A Moses Defeat, a Jacobs Victory

New York seems to be finally repairing itself after decades of “urban renewal”—wiping out small businesses, dislocating thousands of families, and frittering away its wealth on projects that were supposed to compensate the city’s tax return. Consider SoHo; big plans for a highway and urban renewal would have wiped out most of that district’s people, buildings, and potential for new and existing businesses. Now that district is one of the richest in the world and a great benefit to the city’s tax structure. For thirty years after the war, the city was not behaving like this. It was throwing away its potential.



The public takes SoHo for granted. Few people are familiar with its near loss. Few today who complain SoHo is overcommercialized are aware of the ruinous fate planned for it decades ago. And, perhaps, even fewer who celebrate its enduring uniqueness know what a hard-won victory it was to get it designated a landmark district after the defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Furthermore, the enormous impact of SoHo’s success on the rest of the country is hardly recognized. SoHo marked a turning point on many urban fronts that were not apparent to me when I first covered its changing fate.


4.1 SoHo actually has quite a variety of buildings in scale and style. Jared Knowles.

In February 1973 I wrote a story noting that almost three years after a public hearing, the Landmarks Preservation Commission still seemed to be a long way from designating SoHo a historic district and formally recognizing the unique character of its mid-nineteenth-century Cast Iron architecture.

SoHo takes its name from its location south of Houston Street and has the largest concentration in the country of Cast Iron architecture, one of the few original American contributions to architectural history. Few people even knew about Cast Iron buildings until the effort to save this substantial collection of them was initiated by a determined local resident, Margot Gayle. Gayle, a longtime Village resident, formed the Friends of Cast Iron to advocate for designation of the twenty-six-block area, circulated petitions, and educated the public unaware of the district’s value.

Cast Iron refers as much to a method of construction as an actual architectural style. It was an early form of modular construction and a product of the Industrial Revolution. The facades of buildings—including the Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian columns and all the intricate ornamental details—were cast in off-site New York foundries and assembled on the building sites, in much the same way prefabricated building is done today.

It was then both economical and efficient for commercial buildings because the extra strength of iron allowed larger window and interior spaces. In the nineteenth century, SoHo was New York’s wholesale textile center, with display areas dominating ground floors and storage space above. Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, Baltimore, and a host of other cities followed New York’s lead and built Cast Iron buildings in the nineteenth century, but most of these areas outside of New York have been substantially destroyed. Remnants of such districts in cities across the country have since seen a renaissance following SoHo’s. Where they survive, their preservation and reuse reflect a national phenomenon.


Robert Moses, the Lower Manhattan Expressway’s primary planner and advocate, had the area declared “blighted” in the 1950s. That designation was essential to condemn private property for the highway. Blight is as subjective a term as slum, as described in the previous chapter. And clearly, one can recognize how hollow was the term as applied to this area when one recognizes the solidity of the buildings since renovated. All of the upgrades now making SoHo so expensive could occur only after the expressway and blight designation were defeated.

The expressway would have wiped out what is now SoHo, even though scores of thriving businesses still filled the buildings that were so functionally flexible. But the designation of blight was the death knell for the neighborhood, a guarantee of accelerated decay. As Jacobs observed in our conversation about the expressway fight:

Sure, a scheme like that either causes or accelerates deterioration. Businesses leave when they see the handwriting on the wall or don’t even try to establish themselves in such a location. Property owners hold out for the lucrative buyout. It’s a miracle when a place like the North End in Boston or the West Village keeps on improving and people keep putting money in when a death sentence hangs over it. They can only do it with the courage of knowing that they aren’t going to allow that death sentence. Or being totally ignorant that it exists.

But the bankers are never ignorant about it and stop giving loans. When there’s a death sentence like that on an area, you always have to work around it and get odd bits of money and so forth, which can make a very good area in the end, if it’s done.


4.2 Cast-iron facades distinguish most SoHo buildings and did in the demolished areas as well. Jared Knowles.

“Odd bits of money” traditionally meant drawing on family and friends.

To make way for the planned ten-lane expressway and housing projects, forty-five acres of five- to six-story factory buildings (no higher than a hook-and-ladder fire truck could reach) were marked for extinction. “Hell’s 100 Acres,” the area was called by the fire department. Fires were common in the warehouses and small factories, and fire officials labeled the buildings firetraps. However, the activity in those buildings, not the buildings themselves, caused the fires. Code enforcement, not demolition, was called for. Factory floors were often piled with rags, garment scraps, bales of paper, open cans of chemicals, and other flammable objects. But the fire officials’ assessments fed right into the general public impression of the area as filled with derelict and discardable buildings.

In the 1960s the area became known as “the Valley” because its vast stock of low-rise industrial buildings lay between the skyscrapers of Wall Street and midtown. From the distance, the Manhattan skyline gives the impression of two separate cities, with a vast empty space between them.

Once the massive clearance projects were unveiled, this until then economically and socially viable district was doomed. This is the death-threat syndrome, also known as planners’ blight. Any residential, commercial, or industrial area begins to die once a new destiny is planned for it. Property owners cease maintenance, anticipating condemnation and demolition. Banks won’t lend money, even if property owners are inclined to invest. Businesses move out, not waiting for the battle to play out. In this case, few expected the plans to be canceled. Defeating highway and urban renewal plans was almost unthinkable at the time. Even if an announced plan eventually fails, the announcement alone has already killed a district or catalyzed its decline.

