The Art of Gentrification

The Art of Gentrification

When the artist Donald Judd bought his loft at 101 Spring Street in the late 1960s, SoHo was beginning to transform from a “blighted” industrial area to a luxury neighborhood. Today, Judd’s loft is a time capsule of SoHo’s transformation, which has become a model for gentrification around the country.

A SoHo boutique (Joe Chahwan / Flickr)

When the artist Donald Judd lived at 101 Spring Street in Manhattan in the 1970s, oil leaked from all sides. The SoHo cast iron had originally been used as a clothing factory, and over the years oil had seeped into the walls and floorboards and would ooze out at unexpected moments. Black spots afflicted the open spaces where the artist worked and lived, an unwanted reminder of the building’s past.

Judd, who died in 1994, stipulated that the building be preserved in perpetuity, and in 2006 his foundation sold some artwork to fund a restoration that would preserve the artist’s home as a museum. The foundation renovated the building to bring it up to code and make it amenable to visits. Double-paned conservation glass replaced the original windows. The ceiling molding was moved inward to accommodate their greater width. The exterior of the building was detached and shipped to Alabama for cleaning. Weathered iron was recast and replaced. And to stop further seepage, plaster sheets were put in the walls and floorboards so that the oil would stay put and not disturb the space. The industrial grime had been preserved into art.

The building at 101 Spring Street is one of a few artist homes preserved in New York. As such, it offers a rare glimpse into an artist’s daily process. Judd purchased the building in 1968 after a successful exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He needed more space than his studio on East 18th street provided, and the cast iron—with its five floors, its open spaces, and its big, wide windows—offered room and light often unavailable in New York. (A few years later, this too would seem confining, and Judd would begin spending part of the year in Marfa, Texas, chosen because of the emptiness surrounding it.) Judd renovated the building along with his then wife, Julie Finch. He smoothed floors and walls, purchased and commissioned art from his friends, and constructed his own furniture. He decided how the building should be used, assigning each floor a specific task: meeting, eating, working, socializing, sleeping. His mark on the space is omnipresent.

The Spring Street home and studio is striking—more intimate than a museum, more beautiful than an apartment—and it’s no surprise that critics have received the building ecstatically. Judd advocated for “permanent installation” of art and used his loft to figure out the best arrangement for works. “My requirements were that the building be useful for living and working and more importantly, more definitely, be a space in which to install work of mine and of others,” he wrote of the building in 1989. Judd’s walls carry big names of twentieth-century American art—John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenberg, and Ad Reinhardt. This art harmonizes with the layout of the home. A large neon Dan Flavin piece commissioned by Judd illuminates the bedroom floor. In Advance of a Broken Arm, a Marcel Duchamp “readymade” shovel, hangs in a corner.

Judd’s theory and ideas trickle throughout the loft. For the artist’s admirers, the home is not so much a physical space as a chance to experience his greatness. In New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz could barely contain himself from exalting the hallowed ground. “For him, space is a living substance, not an empty chamber that God and ideas inhabit. . . . When I’m inside the space, I’m part of it; it’s part of me. It’s trippy and physical.”

When Judd purchased his loft in the late 1960s, the outside environment was changing too, a fact that is central to the building’s significance. He was participating in SoHo’s conversion from “blighted” industrial area to luxury neighborhood. At the time, the city was actively engaged in the process of deindustrialization. As late as the early 1970s, Manhattan held more than half of the city’s industrial jobs. But in the face of a steady shrinkage of the garment and printing industries, the city withdrew from investment in manufacturing and instead committed to turning industrial areas into residential neighborhoods. For patricians like David Rockefeller, the chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, industry could offer little to Lower Manhattan. The area was “largely occupied by commercial slums, right next to the greatest concentration of real estate value in the city”—the perfect opportunity for redevelopment. In 1961 the city rezoned Manhattan, evicting heavy industry to the outer boroughs.

Judd’s loft is a time capsule of SoHo’s transformation, and its design eases the neighborhood’s changes. For one, his work creates art out of industrial practice.

The city relied on artists as vehicles for this transformation, as Sharon Zukin recounted in her 1982 study Loft Living. The empty lofts of Lower Manhattan had already proven useful to artists; as many as 5,000 were living and working illegally in industrial space. Cheap, big, and rarely checked by inspectors, lofts were a perfect alternative to cramped New York apartments and studios. They were unglamorous but adequate. In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg had moved to a loft on Fulton Street for $15 a month, where, according to Calvin Tompkins, “A hose and bucket in the back yard served as his basin, and he bathed at friends’ apartments, sometimes surreptitiously, asking to use the bathroom and taking a lightning shower at the same time.” Thousands of artists living and consuming could bring neighborhood change, and the city soon encouraged their stay. A 1964 article in the building code allowed visual artists to use lofts as residences and studios if they applied for “Artist-in-Residence” permits; a 1968 amendment expanded the category to performance and creative artists. By 1971 the city had created an “artists’ district” within the SoHo manufacturing zone, and the neighborhood had transformed to accommodate their needs.

Judd did not use city help for his move; indeed, he railed against municipal involvement in the area. He protested the Lower Manhattan Expressway that threatened to transform the area in the 1960s and rallied other artists against it. In a letter inviting Robert Smithson to an event at the Whitney against the expressway, he wrote a plea to save the space for artists. “New York has perhaps the most important concentration of artists in the world—in the loft district between Canal and Houston Streets.” He later mocked the boards that determined who was artist enough to live in SoHo. “A sudden legal exclusive artists’ community seems pretty arbitrary and ignorant. An artists’ community is an awful idea anyway.” His foundation claims that the first time New York employees entered the building was during its renovation.

