Op/Ed: Soho House Has Little to Offer the Lower East Side

139 Ludlow Street, the future home of Soho House on the Lower East Side.

139 Ludlow Street, the future home of Soho House on the Lower East Side.

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was written by LES resident Diem Boyd.  If there is a local topic you feel passionate about, send us your thoughts here: info@thelodownny.com.  The Lo-Down welcomes opinion columns reflecting all points of view on topics relevant to the Lower East Side.

With the new branch of the Soho House international chain vying for real estate in Hell Square, the proverbial final nail in the coffin of the Lower East Side seems inevitable. The Lower East Side historically served as the original access point for those in search of a new life and new beginning. Despite the struggles, it offered opportunities and for many a blank slate. The Lower East Side in many ways was a great equalizer fostering individuality. Although the Lower East Side has gone through many transformations, the essence and the spirit of the individual still lingers within the century-old, low-rise tenements.

For many, Soho House coming to the Lower East Side is just another stage in the gentrification process.  As New Yorkers, we have come to view gentrification as just a natural part of urban life. However, Soho House’s plan for our neighborhood reaches beyond gentrification. It is something far more insidious: the cementing of an elite class resulting from commoditizing and privatizing Lower East Side culture. The expansion of the Soho House brand, bolstered by American billionaire Ron Burkle, is the franchise equivalent of Starbucks. Instead of selling coffee culture, SoHo House is selling exclusivity, disguised as a communal place that fosters and celebrates the culture of individual self-cultivation.

Exclusivity is antithetical to individual self-expression. Moreover, the Lower East Side reflects “street art” which evolved as a democratic response to the cultural elitism of the upper class. From music to art to literature to dance, the Lower East Side challenged the notion that “art” should be relegated and disseminated by one class deemed superior over another. Art is allowed to exist out in the open and made accessible to everyone.

In the certified “love” letter to the Lower East Side, mailed to 1,800 residents living within a two- block radius of 139 Ludlow Street, the founder Nick Jones attempts to disguise the exclusive nature of the Soho House, by portraying it as a place that will bring together “creative locals” bound by “what we all love about the Lower East Side—its creative individual spirit. He writes, “For most private clubs exclusivity is the defining trait.  At SoHo House, we think instead how to be inclusive.” He goes on to say that SoHo House is for “individuals linked solely by the creative arts” and is nothing like the “private clubs whose members are defined by the same politics or religion or wealth or status.”  (Each letter, incidentally, cost $3.65 to mail and was written on bonded paper.)

Soho House’s claim that is not defined by the same exclusivity as other private clubs is misleading. It offers the same brand of snobbery — exclusion only repackaged as a refuge for the “local” creative set, linking them to a wide social network of other like-minded “creative” members. What Soho House is really attempting to do, be it in NY, LA, Berlin or London, etc is monetize the ideals of art rooted in the public domain, turning it into a commodity, privatizing it for those who are willing and can pay for it. This has less to do with the creative arts” and more about commerce. SoHo House is simply creating another product to be bought and sold on the open market.

However, the most disconcerting aspect about the Soho House brand, being manufactured for global consumption at an alarming rate, is the false impression that its members are not defined by similar cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. It delineates itself from this type of exclusivity by portraying itself as a bastion of creativity and noble individualism. In actuality what it offers, is an insular model where people with a shared culture and sensibility and who can afford membership plus the added expense of dining and drinking, fraternize and engage with each other, cultivating  a homogenous world of snobby exclusivity. By hiding behind the veil of creative individualism, SoHo House is fostering an environment where those who have benefited from education and exposure to a broader culture and ideas can reinforce their own cult of self-presentation, without having to recognize that their present “success” is usually predicated on the accessibility and mobility that their socio-economic background afforded them. Soho House is selling an illusion by implying there is not necessarily a connection between the two.

Conversely, the price of admission to any art gallery is free, allowing participation by the entire public, giving anybody a place at the table in the public discourse.  Ultimately, the pre-ordained community of the Soho House linked through membership fee and meeting a “certain” standard of “creativity”, prevents the dissemination of ideas and public discourse. When creativity is manufactured, it ceases to exist.

The very premise of a private club is exclusivity by creating a place where “similar” people are sequestered together to socialize and network, without the interference of the public. “Inclusiveness” is anathema to a private club? No matter how you dress it up, a private club is a private club. If it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck… At least at the other horrible “nightlife” venues in our neighborhood true democracy is alive and well. Everyone at least has a shot of getting through the front door—not that most residents of this neighborhood would want access to either of those brands of anti-local socializing.