These kinds of plans are like a big billboard with a message to property owners: no future for this area, disinvest, cash out, leave. City services diminish. Activity spirals downward. This happens today, in New York and elsewhere, when big plans for stadia, mixed-use projects, and convention, entertainment, or retail centers and the like are announced. The decline of the targeted neighborhood becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is what happened to the South Houston Industrial Area that became SoHo. The death-threat syndrome killed it, not natural decay. Many experts tried to identify it otherwise. Many still do.

It is contradictory to label as dead or a slum any district where buildings are occupied, businesses function, and an economic ebb and flow exist. Any neighborhood witnessing sustained economic activity and new businesses moving in can’t be honestly declared blighted. This defies reason and economic logic. But it is still happening now in New York and elsewhere despite the lessons of the late twentieth century, as shown in different chapters of this book. Unfortunately, the leniency of the law simply allows a municipality to declare an area blighted on very loose standards.


The expressway had been planned and talked about since the 1940s, but was formally unveiled in 1959. The 1956 Federal Interstate Highway Act, with its 90 percent federal funding, gave highway planners the opportunity to implement scores of road projects long on the drawing boards. Jacobs got involved in 1962. During the West Village Urban Renewal fight in which she was so engaged, urban renewal and highway hearing dates would occasionally coincide. Thus, Villagers, like Jacobs, would hear informally about the expressway fight. “There was so little in the newspapers that I wouldn’t have been aware that it was going on if I hadn’t run into people in City Hall,” Jacobs recalled. “That’s how badly it was being covered. It wasn’t regarded really as news.”

Although the expressway had been in the planning for years, it really drew attention in the late 1950s or very early ’60s. The process accelerated with the expropriation of property, vacating of buildings, and eviction of people. Jacobs got involved when Father LaMountain from the Church of the Most Holy Crucifix on Broome Street in Little Italy called her. “He and his parishioners had been fighting it,” she said. “It would wipe out his street, church, parishioners, shops, and more. This was right after our West Village fight, and we’d won it, so he asked me if I would come to a meeting on this in early ’62. I was reluctant. I had put in a horrendous year. We didn’t get the West Village Urban Renewal designation removed until February ’62. It was a whole year.” Sleepless nights, skipped family meals, and dining room meetings marked the year. The Jacobs family had a signal to their cohorts: if the porch light was on, neighbors were welcome; if off, privacy requested. “There were meetings going on all the time. Most of the time, everybody was at work. Only in the evening could we do these things, so that’s the kind of year the whole family had. And we wouldn’t have missed it. I mean, we’d all love to have missed having the problem, but as long as we had it, we wouldn’t have missed fighting and winning it. No question about that. But we were pretty tired, and the idea of another fight. . . . So it took some persuasiveness on the part of Father LaMountain to have me just come to the meeting.”

That meeting in the spring of 1962 was the first time she realized the expressway was connected with the earlier fight to keep the road out of Washington Square. “We fought that very hard, beginning back in ’56,” she said. “Now I began to understand that this was connected. And if this expressway came through, our victory in Washington Square was a very Pyrrhic one. The ramps would be coming off, and if they didn’t come off through Washington Square, they’d come off damn close and in other places in the Village too. These monsters come back, you know.”

The larger citywide agenda of Moses and city officials slowly became visible. They had heard about a map in David Rockefeller’s Lower Manhattan Development Office. “It showed all the redone things, combinations of highways and new real estate developments on both sides of Manhattan, all the way up the West Side. So I began to see that these were other facets of the very same fight, that somebody had a great vision of how New York was to be. We kept running into this vision, and it was a monstrous vision. You would see this piece of it and that piece of it, and it wasn’t paranoid to think that it was an overall plan that the public really didn’t know that much about. It was clear what a disaster it would portend for the Village and other neighborhoods.” A built Lower Manhattan Expressway would have relegated the city to neighborhood fragments scattered between and within the clover leafs. His only goal: efficiency for moving automotive traffic. Cities, he believed, should serve traffic. This does not make for a strong city.

It had not been long since Death and Life was published in 1961. She had finished it just before the West Village fight. “Thank God,” she said with a great sigh. “If I’d had to give that much time to the fight, I’d have had to drop the book. I finished it in January, went back to work at Architectural Forum, and in February the West Village fight began. The book was published in October 1961.”

The conflict seemed right out of the pages of her book. She agreed. “It was even much worse than I had ever believed or dreamed when I was writing the book. I couldn’t believe there would’ve been this much stupidity about New York.”

At Father La Mountain’s meeting, everybody said the expressway was inevitable. “All of our elected officials, because they knew how unpopular it was, were always going on record against it,” she remembered, “but were never doing a thing to stop it and were always preaching defeatism. Moses was the real promoter, joined by all the traffic and highway people, the Regional Plan Association, the Planning Commission. Mayor Wagner seemed to be for it, but with Wagner, a wonderful thing happened. We had a hearing, and we actually changed the mind, as far as one can tell, of the Board of Estimate.” The hearing was a day or two before Christmas, not an uncommon ploy to ensure poor public turnout. “Well, instead we neglected our Christmas. I even feel bitter about that to this day, that they stole one of my Christmases from me. Well, they didn’t really. We ended up with a great Christmas present.” The issue, she recalled, was probably the expropriation of the land, funds, and authorization for it. “It was one of the big steps,” she said. “Once that was okayed, it was the point of no return.”

