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Brothels, Artists, and Exorbitant Real Estate on One NYC Block

Greene Street Project from the NYU Development Research Institute (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic via greenestreet.nyc)
Greene Street Project from the NYU Development Research Institute (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic via greenestreet.nyc)

One block of New York City’s Soho has had numerous identities over the past four centuries, including as a site of a colonial farm, brothels, a garment industry, industrial decay, an artist community, and now some of the world’s priciest real estate. The Greene Street Project from NYU’s Development Research Institute is an interactive site that examines development data at this hyper-micro level.

Before and after street view on the Greene Street Project
Before and after street view on the Greene Street Project

The online initiative launched last month, examining 468 feet of Greene Street between Prince and Houston. Music and visuals, with features like images sliding back and forth to reveal different eras, are accompanied by information from the US Census, historical archives, and city records. The Greene Street Project is based on the academic paper “A Long History of a Short Block: Four Centuries of Development Surprises on a Single Stretch of a New York City Street” by William Easterly, Laura Freschi, and Steven Pennings. They wrote:

As one episode from the block’s history illustrates, it is difficult for prescriptive planners to anticipate changes in comparative advantage, and it is easy for regulations to stifle creative destruction and to create misallocation. If economic growth indeed has a large component for increases in productivity through reallocation and innovation, we argue that the micro-level is important for understanding development at the national level.

Like much of Manhattan, the timeline of Greene Street is chaotic in its identities and fragile in its prosperity. When yellow fever drove people north in the 19th century, the former farming area became a thoroughfare of wealthy homes, but by 1870 there were 14 brothels making the street much seedier. Then at the beginning of the 20th century, garment factories moved in and the block yet again was in an economic boom, until the industry fell out and their giant buildings were left vacant.

"Artists Against the Expressway" petition on the Greene Street Project
“Artists Against the Expressway” petition on the Greene Street Project
Chart of market value of real estate on the Greene Street Block
Chart of real estate market value on Greene Street

After years of squalor, in the 1960s artists began taking over the lofts for studios, apartments, and exhibition spaces, such as the Castelli Gallery at 142 Greene Street which exhibited artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, and Jasper Johns. That resurgence made the block resilient to destruction, which was threatened by a Robert Moses plan to ram through an expressway and demolish its old infrastructure. Organizers in the 1969 Artists Against the Expressway included Yvonne Rainer, Roy Lichtenstein, Lucy Lippard, Robert Rauschenburg, and Donald Judd.

That upswing led to artists pushed out in the 1990s for high price real estate, and now Greene Street is mostly luxury shopping and ultra-luxury apartments, with Hugo Boss, Dior, Proenza Schouler, and an Apple store among its 2015 retailers. However, the Greene Street Project is less a negative criticism of gentrification and more about people powering a neighborhood out of decline rather than deliberate city planning. As the Greene Street Project states: “Plans happen at the macro-level, but change often happens at the local level.” And it also acts as something of a caution that a prosperous today in a continuously changing city like New York doesn’t guarantee a successful tomorrow.

Introduction screen on the Greene Street Project
Introduction screenshot from the Greene Street Project

h/t CityLab

View the Greene Street Project from the Development Research Institute at New York University online.

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