Essentially, the corporate extension of the Soho House brand on the Lower East Side makes a mockery of everything our neighborhood has come to represent. It would be unconscionable to allow the Soho House franchise to cash in on what little is left of Lower East Side culture. If Soho House has its way here, Lower East Side will become unrecognizable, further diluted and re-packaged, and only available for those who can and want pay for it, in New York City and beyond. The effects of such a tragedy will be felt for a very long time to come in our community. If you need proof of the plague aimed at us, I invite you to venture to the Meatpacking district. Make your way to the Soho House where you will find it is no more a refuge for artists and creative types than it is a glorified nightclub. Expect, here, members have purchased guaranteed entrance without having to take a chance with the doorman holding a clip board with the power to snub them. Better yet, just catch an episode of Sex and the City.

However, beyond the insidious nature of Soho House brand, the question begs where is the “public” benefit in a “private” club? Bottom line: there isn’t any. Soho House intends to break ground in an area deemed saturated, where over 30 liquor licenses exist within a 500ft radius of its proposed front door, but in order to do so they must legally prove public benefit—which for this “private” club is laughable and insulting.  Soho House may or may not attract the same type of “clientele” that frequent our neighborhood en masse, but we can be certain they would add to the noise and the pedestrian and vehicular congestion plaguing our community. And another previously unlicensed property would become licensed. If SoHo House occupies 139 Ludlow Street, it will prohibit us from the possibility of having something our community actually needs. This also opens the door to the potential of another mega-club in our neighborhood should Soho House move on—the burden falling yet once again squarely on the back of the residents.

We have been offered a false choice here, forcing us to choose which hand we want to cut off. Right or left—do we want a mega-private club or another unruly mega-nightlife driven venue? What about neither? Why can’t the residents of the Lower East Side catch a break and get something we really need. Look around. The list of things our community needs is endless—and a private club is definitely not one of them.

Diem Boyd is a mother, resident of Hell Square, small business owner and founder of L.E.S. Dwellers, a neighborhood association.  The Lo-Down welcomes opinion columns reflecting all points of view on topics relevant to the Lower East Side.

 

  • ChickaChicka

    Beautifully written and well-stated. Everything you said seems obvious to those residents and lovers of the Lower East Side. As a creative who has lived in the neighborhood for 10+ years, I still would amost guarantee I wouldn’t have any way of going about being a part of this club, and it’s all just expensive PR bullshit.

  • SD

    Soho House is the best thing to happen to the neighborhood in a very long time.The LES is changed. Its not what it used to be, Stop being haters.

  • Bowerygals

    Really? Soho house is “the best thing to happen to the LES”? Better than the mothers who formed a group to fight teen violence? Better than the creation of a new community garden nearby? Better than neighbors coming together post-Sandy to help the those in need? Better than the free bike repair workshops outside the M’Finda Garden? Better than the opening of the building of a new Girls Club? What planet do you live on?

  • Ludlower

    I really wish people would stop calling my neighborhood “hell square” I like it here. If I didn’t, I would move out.

  • Ludlower

    It’s Manhattan. Not everything has to be for you or cater to your narrow vision of what this neighborhood “should” be. When I was growing up here, we heard gun shots instead of drunk people and I worried about getting jumped whenever I left my apartment.

    I’ll take tourists over the hell that used to be here before the bars came.

  • mybi

    I’m very curious what percentage of the members if LES Dwellers have been living in the area prior to the bars opening.

  • david

    Look, it’s all about the price of land on this island. It’s nuts and getting nuttier. Creative people will find new lands to discover but les is OVER.
    I’d prefer a living room any day over a soho house I’ll never step foot in but I’m not going to freak out about it happening, it’s Darwinism. Eat or be eaten.

  • Frances Ayers

    I don’t care whether it is another club for the privileged,or a neighborhood dive bar.We do not need anymore establishments which will further promote the carnival drinking atmosphere of the LES.Even our former block association President,Marcia Lemon referred to this area as “an alcohol theme park”.What we need in this neighborhood are more bookstores!

  • mybi

    It’s simple. ..supply and demand. Their is not a lot of supply and only demand from individuals looking for liquor licenses.
    If you don’t like it, buy the properties and only lease to whom you feel fit.

  • Frances Ayers

    I am not a member LES Dwellers but have lived here since 1979.And I know that some of the members have lived in this neighborhood for over 20 years.

  • 99tigers

    I agree with Ludlower. I prefer Soho house to junkies shooting up on my doorstep, finless sharks, bathtubs and refrigerators dumped on my street, being mugged for my phone, be shouted at by homeless people, having my bicycle stolen 5 times, my car broken into 5 times, my wife’s scooter stolen 3 times, being the last area to get snow plowed, garbage pickup, electricity restored… If you like it like it was in the 70s why not move to Detroit?