But the public testimony changed the mind of the Board of Estimate. The opposition had been conducting a long, hard fight with every kind of pressure, and more and more people were involved and were showing up in busloads. That seemed to persuade the officials. “It may have been what it seemed like,” Jacobs said. “But how does one know behind the scenes what were the operative levers and deciding factors? There was really nobody there who argued for it, except a man from David Rockefeller’s downtown association. I think it’s important that there weren’t many highway people and not much preparation on their side. I think they thought they had a sure thing. And we had so many people, so much preparation, and facts and figures and arguments. I really think that it swayed them; they already knew they had a big and growing fight on their hands.”

Opponents testified about jobs that would be destroyed and businesses that would be lost, contrasting lost jobs with the temporary nature and number of jobs that would be achieved. “What we talked about most was how New York would be ruined,” she continued, “if you kept trying to supply, first and foremost, roads for automobiles, and letting everything else disintegrate and just fit in the margins. Then the Board of Estimate went into a session, and we waited. It was an hour or two, quite a while. They came out, sat down, and voted against the expressway. Incredible! We’d won. Fantastic!”

The fight died down for a while, but it wasn’t the end. It came up again the next year in some form for reconsideration. “Now the fight was not only taken up by the Planning Commission,” she said, “but also very vigorously by the State Highway Department, which meant it was taken up very vigorously by Governor Nelson Rockefeller [1959-1973]. The state became our chief opponent.”

Gee, this is one reason I hate Nelson Rockefeller. I only saw him face-to-face once and talked to him once in my life, and he told me a lie [laughter]. The only firsthand experience I had with him is one great big lie.

He came down to the San Gennaro Festival when he was running for governor. It was in the area that would be destroyed. We had a bullhorn and kept following him. We kept telling people that this man had a plan that was going to destroy the neighborhood, that this man was supporting the expressway, that this man was going to take their homes away from them. The expressway would’ve taken the guts right out of Little Italy. We took turns saying, “Governor Rockefeller, why do you want to destroy this neighborhood?” We stuck close to him.

Finally it got on his nerves, evidently. He tried to ignore it for a long time; we just kept at it. So he turned around, and I happened to have the horn in my hand. We were all taking turns. He said that this was a city, not a state, matter. I disputed him on that. I said it was on the state highway map, and we wanted it taken off. He said that he believed in local government, and the state would do whatever the mayor and the Board of Estimate wanted. So I pinned him down. I said, “If the Board of Estimate turns down this plan, will you have the state take it off the highway map?” And he said yes, he would.

I really pinned him down: “You promise that if the Board of Estimate turns this down, that you will take it off the state map?” “I promise I will,” he said. “It’s your own government that wants this; don’t come after me about it. We will do whatever the city wants.” Okay, that was the great big lie, because then we got the Board of Estimate to turn it down. We promptly began trips to Albany to get it off the state map. Governor Rockefeller promised this. Thousands of people heard him. He promised it to me!

[But in Albany] we got a great runaround from everybody. Everyone was sympathetic. God, we saw a lot of people. They all would say you have to have the city liaison people . . . and the city liaison people would say that it was up to the people in Albany. What it came down to was that the governor wouldn’t allow it to be taken off in spite of this grand public promise before thousands of people. So, that’s the only person-to-person communication I ever had with Rockefeller, and all it amounted to was a huge lie. If the only thing somebody ever told you was a lie, would you like him?

After that, in 1964 she thought, it was rescheduled, and this time the opposition lost. Dozens of construction workers showed up, as they often did for big projects (and still do). One can always tell if they’re paid; they leave right at five o’clock. The new hearings were on technical aspects of land acquisition, not whether it should or shouldn’t happen at all. Many postponements followed for one reason or another. “All kinds of shenanigans were occurring. We kept finding out new things, such as that they were promising a housing project and that it would transgress the new pollution laws soon to be passed.” Much was “going on at top speed,” she said. “Eventually came the time when they had to change their tune because of those pollution laws.”


The pollution laws had a significant impact on the course of this fight, since increased traffic would logically increase pollution. The idea that the speed of the cars diminished the pollution did not prevail. Thus, the proponents changed the argument for the expressway to what was to be built with it. “All of a sudden they were going to have this great, glorious swatch of land right across Manhattan that was going to be full of fountains, gardens, and new buildings of all sorts,” Jacobs explained. “That’s what they now tried to say the expressway was all about. It wasn’t about how many cars it would carry anymore, for heaven’s sake.”

The new school and park proposal apparently stiffened the resolve of people in Chinatown. They would get enough carbon monoxide at their children’s school to do them harm. About this time, Jacobs recalled, it became known that in the apartment houses built over the newly constructed approach to the George Washington Bridge, people couldn’t open their windows.1 “The whole idea of combining housing or schools with expressways, for the first time, was frightening people,” Jacobs observed. “People there were complaining they had headaches all the time. The Department of Health, I think it was, warned people not to open their windows. The song and dance about, ‘Oh, there’s less pollution, because the cars are going fast,’ just didn’t hold up in real life. There was concentrated pollution there.”

