How SoHo’s Memory-Keeper Preserves the History of the Neighborhood for Future Generations.
Yukie Ohta, founder of the SoHo Memory Project, will guide you through decades of SoHo’s evolution on this new audio walking tour.
“SoHo has an incredibly interesting history, and because of that history, people are drawn here from around the world.”
SoHo Memory Project’s founder, Yukie Ohta, has documented SoHo’s local history for over a decade. In our new audio walking tour narrated by Ohta, listeners trace various hidden details embedded in artistic sidewalk carvings, local storefronts, and everything in between that tell the story of this unique New York City neighborhood.
Ohta begins the audio tour by introducing listeners to a distinct piece of public art, The Wall by Forrest Myers. She then narrates the walking tour, adding an immersive audio layer to iconic spaces like the Judd Foundation, Housing Works Bookstore, Vesuvio Bakery, and more all while sharing memories of what it was like growing up in SoHo.
Reflecting on how the audio walking tour came to be, Ohta shared her creative process with us:
What inspired the audio tour?
As SoHo’s memory-keeper, I tell the stories I’ve collected from people around my community. I tell their stories through the written word, photographs, film, oral history, and so on. At one point, I did have an audio tour that people could take to experience these stories so they can experience it in the context of place. I’ve also given live tours before but that format is limited to that specific group at that time. While that in itself, the sort of in-person and ephemeral nature of it is special in its own way, those two qualities restrict the accessibility of a live tour. Because the audio tour from before is no longer available, I was so thrilled that I connected with Henna who had taken the last tour.
Together, we decided to make an audio tour that went even beyond the walking tour I made before, to make it into something that combined memory and history and place in an audio tour. Wanting to tell stories in different forms really inspired me, and this was a form I didn’t have. I think it’s actually the perfect form because it takes people to the actual place where the stories occurred.
How did you choose the route and approach writing the script?
Initially, I approached the script and route by following my own memories of growing up in 1970s SoHo, so it was my lived experience that dictated the first iteration of the tour. That made sense intuitively to me because it’s actually what I know from experience but then I came to realize that I grew up during the formation of the neighborhood and the consequent gentrification of artists’ SoHo.
So, I wanted to point out sites that were crucial to the evolution of the neighborhood from rural farmland to opulent entertainment district to an industrial hub to an artist community to the present-day SoHo that we’re in right now. When I realized that, I realized the stories weren’t parallel but intertwined. They were so wrapped around each other. That’s how we got to where we are now with the script.
Do you have any favorite SoHo memories from the audio tour?
I have two favorite memories, and they’re very specific to me. The first one is remembering that first loft we lived in on Crosby Street. I only have flashes of it because we have a few photographs that help me remember since I was really young. I lived there until I was 5. I remember the craziness of having no heat and wearing my coat and also having windows on all four sides, so it was always really bright, and my parents having that crazy clothes line where they shuttled things back and forth. It was probably uncomfortable living through it but it’s funny when you think back to it.
The other one is another one very personal to me — playing with pretend lava and standing on the loading docks and just doing imaginative play in an urban setting. We were in an urban playground where we’re picturing ourselves surrounded by lava, and we’re literally climbing on the sides of the buildings so we won’t fall into the lava on the sidewalk. I hope I was able to describe it in a way that people can sort of imagine what that was like. Just being a kid and doing that was really fun and adventurous.
Why is an audio tour like this particularly relevant in the context of SoHo’s current landscape?
Right now, there’s so much turmoil over the SoHo and NoHo upzoning plan, so I feel that it’s more important than ever that the public understands exactly what makes SoHo so unique so they can make informed decisions about its future. This audio tour is kind of aimed at doing that, not just for this specific plan, but it’s aimed toward helping people understand what makes this particular neighborhood unique among New York neighborhoods. Every neighborhood has its own special story but right now I’m talking specifically about SoHo.
Then, there’s the added fact that because the pandemic requires us to socially distance and when possible meet outdoors, an audio tour is the perfect way to experience a neighborhood as opposed to an indoor exhibit or something that people would need to be more cautious about.
What advice do you have for others who might be interested in telling stories about other New York neighborhoods or neighborhoods in other cities via GPS-triggered audio tours?
Think about what you want your overall story to be. That doesn’t mean you need to know it immediately going in, but once you sketch out what you think are the most important places to visit on your audio tour, it’s important to take a step back and think about the arc of the narrative you see forming on the map. That way, when someone takes your tour and it’s finished, they’ll feel somehow changed or that they were taken on a journey that took them from A to B rather than in a circle or in a tangled knot!
What do you hope listeners will take away from your audio tour?
I hope listeners will come away understanding what makes SoHo unique among New York City neighborhoods and why I think it’s important too. Each neighborhood like I said has its own special story, but SoHo has an incredibly interesting history, and because of that history, people are drawn here from around the world.
I think many people have vague notions of SoHo being a place where artists and creative types of people once lived, but after taking the audio tour, I hope they realize that artists’ SoHo exists even today. The bright lights and the bling of luxury retail sometimes obscure the pioneering artists who moved here long ago. Some of them continue to live quiet lives above the stores and the restaurants and continue to work in their studios and live the creative lifestyle that they came to SoHo for in the first place 50 years ago.
I hope listeners understand the myth of SoHo, wherever that comes from, and they understand that it’s not something just in the past. It’s something that continues to the present day and probably will continue into the future if we plan our neighborhood in a thoughtful way.
You can also support the work of the SoHo Memory Project by making a donation.
Gesso is an audio AR platform for storytellers to turn their ideas into immersive, audio walking tours. If you’re a nonprofit, local historian, audio producer, or other creative professional interested in working with us to create location-based audio AR walking tours or other immersive audio content, join our creator platform to get started.