  • mybi

    Pre Bars, everyone was complaining about the crime and the poor quality of life. No one can argue that life in the neighborhood is worse than what it was.
    It seems like the same people always find reasons to complain.

  • ChickaChicka

    I didn’t say what a neighborhood “should” be, so I’m not sure what you are referencing with your reply. Hearing gun shots is terrible, but that has nothing to do with Soho House. Getting shot is worse than Soho House, I agree, but saying that has nothing to do with anything – in my opinion, both are not welcome.

  • ChickaChicka

    Comparing nightlife issues with gunshots is a pretty spot-on example of a “straw man” argument.

  • Frances Ayers

    So what are you saying?The gentrification and night life made our neighborhood better?And yes for many of us who are long time residents,we do see life as worse when for four days out of the week we have to wait till the bars close to go to bed,after all the screaming and carrying on have stopped!

  • Emily

    Our neighborhood is over saturated with bars and nightlife. Another huge venue on a narrow street equals more honking horns and noisy crowds and a lower quality of life for residents who have to get up at 7AM and go to school or work every day. No one is saying go back to the 70′s (I lived here then), we are just saying, basta, enough!

  • Emily

    Our nightlife OD has made it difficult to live here if you have a day job or go to school in the daytime because the noise makes it impossible to sleep. The LES Dwellers are bringing the neighbors together and giving them hope that quality of life can improve. They are also opening dialoge between neighbors and bar owners to establish stipulations of operation that everyone can agree on. Kudos to the LES Dwellers.

  • PinkPony

    “In a turbulent economic environment, there’s an appeal to be looked
    after and treated like you’re important. Refuge and comfort and
    membership among like-minded people is very appealing right now,” says Euan (Founding Member of the Soho House).
    http://www.nypost.com/pagesixmag/issues/20090118/Private+Clubs+Hideouts+Rich+and+Shameless#ixzz2O0ljSXC7

    You are foolish to think Soho House will be any different than than what it really is, a “hideaway for the rich and shameless”… A leopard can’t change his spots. The LES suffers Stockholm syndrome–so traumatized that we say drunk douche-bags are better than junkies and Soho House is better than drunk douche-bags. Have we lost all of our self worth as a community? Wake up, rise up, fight back– we don’t deserve junkies or drunk douche-bags or the Soho House. “We have
    a right to a quality of living adequate for the health and well-being
    of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. We are entitled to a
    safe, healthy, sanitary, respectful and diverse environment” (quote from http://lesdwellers.us6.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=b27396acac&id=edfcca2f20)

  • LES DWELLER GUY

    Im not a part of that group, they seem to target new businesses before they open. What they should do if there so concern is target the businesses that are creating the problems. Why go after a place that has no complaint history instead talk about stipulations, and rules to follow. Case close.

  • LES DWELLER GUY

    People make no sense what so ever. How is a bookstore going to afford the rent these days? We need to wake up and smell the coffee people! This neighborhood has change it’s all the landlords fault that the mom and pops store have moved out, not the businessmen that are creating a way of paying the high rent. Let’s not forget the SPURA project coming soon, Thats another thousand more residents in this neighborhood, where are they going out to eat or have a cocktail?

  • Emily

    There are rules for opening new bars in our neighborhood. Most streets have more than the number of bars allowed. New bar applications on over saturated blocks have to prove they will be for the public good (or some wording like that). In addition to getting existing bars to be better neighbors the Dwellers try to make sure CB3 and SLA follow their own rules in giving out new licenses.

  • Emily

    I live here since 1970′s and got mugged once and my apartment robbed once. It’s been decades since I saw a junkie shooting up on the street. I do see lots of 20-somethings peeing in doorways, breaking bottles on the street and tossing the remains of their take out food all over.
    Your streak of bad luck is not the norm for our neighborhood, I’m sorry to hear about it. There has been an increase in crime in the 7th but it’s almost exclusively phone and purse robberies in bars.
    PS: You can park your bike in the Edison lot at Essex and Houston for $20 a month.

  • LES DWELLER GUY

    The dwellers are just in it for the spot light! How is this true? Where were there opposition? When the ludlow hotel that’s about to open in a couple of months got there full liquor license till 4am. Why no one opposed them? The only applicant they oppose was the ones that applied next to her building. Goes to show you how much they care about this neighborhood. They putting up a front against Soho House just like i said before, for a shot at the spot light, not to look like they only targeted one applicant. Please save me the drama!

  • Frances Ayers

    I am sure community members have better things to do than complain about a bar to gain attention.Those who complain about the noise are students,workers,mothers and the retired.”The Dwellers”,as you refer to them have busy lives and want nothing more than to live in a neighborhood not saturated with noise!