So the pollution issue, because of the new laws, was becoming a real problem. The proponents had already given figures about how many cars this expressway would carry.

I think they were inflated for cost-benefit purposes. Using those figures creates the pollution problem. Now all of a sudden they have to argue that they won’t have many cars. They never would discuss these two things—cost benefits and pollution—at the same meeting.

So, they tried very hard to change the subject. This is the first time the subject had to be changed, because it was the first time that these things came into conflict—the amount of pollution as against the cost? That was in ’67 when they began changing the subject, without much success, because this had gone on for so many years, people understood what an expressway would do. It was something very real to them.


One of the great eccentric stories about Jane Jacobs is her arrest during the expressway fight. Many versions are told. Some who say they were with her during the incident even tell a different version from her own. She recounted in detail how it really happened in our conversation of March 1978, some of which is included here.

The state held a hearing to focus on a new big promotion for all this great land development that was going to occur, all of a sudden softpedaling, or ignoring, the number of cars, because now they worried about the pollution factor. The plan for the school had been found out. A committee was researching the pollution impact, and they were very frightened. So now comes a hearing on the grand physical environment that was going to be built around the expressway, downplaying the number of cars. They kept talking about fountains, fountains everywhere, so many beautiful fountains. And gardens and things to appeal to the environmentalists.

People tried asking: if it wasn’t going to increase the pollution because there would not be so many cars, then how could the cost be justified? They would say that’s not what this hearing is about. It was a great charade.

Then a hearing was scheduled that she knew was meant to pacify the community. According to Frances Goldin of the Cooper Square Committee, Jacobs arranged with a few of them to stage some kind of protest action. When they got to the meeting, something new was happening. Instead of the lectern for speakers from the public facing the stage where officials were supposed to be listening, it was instead facing the audience, as if citizens only needed to address each other. This was like adding salt to a wound. The public already felt the elected leaders were not interested in what they had to say. This was proof.

Jacobs wanted to “send a message” to officialdom. No one of official consequence was on the stage to listen anyway. Her strategy of “sending a message” was to just quietly walk across the stage from one side to the other in protest. She invited anyone who was similarly inclined to follow. As they walked across the stage, an apparently frightened stenotypist grabbed her steno machine, clutched it to her chest, and, in the process, dropped the tape, which began unraveling all over the stage. Protesters apparently helped send it in the air, grabbing it and tossing it around like confetti. At this point, Jacobs declared that the hearing didn’t happen because there was no record.2

What ensued was quite serious in Jacobs’s mind. She didn’t like being arrested and charged with inciting to riot, criminal mischief, and obstructing public administration. The community had to hold fund-raisers to pay for her defense. Of course, charges were eventually dropped but not before she was actually booked, charged, and eventually ordered by a judge to pay for damages. She didn’t believe for one minute that any damage occurred, but she and her lawyer kept asking the city for receipts of costs of damage in order to fulfill her responsibility. They never received any. The matter simply ended.

In various conversations, Jacobs repeated the point that lawsuits are most useful in these fights just for the benefits of delay, delay, delay. “Some issues you fight with lawsuits and buy time that way,” she explained. “With others, you buy time by throwing other kinds of monkey wrenches in. You have to buy time in all these fights. The lawsuit way is the most expensive.”


“We accomplished something with all this mess,” she pointed out. “The feds held a hearing, declaring the expressway environmentally unacceptable. Well, well, that verdict really changed the subject, you see what I mean? [laughter] So my arrest bought some time, and it was well worth it. That’s why I plea-bargained, to buy more time. I would have gone to jail if necessary. But the only point of it was to buy time to continue working in Washington on the environment and get a judgment against the expressway based on figures about that school, for instance, and about the general pollution that it would cause based on their own figures on new traffic to be generated.”

By the time the decision was made in D.C. on the environmental questions, the Jacobs family had moved to Toronto in 1968. “It was a little like the West Village fight,” she said. “After a while, Washington wanted the West Village thing to end. It was giving the urban renewal program a bad name all over the country. There were editorials in the Saturday Evening Post about the West Village. [laughter] There were pictures all over the U.S. of people protesting it with adhesive tape and x’s on their glasses. It was a bad image for them, a bad press that they were getting. I think highway people in Washington began to feel the same thing was happening with the expressway, too.”

The pollution laws were still new. “It was one of the earliest cases to go this way. And it was an unequivocal thing. You could see how much pollution would occur. The state had used these increased car figures very early to justify spending this much money and doing this amount of destruction because of how much traffic it would accommodate. But now it was over and, eventually, demapped.”


After years of protracted battles, the expressway was killed by the Lindsay administration.3 By then, the district was an empty shadow of its former self.

With the expressway out of the way in 1969, the Landmarks Commission held a hearing on the district’s designation proposal in 1970, the first historic district in a primarily commercial area. There were then eighteen districts. Also that year, the city legalized the residential use by artists of lofts in commercial buildings. Buildings with artists illegally occupying them had small signs put on the front door, AIR for “artist in residence,” to alert the fire department in case of a fire. Occupied buildings were given this designation also to protect people who had fixed up derelict spaces. Art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and a few artist-entrepreneurs were already sprouting around the area, coexisting comfortably with the more than twenty thousand people who still worked in a variety of light manufacturing industries. No one doubted that industry would probably continue to leave the area.

