re:form
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Image: ijzerman/Flickr

How the Loft Lost its Soul

The condominiumization of the warehouse dream

I live in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, which remains one of the grungier spots in the gentrifying borough. The post-industrial blocks around my apartment are populated by coffee shops, underground clubs, and artist studio spaces that haven’t seen renovations in decades, not to mention fortune-cookie factories and chicken-slaughtering plants. But even amidst this creative-destructive cacophony, it feels like something has gone missing.

I’m talking about lofts. Once the habitat of New York’s original bohemian hipsters, known only for their lack of privacy and bad plumbing, lofts are now the privileged domain of the wealthy, a fetishized commodity marketed on New Girl. Instead of do-it-yourself renovated factories, we have pre-made townhouses with “loft-syle” floor-to-ceiling windows. Where there was once graffiti-covered brick, we have only flat gray paint.

Renters and buyers love the trendy, open-plan aesthetics of a loft, but rather than embracing its native industrial authenticity, they want it with the comfort of a luxury home. The resulting industrial Frankenstein — the condo —is killing the old-school loft by pale imitation in Bushwick and beyond.

Lofts weren’t always so cool. The word likely descended from the Old Norse lopt, meaning sky, as far back as the 14th century. The Old English version translated to “sphere of the air.” By the 16th century, it referred to the act of storing something in a high-up section of a building. Lofts were home to anything from hay to church organs or even pigeon coops. The word came to refer to any space with a ceiling high enough to reach the heavens — as many industrial factories did, to accommodate machinery.

In the 1960s, New York City artists created what we’ve come to associate with the loft. Artists have always occupied light-filled spaces — the cliché of the poor painter living in a “garret” refers to an attic-like room on the top floor — but mid-century Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood represented a utopia of cast-iron and massive windows. Departing factories left the buildings empty. “The landlords’ deal was see no evil, hear no evil. As long as I get the rent every month, you can do whatever you want to these spaces,” says David Frazer, a New York lawyer specializing in tenant law.

Photo: andrewcoulterenright/Flickr

Artists turned them into live/work residences, though often without professional oversight for their renovations. “You had plumbing, electricity, partitions, all of this stuff done without compliance with law,” says Michael Kozek, a lawyer and loft specialist at Ween & Kozek in Manhattan. But as the neighborhoods developed, the appeal of lofts started catching on. “Landlords realized they could make more money from these units if they got them back from tenants,” Frazer says.

Thus began a struggle between landlords and tenants over control of the loft’s valuable cool factor. The fight resulted in the first New York City Loft Law in 1982, which gave tenant rights to residents who perhaps built out their lofts illegally, but invested plenty of time and money into buildings they didn’t own, and wanted security in return.

The story of one artist’s Soho space encapsulates the loft’s journey from bohemian paradise to fetish commodity. Donald Judd, a minimalist sculptor, bought an entire Soho factory building in 1968 for a paltry $68,000. Judd turned the five-story building into the epitome of the artist’s loft, with entire uninterrupted floors flooded by sunlight. The artist “treated the building as a frame for his work,” says Adam Yarinsky, a principal of Architecture Research Office (ARO), which recently did preservation work on Judd’s building. Judd treated the loft as a space for artistic dialogue. “The neighborhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s was devoid of population, but it had an active cultural life,” Yarinsky says.

Thanks to ARO’s work, the Judd building is now a publicly accessible symbol of what lofts once were and are no more. Today, the Soho blocks around it are packed with luxury clothing boutiques. “Loft” is more likely to be associated with the Anne Taylor clothing brand of the same name than artist gatherings. Indeed, the fashion company appropriates the word to sell shabby-chic outfits that might suit an art dealer or gallery attendant on their days off, underlining the fact that lofts are now a byword for a certain social subgroup: creative, culturally relevant, and upwardly mobile.

Lofts have become a prize, a reward for succeeding in the city or having enough money to assert yourself over it. Judd took care to design his loft in harmony with its original architecture. Loft owners now banish all signs of their buildings’ industrial pasts, creating immaculate condo-like spaces within them. “People who can afford to live in lofts have the resources to do whatever they want,” Yarinsky says. As for Judd’s pioneering spirit, “you don’t see that, or if you do see it, it’s more deliberate and self-conscious.”

Founder and CEO of Tumblr, David Karp, at home in Brooklyn, New York.

To illustrate Yarinsky’s argument, take for example the warehouse residence of David Karp, the 28-year-old millionaire founder of Tumblr. His Brooklyn abode is filled with reclaimed wood and improvised rooms made from salvaged window frames. A manufactured version of what artists once built for themselves, it’s also not bohemian in the slightest.

Aspiring creatives moving to Brooklyn these days are much more likely to live in a rundown row house or an awkwardly shaped basement than a well-lit loft. But truly bohemian lofts are still being occupied by those who choose to risk breaking residential code to carve out their own space.

In 2010, another New York Loft Law was passed to protect more recently occupied industrial buildings. Those cases have been trickling through the city’s legal system. Kozek has “dozens of buildings right now, and more come every day,” he says. “The main neighborhoods are Williamsburg, Bushwick, DUMBO, and Greenpoint.” But Brooklynites can’t just move into a new loft hoping to make it legal. The building has to have been lived in during 2008–09 to fall under the law.

True lofts remain possible only for the wealthy, the prescient, or the very persistent. But there are a few holdouts, like my neighborhood’s infamous McKibbin Lofts — two former factory buildings facing each other on a single block. At all hours of the day and night, you will find at McKibbin bands practicing, choreographers running routines, and more warehouse parties than an entire season of Girls. However, you will also encounter delivery drug-dealers, beat cops harassing residents, and plenty of very bad plumbing. There, the original loft dream is alive and well. If you still want it.

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