or sold to artists. Why does she condemn NYU-Tisch for reducing the supply of something for which she elsewhere defines a declining demand? Academic oneupmanship notwithstanding, coherent economic criticism is not among Zukin’s acquired skills.

Not done yet with her riot of misunderstanding, Zukin concludes this single paragraph, “Moreover, by physically integrating Greenwich Village with the loft district south of Houston Street, the university made that space accessible to a different class of users.” However, the high-rises constructed north of Houston Street were so visibly different from the buildings south of Houston and its populace yet more different that not integration but a great cultural gulf was created on that east-west thoroughfare. In fact, we SoHoites didn’t often go north of Houston Street. I went only for the grocery store, the pharmacy, and the NYU swimming pool, which made me a “community member” with very second-class access, in addition to visiting my father, who as a retired NYU professor resided in its housing. Zukin’s image of “integration” suggests that street smarts are not among this sociologist’s sensitivities — not at all.

No matter whether “that space” refers to north or south of Houston — her language is unclear — the result has been radically different cultural entities, simply because NYU had nothing to do with SoHo. It didn’t purchase SoHo real estate and didn’t recruit SoHo stars, even though, as I noted in my book, many more SoHo residents than NYU professors had individual entries in Encyclopedia Britannica. Though much in Loft Living has footnotes, none appear in this paragraph, making it hard to blame Zukin’s misinformation on anyone else.

So many errors by a scholar with a Ph.D. isn’t easy; what is more surprising that these mistakes should appear in a book from a university press, which supposedly has academic advisors vetting manuscripts, only to be reprinted, visibly uncorrected, by a second university press. Not easy at all.

A version of this essay is forthcoming in Artists’ SoHo (Fordham University Press, late 2014).

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