The significance of SoHo and the critical importance of its preservation for the course of urban development and downtown regeneration nationwide was unclear to most people at the time citizens were vigorously seeking its designation as a historic district. Certainly, it was not yet clear to me. I wrote several stories about the civic campaign, but my focus was on SoHo as an internationally significant architectural district and the fight to gain historic district status for it. My recognition of the multidimensional significance emerged slowly. Eventually, SoHo’s profound impact on the course of American urban history became apparent.4

The designation of SoHo as a historic district in August 1973 marked a turning point in the evolution of historic preservation in New York and the country. It was the first gritty, working commercial district so designated and thus expanded preservation thinking from the limitations of individual architectural treasures and residential districts with a cohesive style. Its rescue and landmarks designation broadened the understanding of what makes areas historically, culturally, and economically important, not just architecturally significant. Until then, the Georgian, Federal, brownstone, and other period-dominant districts were the convention. Georgetown, Greenwich Village, Rittenhouse Square, Beacon Hill, the French Quarter, and similar revered districts were the favorites.


Manhattan manufacturing during the Depression decreased less than in the rest of the country. During World War II, it increased moderately. The biggest cause of subsequent decline in New York City was the clearance for urban renewal at numerous sites around the city, including the dozen square blocks south of Washington Square Park to Canal Street, where SoHo now starts, and east of City Hall in lower Manhattan for vehicular access to the Brooklyn Bridge. Remember, these businesses were not planning to close. They were forced out. Some survived elsewhere; others closed for good.

In the 1960s decline accelerated considerably, as more neighborhoods were cleared and the new highways made cheap suburban sites readily accessible. It is difficult to recognize even today the viable economic uses in messy, down-at-the-heels working districts. Such areas are rarely pretty, seldom freshly landscaped, and hardly ever located in new, pricey buildings. Trucks proliferate. White-cloth restaurants are a distance away. On the surface, nothing significant seems to be happening. This is very deceptive. Incubation of the new and growth of the established are difficult to detect easily. This is the process Jacobs described as “adding new work to old,” the real expansion of economic activity. This definition of growth is quite different from the conventional economic development today.

This Lower Manhattan district had the kind of mix of size, style, and age of buildings that observers today recognize as cradles of diverse and productive activity. This is obvious today because so many districts have followed the SoHo pattern, but when Jacobs et al. were fighting the expressway, few recognized this economic occurrence. “Innovators like to be around people and environments that are friendly to them versus rigid environments,” Jacobs observed. “They want the SoHos of the world where they can function in idiosyncratic ways.”

A 1963 study of SoHo by Chester Rapkin, an economist and unconventional planner, revealed some fifty categories of industrial activity, including furriers and makers of dolls, rags, belts, pens, wheel hubs, and boxes, among other things. The twelve-block district contained 416 buildings, 2,000 housing units, 800 commercial and industrial businesses, and 12,000 jobs. Most workers were minorities; almost half were women.5

Rapkin’s report officially changed nothing. “Good planners are powerless,” Jane Jacobs observed. The official word remained that the district was dead or dying, a collection of moribund, out-of-date, falling-down buildings. This is always the well-publicized, often-repeated official description of a district for which a new agenda has been written. Probably every rejuvenated district in the country has been, at one time, declared moribund and always “blighted” by the so-called experts, hired to justify the new political or development agenda. SoHo is probably the best known of them.

In this case, the new agenda was Robert Moses’s plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway and his large-scale housing schemes mentioned earlier. Thus, SoHo offers a sharp lens into urban change, Robert Moses style. Here, a highway is central; later, we’ll see on the Upper West Side, Lincoln Center and housing developments were central.

Nowhere was the Robert Moses approach to cities more clear. Vast highway networks and urban renewal plans were valued more than organically evolved cities; elaborate schemes gratuitously ripped through neighborhoods, setting a pattern of highway building, centralized planning, and urban annihilation for the country. Robert Moses was the earliest, most visible, and most powerful exponent of this view, as the next chapter demonstrates. From New York, the Moses doctrine took hold all over the country. Ironically, the Lower Manhattan Expressway battle began the shift away from the Moses doctrine to the views expounded by Jacobs.


Once the expressway was announced, serious deterioration set in. Vacancies multiplied. Artists grabbed the opportunity of vast, cheap space and pioneered the organic rebirth of the district. They began filling the vacant lofts illegally, creating attractive, functional living and work spaces. Residential use in the industrial area was against the law. But landlords, unable to find business tenants, welcomed the artist-occupant. It was a cash agreement and kept secret until the highway project was killed and the move began to legalize artists’ living and work spaces.

Coincidentally, contemporary art experienced a radical shift to large-scale work in the 1960s. Lofts averaged twenty-five hundred square feet of open floor space. (Manufacturers remained longer in the bigger ones.) The large windows of Cast Iron construction flooded each floor with natural light. Freight elevators provided useful access. Rents were affordable. It was a perfect prescription for artists.

