Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

The Cultural Upside of a Downturn

Jesse Rifkin

June 26, 2024

If the city gets sucked into a doom loop, it could be a boon to the arts.

If the city gets sucked into a doom loop, it could be a boon to the arts.

You’ve probably heard something about New York City’s alleged descent into the “urban doom loop” — possibly from the New York Times, possibly from your Fox News-loving aunt who thinks you’re going to get shot on your way to dinner. The basic premise, hypothesized in 2022 by Columbia professor Stijn Van Nieuwerbergh, is this: The postpandemic trend of people working from home would leave office buildings empty, and moneyed commuters would relocate to the suburbs (non-white-collar workers have no say in this cataclysm, natch). As a result, property values on office buildings will plummet, property taxes will decrease, the City’s already cash-strapped bureaucracy will be further diminished, public services will decline, and NYC will devolve into a crime-ridden cesspool.

The first part of Van Nieuwerbergh’s theory, so far, has been proven correct. According to a recent report by the investment management company Colliers, 18.1% of New York office space was vacant in the first quarter of 2024, the highest number ever recorded (up 8.1% from 2020). But while some media organs would argue that the second part has been realized too, NYPD reports show overall crime rates trending downward (although felony assault and sexual assaults have gone up).

But both sides of the doom loop conversation miss some essential points: One, that the process, if it indeed happens, will likely take years, if not decades, to fully come to fruition; and two, that the doom loop has played out in New York City before — and while it did lead to the predicted loss of public services and increase in crime, which were indeed serious consequences, it also directly helped birth the late 20th century arts culture that played a role in the City’s improved financial fortunes (and gentrification/housing crisis) in the 21st century.

SoHo emerges

In the early 20th century, New York was a major hub for manufacturing and industrial labor. But starting in the early 1950s, tax incentives and technological innovations led many factories to relocate, taking their jobs and tax dollars with them. At the same time, a postwar tightening of immigration laws and the trend of “white flight” to the suburbs gradually emptied out the city’s working-class and immigrant neighborhoods. It all came to a head in 1975, when the City was forced to declare bankruptcy. Municipal jobs and services were cut, leading to a further exodus of residents and jobs, a decrease in tourism and (though correlation is not causation) a significant rise in crime.

This transformation was especially noticeable in SoHo. Once a bustling industrial district, by the late 1950s, it had become a ghost town. Many of SoHo’s abandoned factories were marked for demolition by Robert Moses, who needed the space to construct his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane superhighway connecting Long Island and New Jersey. Thankfully, Moses’ plans, approved in 1960, were put on hold in 1968 following a massive public outcry; the Expressway was fully demapped in 1972.

Over the course of the 1960s, SoHo slowly became an avant-garde arts district, with galleries, studios, music venues and experimental theaters.

But in the interim, Downtown landlords were flummoxed. With their properties’ futures in question, it didn’t make sense to keep pouring money into their maintenance, but it also didn’t seem wise to wholly abandon them. Luckily, there was a third option: Let people live in them illegally for cheap, without amenities or legal recourse, but with minimal oversight.

Nothing about these buildings suggested they were inhabitable. But for experimental artists who had found themselves shut out of traditional venues and living with razor-thin financial margins, they were a godsend. Over the course of the 1960s, in flagrant violation of numerous housing and zoning laws, SoHo slowly became an avant-garde arts district, with galleries, studios, music venues and theaters — to a degree that had never before been possible in New York City.

Much of that is thanks to Lithuanian-born artist George Maciunas, who moved into a loft at 359 Canal Street in 1963. Maciunas dubbed the building “Fluxus Headquarters” — “Fluxus” being his catchall term for his own art and others whose work he found simpatico — and transformed its storefront into FluxHall, a gallery and performance venue. Maciunas then bought up 16 of SoHo’s abandoned factories in 1967. Dubbing them “Fluxhouse Cooperatives,” he rented various floors out to fellow artists for roughly $1 per square foot.

Maciunas’ vision for the neighborhood was a “Fluxcity” where artists were the sole population, allowing them to work in peace and inspire each other. Improbable as it seems, that vision was briefly realized: In 1971, the City rezoned SoHo to allow artists — and only artists — to semilegally occupy live-work spaces in previously industrial buildings. The direct result was much of the art, music and culture that would come to define New York City over the next two decades.

Arts cross-pollinate one another.

