Op/Ed: Soho House Has Little to Offer 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.