Even before the SoHo loft trend took hold, Westbeth, an innovative industrial conversion, had occurred. This complex of thirteen attached buildings was built over twenty years starting in 1880 and served as the research center of the American Bell Telephone Company. In 1965, with critical support and guidance from the J. M. Kaplan Fund and designs by architect Richard Meier, the complex was converted to live-work spaces, the first on a large scale. The media attention it attracted surely helped the loft-conversion momentum.

Elsewhere, urban renewal and market high-rises were demolishing artists’ lofts and studios, along with whole neighborhoods, particularly in Greenwich Village, the artists’ neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s. Artist space was at a premium. The destruction in the Village was halted with its designation as a historic district in 1969. The expanding grassroots group pushing the Landmarks Commission for designation counted on the same result for SoHo.

With the defeat of the expressway and gradual occupancy by artists, the transformation of SoHo had begun. City planning, zoning, and land-marking policies just had to catch up.

Not one dime of public investment or developer subsidy made SoHo happen. In fact, the defeat of a big misplanned public investment made SoHo possible. Only in the defeat of the highway did urbanism have a chance. Only in the defeat of excessive, top-down plans did SoHo have a chance. After the defeat, spontaneous regeneration took hold. Individual creativity rescued the beleaguered district planners sought to raze. When not doomed by centrally planned, inappropriate projects, many urban and small-town districts can regenerate productively.


This pattern of planned urban destruction parading as renewal, set by Moses and his disciples, led to the sprawling, dysfunctional landscape with which the country now wrestles. Jacobs was Moses’s most vigorous and visible opponent.

Jacobs argued that the unplanned mix of uses is what constitutes a healthy urban district and sustains a viable urban economy. Her concept of mixed use is defined here with the complex combination of industrial, commercial, residential, and cultural uses. Additionally, and quite importantly, a mix of building ages and scale is present. Districts like this, she argued, were more valuable to a city’s economy than highways. Their value was underappreciated, she believed. Such a sensible and observable reality was heresy when Death and Life was published in 1961. She contradicted what the profession of planning was about and threatened power centers everywhere.6 The “sacking of cities” is how she labeled what was happening at the time. This adds significance to the expressway defeat, a significance that reaches well beyond even the rescue and regeneration of SoHo. Urban districts should not be sacrificed for expensive, wasteful, destructive clearance projects, she argued.

SoHo was the biggest and most obvious battleground of the Moses-Jacobs urban philosophies that first unfolded in Washington Square Park. Grassroots battles against similar wrongheaded plans increased exponentially across the United States, especially highway urban renewal plans, inspired by Jacobs’s words and activism. Community-based planning, historic preservation, and the “recycling” of buildings triumphed. Other neighborhoods and cities followed the pattern, stalling the bulldozers of urban renewal and highways in many places.

The lines were drawn dramatically in SoHo. This was a widely publicized and significant grassroots victory over top-down, autocratic planning. The reverberations had national impacts: Other groups were energized to fight harder if they were already embattled or to begin to do so if they weren’t.

There were other community leaders around the country leading local fights against highways through cities, as Jane Jacobs did in SoHo. None gained the attention she did, being in the media capital of the country. Until then, only government officials and business leaders made decisions. They usually didn’t live in the community and knew nothing of its vitality. If it was old, they just declared it a slum.

Before its designation for a highway, SoHo performed the age-old function of a healthy urban neighborhood that provides an outlet for innovation, gives birth to new businesses, permits established businesses to grow and adapt, adds new substance to the local economy, and exports its people and innovations to the rest of the city and country. “A lot more work than you imagine is occurring in SoHo,” Jacobs observed in a 1981 conversation, “especially in artists’ studios. Art is work, a very important work for cities, a very important export. Also, a lot of the services to this work, suppliers of various kinds, are there too. This is one of the few up-and-coming areas of New York. There ought to be forty to fifty neighborhoods like that.”

SoHo’s revival demonstrated that the spontaneous generation that once characterized New York’s growth was still possible. In fact, this revival was happening during the 1970s when the economic condition of the city as a whole could not have been bleaker. The impact of SoHo on the larger city of New York is endless. SoHo changed the way we view all cities.


Preservationists have long been in the vanguard of opposition to inappropriate change, since historically or culturally important resources are often in the way of misguided plans. Incorrectly, preservationists are often accused of being against all change and for freezing the city. In fact, they oppose the erasure, mutilation, and overwhelming of places of value.

The highway defeat gave heart to urbanists, community defenders, progressive planners, and all other opponents of invasive projects mislabeled as “progress.” Thus, SoHo helped slow the automobile-focused development nationwide that has destroyed so many viable neighborhoods, architectural treasures, and cultural resources.

SoHo survived the worst kind of planned impediments and then flourished under strict government limitations imposed first by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and then the City Planning Commission. Basic rules and regulations have protected the area from excessive and overwhelming change, not from change itself. SoHo buildings are being constantly altered by what Jacobs called “adaptations, ameliorations, and densifications,” and new Modernist buildings are replacing nonhistoric structures and filling empty sites. In fact, because SoHo was so successful, it attracted a parade of upscale, innovative contemporary buildings, designed by big-name architects (Jean Nouvel, Gwathmy Siegel, Smith Hawkinson), all enthusiastically approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in recent years.