Because these buildings were empty, the artists who moved in found themselves in the rare circumstance of being part of an artistic influx that didn’t actively displace a preexisting population. The City and property owners simply allowed them to transform vacant space into a vital community.

What followed the seeding was a flowering. Between the late ’60s and early ’80s, visual artists like Donald Judd, Nam June Paik, Shirin Neshat and Jean-Michel Basquiat moved into SoHo lofts, where they produced some of their best-known work. Gallerists like Alanna Heiss, Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend and Mary Boone followed suit, with several notably moving into 420 West Broadway. As early as 1971, so many visual artists were living and/or working in the area that artists Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Girouard and Carol Goodden teamed up to open FOOD (127 Prince St.), a restaurant that pointedly employed artists and sustained their community with affordable, high-quality meals.

Credit: Fred W. McDarrah / Getty Images. View from across the street of 420 West Broadway, where four art gallery openings were occurring simultaneously. Sept. 25, 1971.

Avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas opened his screening room, the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque, in one of Maciunas’ Fluxhouses at 80 Wooster St. in 1964; it would eventually relocate and morph into the still-existent Anthology Film Archives. The Performing Garage, an off-off-Broadway theater, opened at 33 Wooster in 1968, eventually becoming the longtime home of the Wooster Group, an experimental theater troupe cofounded by Spalding Gray, Jill Clayburgh and Willem Dafoe, among others. Cutting-edge musicians including Ornette Coleman, Suicide, Phill Niblock and Rashied Ali turned their living spaces into DIY music venues, where they presented boundary-pushing concerts that traditional venues wouldn’t touch.

Maybe it all sounds impossibly highbrow — but arts cross-pollinate one another in ways that elevate the entire culture.

Talking Heads and Madonna called the neighborhood home, and multiple recording studios opened, most notably Greene Street Recording (112 Greene St.), where Philip Glass, Run-DMC, Sonic Youth and Public Enemy would all record classic albums. Self-described “musical host” David Mancuso threw all-night, invitation-only dance parties every weekend in his multilevel home at 99 Prince St. (dubbed “the Loft”), where he incubated much of the culture around disco and house music. The Kitchen, at 484 Broome St., welcomed performers of all stripes, from performance artist Vito Acconci to the Beastie Boys.

Of course, cities are living things; neighborhoods cannot and should not be fixed in time. The City officially landmarked SoHo’s industrial buildings in 1973, removing the threat of demolition that had loomed over the neighborhood. But the real change came with the passage of the 1982 Loft Law, which bestowed legality and rent stabilization on everyone currently residing in industrial live-work spaces (artists or not) and required landlords to bring the buildings up to code. Of course, upkeep costs money, which necessitates higher rents.

Alarmists seem to miss that New York City falling from its current status as an “Oops! All Billionaires!” playground of the rich won’t be an unmitigated tragedy.

SoHo’s bohemians were ultimately victims of their own success, as the attention they brought to the area revitalized it and rents rose astronomically. Although SoHo comically retained its industrial zoning until 2021, most of its live-work spaces had long since given way to ritzy condos and shops. But were it not for George Maciunas, the weirdos who followed his lead and the landlords who agreed to accommodate them, the presence of a Gucci store below Houston Street would be unthinkable.

Weirdos wanted

New York remains a magnet for starving artists, but it’s hardly controversial to say that the rising costs of city life have made it considerably less welcoming in recent decades. Culture and nightlife have tangibly suffered; seemingly only the most anodyne, corporate venues and independently wealthy artists can thrive unencumbered. Thanks to this newfangled “doom loop,” I’m (cautiously) optimistic. While no one should ever accept more crime or homelessness, alarmists seem to miss that New York City falling from its current status as an “Oops! All Billionaires!” playground of the rich won’t be an unmitigated tragedy. Of course, it’s pretty pathetic to have to count on cratering real estate instead of civic policy to make New York affordable for the nonwealthy. That said, the “doom loop” may offer potential to put New York City back in touch with the experimental arts culture that made it appealing to so many in the first place. 

Should the “doom loop” come to pass, office-y neighborhoods like Midtown and the Financial District may find themselves as much in flux as SoHo once was. There has already been a significant push to convert empty office buildings into residences, but bringing them up to code will be costly, and in some cases structurally impossible.

There is another way. I’d encourage landlords to remember the long-term restorative impact that allowing artists and performers to co-opt nonresidential buildings can have — even/especially when not entirely above board. An explosion of cutting-edge culture would ultimately be in everyone’s interest, financial and otherwise.