Industrial Design: Reconsidering Former-Factory Chic
Recycling space that's just lying fallow makes good sense, but it's easy to forget that this gentrification is part of a larger economic story -- in fact, it's often the epilogue.
Check out The Atlantic Monthly's latest issue for a terrific article on Manhattan's urban landscape, Benjamin Schwarz's "Gentrification and its Discontents". It's mostly a consideration of two newer books, Twenty Minutes in Manhattan by architect Michael Sorkin, and Naked City, by urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, in the light of Jane Jacobs' classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities -- but my favorite part is when Schwarz points out that the late, great era of creative foment in lower Manhattan that these authors (and a great many others) lament now that it's been replaced by either hugely expensive housing or international brands, was a product of economic and industrial decline:
He also points out that those former days of industrial productivity, now steeped in sepia nostalgia, weren't exactly halcyon. (Triangle Factory fire, anyone?) For example, The Henry Jones Art Hotel's pleasant atrium, pictured above, was a former jam factory floor. The original ceiling, though, was the height of that lower cross-beam -- in its original incarnation, it was hardly the light and pleasant space it is today.For instance, in railing against the passing of SoHo's exhilarating, creative days-characterized by "the mix of artists, crafts-people, small manufacturers, researchers [!], as well as of commerce oriented to their needs" (a few funky bars for the artists; places like the collectively run restaurant Food)-Sorkin joins in the lamentation for "the rapid decline of the city's industrial economy." He doesn't recognize that the SoHo he yearns for was precisely the product of that rapid industrial decline, which made economically available to artists and their hangers-on all those cool industrial spaces that in more industrially vibrant times would have been used by, well, industry.
Schwarz goes on to make the case that the idyllic creative moment in this part of Manhattan's history was ephemeral, essentially a brief moment in time that was created by an economic dip in between an industrial economy and a global economy.
A struggle to get back to that point in the city's history -- or to dedicate former industrial spaces to the causes of the creative, rather than the catering of the wealthy, seems rather like longing for the times when you believed in Santa and the Tooth Fairy -- or whatever characterizes youthful innocence to you. It requires a selective memory, favoring only the good parts while pushing aside the difficult and the troubling.