These are the kind of rules that permit, even encourage, change within the context of what already exists. The integrity, scale, and individuality of scores of distinct neighborhoods are similarly protected by historic district designation. SoHo’s transformation after the expressway defeat defines productive change: New is added to old; some pieces are replaced, but new does not overwhelm the whole. Some old is renovated and updated for new uses. The layering process of history is continued, not interrupted. Most dramatically, the SoHo Syndrome has done more to retain the middle class in cities and stimulate new economic innovations than any planning or government-supported new development.7

Discouragements to conventional development fundamentally helped SoHo’s spontaneous metamorphosis. The restrictions were precisely what prevented wholesale alteration of the district, prevented a different development agenda from overwhelming it, and gave it the value property owners enjoy today.

Citizen activists stood ready to defend SoHo turf each step of the way. They lost few battles. No public funding, tax incentives, or zoning bonuses were necessary. The conventionalists who once decried the messy mixture of urban uses in gritty districts now celebrated the “mixed use” that SoHo epitomized.

Conventional economists, Wall Streeters, planners, and city officials undervalue these microeconomies that feed, sustain, and expand the larger city economy, the way the city’s economy functioned in its most robust eras. These are the areas where new work is added to old, the kind of new work that authentically grows an urban economy. In recent boom years, misguided upzoning plans have been the constant threat to the continuation and expansion of these microeconomies. The frontiers within the city to which this dynamic energy can move are fewer and fewer due to a wave of upzoning, excessive development schemes, and escalating real estate values. Too many of these people and activities are simply being pushed out of the city limits.

What has happened in recent years can’t be called modest anymore. In some ways, this has been a function of a national economy affecting every New York neighborhood and most American cities. What will happen now that this overheated cycle has cooled dramatically is anyone’s guess. But only one thing is sure. The variety and flexibility of SoHo’s building stock are in a good position to weather future dramatic shifts. The urban constant of change will continue to reshape SoHo and every other neighborhood.


Change is a constant in SoHo. As it exported its innovations and innovators, new things have taken their place. The complaint today is that SoHo is losing its character as an arts district. As prices escalate, galleries and artists leave, chain stores and restaurants move in, and tourists increase in numbers. This is especially dramatic in the era of a weak dollar, making New York City a foreign shopper’s dream. Fortunately, the City Planning Commission followed the lead of a few dissenting commissioners and resisted an attempt in the 1990s to permit larger retail stores that would have accelerated that change and more dramatically undermined SoHo’s artistic character and economic value. In this case, however, several fights ensued to prevent the Planning Commission from increasing parking. The protections in place for maintaining mixed use and manufacturing were constantly under attack. Over the years, however, manufacturing uses continued to diminish, but gradually, and conversions to residential continue today. Modest urban change, however, is both inevitable and most often healthy.

Nothing born or created in SoHo has been lost in the last decade of change. Whatever and whoever have left exist elsewhere. Chances are their art or business has expanded. The only losers, actually, are the residential or business renters outpriced by the market. Some of the artists and entrepreneurs who left did so in better condition than when they came. An artist friend of mine, for example, lives in a SoHo loft co-op. He was there fifteen years ago when it went co-op and bought cheap, as did other artists in the building. Several of his neighbors have sold their apartments, gaining financially, moving elsewhere to live more cheaply, using their financial gain productively, leaving town for greener pastures, or making other life changes of their choice.

Is this bad? It could be, if it weakens New York as a creative capital and if New York does not continue to regenerate and incubate new artists. But this incubation is, for the moment, still happening, very much so, in pockets all over the city. Some of the very people leaving SoHo and moving elsewhere are helping the process take hold in emerging SoHo-type districts in other cities. If anything, the recent economic freefall helps them stay. Landlords know better than to try to continue to raise rents excessively and, in fact, have lowered them in many places. Some areas are a convenient train ride or a short drive from the New York City marketplace. Isn’t this what healthy urbanism is all about, the nurturing and exporting of innovations and innovative people? Both the incubating and the exporting must be happening at once, however, for the process to be a healthy one.

The piecing back together of the abused and undervalued manufacturing precincts like SoHo is happening across America. But the SoHo Syndrome doesn’t work if assets are not there. The places where this process works have context, urban fabric, history, and committed citizens to make it work. It can’t work where demolition is overwhelming. At that point, reproducing the urban fabric may be as alien as an enclosed shopping center. Replication is a trap. The result is form, not substance.


Jacobs actually summed it up quite well in 2005, a year before she died. On my periodic Toronto visits, we always discussed what was going on in New York, and I reported to her the proposed zoning changes for the Greenpoint-Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. This was a classic gritty, mixed-use neighborhood in the real meaning of mixed use. Single-family homes, small apartment houses, tenements, and small local retailers were scattered among all manner of manufacturing and art and artisan uses, housed in former warehouses and manufacturing buildings. This neighborhood was a classic incubator of new businesses of all kinds.

