The SoHo Memory Project:
A Conversation with Yukie Ohta
“The story of SoHo is sort of the original story of adaptive reuse,” says Yukie Ohta, who was born and raised in the extraordinary New York neighborhood, which was ushered by artists from industrial to residential in the span of a few decades. Walking today among the painstakingly restored cast-iron buildings such as the 143-year-old “commercial palace” that is home to The Apartment by The Line, it is difficult to believe that SoHo was once viewed as an enormous slum ripe for demolition by the expressway that, thanks to locals and other urban activists, remained a gleam in Robert Moses’s eye.
Ohta, who lives in SoHo today with her husband and young daughter, remembers her childhood neighborhood not as a glamorous haven for artists but as a small community of families, all doing their best to domesticate industrial lofts. These were places of makeshift kitchens and bathrooms, typically installed through a bartered exchange with a handy neighbor; wintertime rituals of stapling tarps to the windows as insulation; and blackout curtains to conceal illegal living situations from the eyes of passing authorities.
As she watched the myth of the neighborhood grow even as it continued to change, Ohta sought to preserve the story of SoHo in a way that balanced tales of the area’s art superstars with the stuff of daily life. “I started the SoHo Memory Project because there was a lot out there about art, but there wasn’t much about the other aspects of the community,” she explains of her four-year-old blog and archival initiative. “I thought, I’ll build a community and then I’ll see if I can start an archive with that community, and that’s exactly what happened.”
With a graduate degree in library science, she is uniquely qualified to create a chronicle, and the stories and information she receives occasionally shed new light on her own history. Ohta recently learned that the giant foam sculpture in her childhood home, the one that she and her younger sister had always delighted in jumping upon from their loft bed, was a work by John Chamberlain. “He had probably traded it to the artist that had lived there before us,” she says with a laugh. “We had no idea what we were jumping on!”
Although I’ve lived in such exotic places as Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and even Brooklyn, I have always considered SoHo my home. Yukie Ohta
How did you come to be born and raised in SoHo?
My father was an artist in Japan, and he came here before I was born. He didn’t finish high school, so there was no place for him in Japanese society at that time. So he came here, found a couple of artist mentors. He had known my mother in Japan, but she didn’t come with him. She decided to come later. I was born in 1969, and we lived on Crosby Street, between Prince and Spring. I believe that after we moved out, Jean-Michel Basquiat lived in our building.
What are your earliest memories of the neighborhood?
The streets at night were so dark, because the street lights didn’t really work. There was no city support of the neighborhood, because they didn’t think, at least at the time, that anything here was worth protecting. But I remember during the day playing in the streets, jumping from loading dock to loading dock—a lot of these buildings were warehouses—and running underneath the trucks.
What was life at home like?
It was a funny, camping-style living situation, but I didn’t know anything different. I remember sleeping in my coat. These were industrial buildings that were not meant to be lived in and we were living there illegally, so the heat went off at five o’clock, because the city only required that the building be heated during business hours. My mother told me a crazy story—when we first started living on Crosby Street, we had a coal-burning stove, and there was actually a coal man who would come and dump a pile of coal on the sidewalk, and then my mother and my father had to get it up to the fifth floor.
When you were growing up, did SoHo have the feel of a true neighborhood?
It was so lovely. It was a small community and we all knew each other. We all did things for each other, because there were no services. Artists are very handy. And we had a cooperative playgroup where the parents would just take turns taking care of the children so that people could have days off.
What were some of the earliest changes you saw in SoHo?
At first, aside from Fanelli’s, there were really no restaurants except ones that were open for lunch for factory workers, but in 1971, a restaurant called Food opened on the corner of Wooster and Prince, and my playgroup was in the basement. It was little bit of a Wild West mentality. They had never opened a restaurant before, but they were very successful in doing it. Everybody ate there. It was so good. Everything was fresh and homemade. I remember the whole wheat bread and chunky soups and big pieces of cake. And they were far ahead of their time with locally sourced ingredients and seasonal dishes. There was already talk of organic versus non-organic. So it was a place mostly for locals, but then at a certain time there were new faces. You could tell the people who lived there from the people who didn’t live there just from their vibe and the way they dressed.
How would you describe the appearance of someone who lived there at the time?
They were a little less shiny than the other people—rummage sale clothes, not so planned. No hairdos.
What is the biggest misconception that people have about the SoHo of the past?
That it was glamorous. The story of SoHo is sort of the original story of adaptive reuse, going from commercial to residential. It’s done all the time now. Greenwich Village was before that, with gentrification, but but with SoHo, it was the first time an entire community had changed its character—it’s still zoned for light industry and manufacturing. And I think that it can be easy to take what SoHo is today and just bring it back thirty years. There really has been a tremendous change over those years that many people do not realize.
What’s next for the SoHo Memory Project?
I’ve started cataloging the collection of things that I have, and people are also offering new things as I go along. I want to eventually place the archive in a place where people can access it. It would be nice to have a place for it to live, where some of it could be digitized in addition to the artifacts to the materials on my blog. And maybe somebody could write a book about it. For me, SoHo is really an ongoing story, and we’re adding to it all the time.
I started the SoHo Memory Project because there was a lot out there about art, but there wasn’t much about the other aspects of the community. The SoHo Memory Project focuses on SoHo as a neighborhood made up of a wide variety of people, families, businesses, community groups, and all manner of creative activity. Ultimately, it will be a record of our lost community comprised of myriad memories and experiences. Yukie Ohta
Headed to SoHo? Plan your visit to our offline home, The Apartment by The Line.
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