Turning Ashes into Activism: SoHo Reclaims its Artistic Tradition

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With museums, galleries and all other forms of live entertainment unavailable, the remarkable SoHo
Social Impact and Art to Heart were an act of creativity that brought a breath of (masked)
fresh  air.  SoHo once again belonged to the artists, who transformed raw plywood
boards into an  astonishing open-air art gallery, healing the psyche of
the shattered  neighborhood and lifted the human spirit.

by Bonnie Rosenstock

In the 1960s and 70s, SoHo was becoming a mecca for artists. With the changing economic times, SoHo (South of Houston Street, bordering nearby Greenwich Village and Chinatown) had become a district of abandoned small manufacturing and commercial businesses, many of which had been housed in 19th-century cast iron buildings. The immense units featured floor-to-ceiling windows, which flooded the spaces with natural light, ideal for an artist to work and live in at affordable prices.

As the artist population burgeoned, so did the number of art galleries and funky, independently owned unique boutiques. Loft dance parties were epic, which I can attest to. But that hip culture also attracted wealthy non-artists (Wall Streeters, trust-fund kids, Europeans, Middle Eastern oil gazillionaires), who bought up loft spaces, driving up the prices. Most of the art galleries have since relocated to Chelsea, and the neighborhood has morphed into high-end, name-brand boutiques and trendy restaurants and likened to a shopping mall atmosphere. (There’s still an artist presence, the lucky ones who bought early and still remain.)

The death of George Floyd on May 25 was the impetus for Black Lives Matter protests all over the country and abroad. In NYC, most protestors were peaceful (and getting bludgeoned by the police), while some individuals as well as organized groups, armed with bats, crow bars or emptied trash cans as projectiles went on a smash and grab looting rampage that began on Monday, June 1 and lasted several nights. It abated after an 8 p.m. curfew was imposed and nonessential vehicles were banned south of 96th Street.

SoHo was especially hard-hit because of its high-end stores: Bloomingdale’s, Gucci, Chanel, Nike SoHo, Tory Burch, Kate Spade. Leica alone lost more than half a million dollars’ worth of camera equipment. As reported in a local news outlet, a witness said, “Five cars came up. Everybody got out. They had no license plates on the front. They hit every store in the neighborhood and got in their cars and drove off.”

After it was over, SoHo looked like a devastated war zone. Upwards of 50 or more smashed storefronts were boarded up with plywood. The neighborhood had already looked like a ghost town because of the corona virus; businesses were shuttered and anyone who could, had already left town.

On June 12, I read that a different form of street art had sprung up; usually murals are painted directly on building walls. With the permission of store owners and landlords, two separate plywood mural projects were created: SoHo Social Impact, which mainly focused on Black Lives Matter themes, and Art to Heart, which featured inspirational messages of hope and love. The Bringing Back Bowery project created murals along the nearby Bowery neighborhood. Two days later, I walked the two miles to SoHo and wended my way through the streets, marveling at the art display.

With museums, galleries and all other forms of live entertainment unavailable, this remarkable act of creativity was a breath of (masked) fresh air. SoHo once again belonged to the artists, who transformed those raw plywood boards into an astonishing open-air art gallery, healed the psyche of the shattered neighborhood and lifted the human spirit.