As gritty as it looked, Greenpoint-Williamsburg had been improving in recent years in a natural pattern of individualized upgraded uses (unslumming was the term Jacobs used in Death and Life). It had become one of the new frontiers for artists and small or start-up manufacturers, as SoHo, Tribeca, and other Lower Manhattan districts became unaffordable. An overscaled rezoning that encouraged new high-rise, high-rent housing would undoubtedly undermine this robust economic and social process. And that was exactly what the city was proposing, without even a required percentage of units at affordable prices or any significant protection to keep industrial properties from conversion to residential. Incentives for developers to provide affordable units were included, but it meant letting them build even more units than permitted under the new zoning. In prior years, developers were required to include a minimum percentage with zoning bonuses only for an increase above the minimum.


4.3 Low-scale Greenpoint-Williamsburg was rezoned and overwhelming high-rises followed—stopped, temporarily only, by the economic collapse. Ron Shiffman.


4.4 New upscale towers raised real estate values throughout Greenpoint-Williamsburg, threatening affordable housing and industrial uses. Ron Shiffman.

Jacobs had seen this scenario unfold too many times, not just in New York. Hesitant to go public anymore on New York issues because of the flood of phone calls that usually followed, in April 2005 she agreed to write a letter in this case:

Dear Mayor Bloomberg:

My name is Jane Jacobs. I am a student of cities, interested in learning why some cities persist in prospering while others persistently decline; why some provide social environments that fulfill the dreams and hopes of ambitious and hardworking immigrants, but others cruelly disappoint the hopes of immigrant parents that they have found an improved life for their children. I am not now a resident of New York although most of what I know about cities I learned in New York during the almost half-century of my life here after I arrived as an immigrant from an impoverished Pennsylvania coal mining city in 1934.

I am pleased and proud to say that dozens of cities, ranging in size from London to Riga in Latvia, have found the vibrant success and vitality of New York to demonstrate useful and helpful lessons for their cities and have realized that failures in New York are worth study as needed cautions.

Let’s think first about revitalization successes; they are great and good teachers. They don’t result from gigantic plans and show-off projects, in New York or in other cities either. They build up gradually and authentically from diverse human communities; successful city revitalization builds itself on these authentic community foundations, as the community-devised 197-A plan does for Greenpoint.

What the intelligently worked-out plan devised by the community itself does not do is worth noticing. It does not destroy hundreds of manufacturing jobs, desperately needed by New York citizens and by the city’s stagnating and stunted manufacturing economy. The community’s plan does not cheat the future by neglecting to provide for schools, daycare, recreational outdoor sports, and pleasant facilities for those things. The community’s plan does not promote new housing at the expense of both existing housing and imaginative and economical new shelter that residents can afford. The community’s plan does not violate the existing scale of the community, nor does it insult the visual and economic advantages of neighborhoods that are precisely of the kind that demonstrably attract artists and other live-work craftsmen, initiating spontaneous and self-organizing renewal. Indeed, so much renewal is happening so rapidly that the problem converts to how to make an undesirable neighborhood into an attractive one less rapidly.

Of course the community’s plan does not promote any of the vicious and destructive results mentioned. Why would it? . . .

But the proposal put before you by city staff is an ambush containing all those destructive consequences, packaged very sneakily with visually tiresome, unimaginative, and imitative luxury project towers. How weird, and how sad, that New York, which has demonstrated successes enlightening to so much of the world, seems unable to learn lessons it needs for itself. I will make two predictions with utter confidence. 1. If you follow the community’s plan, you will harvest a success; 2. If you follow the proposal before you today, you will maybe enrich a few heedless and ignorant developers, but at the cost of an ugly intractable mistake. Even the presumed beneficiaries of this misuse of governmental powers, the developers and financiers of luxury towers, may not benefit; mis-used environments are not good long-term economic bets.

Come on, do the right thing. The community really does know best.

Sincerely, Jane Jacobs

This letter clearly articulated well-defined principles without any prescription for style, design, or use designations. But that was what she was about. This is pure Jacobs and the antithesis of generally accepted government policy.

SoHo regenerated organically through the private actions of many individuals, mostly artists to start. But that was in the 1970s when few cared about this district. Few noticed what was happening because it was ad hoc and in small, almost unnoticeable, steps. Few recognized the significance of these small things slowly adding up to big change. As noted, this was happening unnoticed as well in neighborhoods around the city, from the Upper West Side to the South Bronx to Park Slope. The unfolding change was different in each neighborhood because the people and neighborhoods were different, shaped by many individual doers, including some developers. But those development plans for the most part were in scale with the neighborhood, too contained to spur cataclysmic change. But by the 1990s and surely by 2000, real estate investors discovered similarly gritty Greenpoint-Williamsburg and other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Planning officials were right there to initiate rezoning plans to expedite new frontiers for excessive neighborhood-altering new development. Jane’s letter to the mayor could have been sent on behalf of any of those neighborhoods targeted for rezoning.

How ironic! The historic district, SoHo, that showed the nation the potential for regeneration of industrial neighborhoods had unleashed a redevelopment frenzy now undermining the virtues and authentic character of similar neighborhoods across the city.

SoHo’s earlier history exposes the intentional destruction of New York’s industrial economy. This is little recognized. SoHo is only one example of this destructive path. The conventionally accepted view that industry died a natural death or spontaneously left town for suburban locations is contradicted by the SoHo story, as with other areas of the city, as we will see.

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