Yet his writing could also be read as mocking the industry that had preceded SoHo’s artistic use. In one of his many works of criticism and politics, Judd suggested the creation of “WoHo,” a neighborhood only for plumbers. “In order for a plumber to obtain a certificate to live in WoHo he must show photographs of his work to a certifying committee,” Judd wrote, with images of the kind of “work” that might be used to prove commitment to the profession. The piece satirizes the regulations for artists in the area, but the satire inadvertently dismissed the manufacturers for whom the neighborhood had once provided a livelihood. SoHo had never been WoHo per se, but how quickly its history could be forgotten! Once the center of New York industry, the neighborhood was quickly being considered for its real estate alone. By 1970 SoHo’s defining feature was no longer its workers but its lofts, as the New York Times described, “one of the few concentrated, homogeneous groups of a particularly important and handsome development of protomodern buildings—the cast-iron fronted commercial construction of the nineteenth century.”

Judd’s loft is a time capsule of SoHo’s transformation, and its design eases the neighborhood’s changes. For one, his work creates art out of industrial practice. Judd was fascinated by the industrial. His work both admires industry and takes its demise as a given. He made his work as though running a factory, delegating his designs to fabricators and assistants. After drawing an outline for a piece, he would send it to a carpenter or craftsman to be made. By the mid-1960s, he was having many of his pieces fabricated by industrial manufacturers, the most famous of which, Bernstein Brothers, was located in Queens. While he sent orders for specific pieces, often variations of the same boxes and structures, he often ignored what he created, letting them go out to museums without taking a look at the finished product. A former fabricator described the process as like “the Ford plant in Michigan.”

This interest shaped the appearance of his art. Judd experimented with different types of steel and aluminum and often worked with monochromatic paints to achieve the hermetic sleekness that defines his work. Industry offered a way of producing art with seemingly invisible producers, and his work, bare and simple, often looks like it arrived on earth fully formed, its maker forgotten. A box of anodized aluminum in his home shows no signs of having been put together. For Judd, industry allowed for art without history.

Judd’s studio may not erase its manufacturing past, but it does turn industrial function into aesthetic pleasure. Bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling as illumination. Old industrial appliances, like radiators and furnaces, sit in the middle of the floor or line the wall, their use purely ornamental. A service elevator resides in the corner. Judd’s home reflects the aesthetics of these industrial remains. Old and new are layered and combined. A table on the second floor, full of knots, mimics the wornness of the wood on the floors; a mattress on a low platform suggests poverty and squalor—until one notices that it is surrounded by millions of dollars of art.

The result may not be opulent, but it is luxurious—a kind of luxury that is too considered to be crass. Judd’s home does not seek out lavishness. The furniture is unassuming, the fixtures simple. The touches of industrial furnishing politely acknowledge the building’s history, but the loft revels in its own space. The building was made to accommodate hundreds of workers; it’s an indulgent home for a single family. The loft’s big, wide windows, originally built so that factory workers would be able to see their products, is the perfect source of illumination for this postindustrial aesthetic.

As SoHo became a popular place to live, the artistic residency requirements became laxer. The neighborhood began to shift toward the residential, and incoming inhabitants were more “artsy” than practicing; the original wave of artists was mostly priced out. The law still dictates that 335 buildings be reserved for artists, the last vestiges of SoHo’s artistic era, but that requirement may soon be removed thanks to the efforts of real estate developers. Today, SoHo is an explicitly wealthy neighborhood—this Dissent reporter was not allowed to enter 101 Spring Street until she paid a mysterious $100 “late booking fee.”

SoHo’s transformation has become a model for gentrification around the country. Real estate planners consciously seek artistic neighborhoods for development (according to Businessweek: “Bohemian Today, High Rent Tomorrow”). Cities set up arts agencies and alter zoning laws to encourage artist residency. Small towns use artists to enhance local color when the population is dwindling. The model has limited impact on revitalization: urban change does not “trickle down” as poorer areas become gentrified by artists and other creative workers. Yet it remains popular. A survey of American cities published in 2010 found 45 percent of respondents had built or were planning to build artist housing as a way to revitalize neighborhoods.

As the “urban revival” of gentrification has dominated urban planning, loft living has come to dictate the look of the repurposed home, with the demise of industry as a blueprint for design. The aesthetic is just fancy enough to connote wealth but explicitly thoughtful in its use of old material. Looking around Judd’s home, I was surprised to see how familiar it looked. I had seen that aesthetic before: on pieces of driftwood that carry $50 steaks, in old warehouses filled with expensive antiques and Edison bulbs and cast-iron bookends. Donald Judd, the king of postindustrial art, had created a prototype for the aesthetics of gentrification.

“Only people who do not know the steam and sweat of a real factory can find industrial space romantic or interesting,” Sharon Zukin wrote. As lofts become preserved in the place of the manufacturing areas that preceded them, New York may become a postindustrial city without a visible industrial past.

Madeleine Schwartz is a writer living in New York.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referenced “a survey of American cities conducted in 2010.” The survey was published in 2010 and took place in 2007.