A Touch of Soho in the 'Burbs

What's the big deal about living in a loft? The classic New York lofts of the 1970s, which were illegally converted factory spaces in a neighborhood called SoHo, were dingy, drafty and cheap. But sometime in the late 1980s, the idea of living in big undivided spaces with brick walls and exposed heating ducts overhead caught on.
by | March 2004
 

What's the big deal about living in a loft? The classic New York lofts of the 1970s, which were illegally converted factory spaces in a neighborhood called SoHo, were dingy, drafty and cheap. But sometime in the late 1980s, the idea of living in big undivided spaces with brick walls and exposed heating ducts overhead caught on. So much so that, in many places, they've run out of old warehouses and factories to retrofit and are building lofts from scratch...in the suburbs. The featured dream home at this year's National Association of Home Builders convention was one of those brand-new lofts. Except, weirdly, it wasn't even part of a larger building. It was a single-family house made to look industrial, complete with concrete walls and floors. As one academic who studies housing trends noted, "The loft has a kind of allure because of its association with fashionable, youthful and affluent urbane living." In other words, it's a fad. But there are some underlying demographic and economic trends at work here too. Loft lovers are likely to be on either side of middle age: young hipsters or older empty-nesters. Either way, they do a lot of entertaining and don't need spare bedrooms, so big undivided spaces are appealing. Second, loft buyers are more likely to work from their homes than others. Again, having spaces that flow easily from work to relaxation appeals to them. Finally, lofts help developers cope with rising land costs. For some reason, people have fewer objections to density when it's packaged as a loft ("cool!") than an apartment ("cramped!").

THIS CAN IS MY CAN, THIS CAN IS YOUR CAN

Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell announced last November, as part of a series of budget cuts, that the city would remove 1,300 trash cans from the city's sidewalks and parks and lay off the workers who maintain them, citizens raised a stink. So now the mayor has a new idea: Adopt-a-Can. The city wants to sign annual agreements with companies, nonprofits and even individuals who'll agree to look after specific trash cans, remove trash liners when they get full, replace the liners and wipe off the lids. No-nos include painting the cans or slapping the company logo on their sides. What are such do-gooders supposed to do with the garbage? Put it out with their regular trash. If they find something hazardous in the cans, call the city. Ditto if the cans are damaged. Already, one company has stepped forward to say it'll adopt 50 trash cans. Not surprisingly, it's a trash-hauling company.

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD!

There are many signs that a city's in trouble: graffiti, crime, abandoned buildings, too many banks. Banks? Yep. Some suburbs of Chicago are concerned that their downtowns are being overrun by bank branches and a few have actually slapped moratoriums on any more. "It seems like every time you turn your head, a major corner is turning into a bank," frets an alderman in Highland Park, where a beloved drugstore was replaced last month by a Bank of America. So what's so bad about having a bunch of bankers roaming around your downtown? Elected bodies prefer land uses that build their tax base. And in suburban Chicago, where cities depend on sales taxes, politicians hate to see banks take over prime retail locations. In the past 10 years, Cook County has seen the number of commercial bank branches increase by 74 percent. In nearby Will County, bank branches have grown by an amazing 138 percent. Even in Chicago itself an alderman was upset to learn that a Gap store had been displaced by--wouldn't you know it--a Bank of America branch. "Banks are welcome," an aide to the alderman said, "but we don't want a whole block of banks."

PLENTY OF GOOD SEATS AT THE FRONTON!

In the early 20th century, cities often developed their own specialty sports. Take Baltimore and duckpin bowling or New York and stickball. Miami, too, had an odd sport, although it wasn't played by amateurs. It was jai-alai, and it was played by pros, mostly tough, agile men from the Basque region of Spain, where it originated. Imagine racketball on steroids, and you have an idea of what jai-alai is like. It's a furious game (the ball travels at speeds approaching 180 miles per hour), but the appeal of jai-alai has always been Florida's willingness to allow gambling in the jai-alai frontons. Alas, the times are not good for jai-alai. Take the fronton in suburban Dania Beach, which used to pack in 10,000 people a night. Now, a good night is 1,000. So what's killing jai-alai in South Florida? Other gambling opportunities, such as the state lottery, Indian casinos and gambling cruise ships, and other forms of entertainment, such as professional sports. Then, too, jai-alai had a nasty strike in the late 1980s that dragged on for three years. Although jai-alai also is played in other Florida cities and a few places in the Northeast, it never enjoyed the social cachet elsewhere that it had in Miami, where people once showed up in tuxes for matches, their butlers in tow.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Urban Notebook