Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo

By Roslyn Bernstein (Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions) and Shael Shapiro
(The Jonas Mekas Foundation)

One of the best things about New York City is its wealth of vintage buildings, each of which has a specific story to tell. Very few structures, however, have as colorful and impressive a history as 80 Wooster Street in SoHo. In Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo, Baruch Professor Roslyn Bernstein and architect and onetime 80 Wooster resident Shael Shapiro have documented the building’s dramatic transformation over the past 40-odd years.

Filled with striking illustrations and vintage photographs, the book details 80 Wooster’s residents and various uses, as the neighborhood grew from manufacturing zone, to virtual artists’ colony, to its current incarnation as high-end residential and commercial location.

Illegal Living gives a brief early history of the area that is now SoHo, including the construction of 80 Wooster in the 1890s and its various owners throughout the mid-20th century. In 1967 Lithuanian-born artist George Maciunas (“The Father of SoHo”) purchased the building from the Miller Cardboard Company, thus beginning 80 Wooster’s metamorphosis.

His purchase supported ideas from his earlier manifesto, “Fluxhouse, Plan for an Artist Condominium in New York City.” In it, Maciunas proposed a solution to the problem of unaffordable rents for artists: converting unused commercial loft buildings to living/work spaces. This once-novel idea has since transformed many New York City neighborhoods.

Maciunas’s own story is fascinating. As the eccentric founder of the Fluxus movement, which advocated the transformation of daily life into art and a sort of do-it-yourself aesthetic, Maciunas was at the forefront of underground culture, producing concerts, performance art, and films, among other events. (Yoko Ono had her first public exhibition at his uptown gallery.)

Illegal Living tracks the activism during the 1960s and ‘70s that led artists to lobby for zoning changes to permit living legal in loft spaces. Many such buildings were occupied illegally for years, often throughout the protracted negotiations to obtain the necessary paperwork, as was the case with 80 Wooster.

As a community of artists and galleries grew throughout the 1970s, the neighborhood gradually evolved into the tourist attraction that SoHo would become by the 1980s. By the 1990s, expensive boutiques had replaced many galleries, many of which relocated to Chelsea, including the gallery at 80 Wooster. The area is currently more affluent—both residentially and commercially—than ever.

In telling several important stories—of a remarkable building, a diverse and talented group of pioneering artists, and a strikingly transformed neighborhood—Illegal Living is really the saga of New York City.

—Marina Zogbi

Extra: Watch a video interview of Professor Bernstein discussing Illegal Living