There was once a time when SoHo was threatened with becoming a victim of the City’s ambitious urban renewal efforts. Starting in the 1930’s, Robert Moses, the New York City planner known as “The Master Builder,” began to formulate a plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX as it came to be known known, that would have connected the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. Here in SoHo, the LOMEX would have run along the the length of Broome Street. If built, the highway would have razed most of what is now SoHo and Little Italy, and the SoHo as we know it might never have existed.
Ironically, the LOMEX project was a primary factor that allowed SoHo to transform from a manufacturing community to one of the earliest mixed use communities. In the 1960’s as LOMEX began to gain support in the halls of municipal government, the future of the buildings around Broome Street became uncertain, and only artists seeking low cost studio space in which to work were willing to move into vacant industrial spaces without leases. Landlords, waiting to be bought out by eminent domain, were unwilling to invest capital in the buildings, so artists worked and lived in very inexpensive but raw spaces that they made habitable with their own labor and money.
During the 1960’s, plans for LOMEX moved forward against growing community opposition. Activists, led by Jane Jacobs, the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway in Greenwich Village and Julie Finch of Artists Against the Expressway in SoHo, organized an alliance of New Yorkers to oppose the construction of LOMEX. In 1969, the project was ultimately abandoned, never to surface again. During this time, SoHo began to flourish as a vibrant artists community whose residents converted SoHo manufacturing buildings into artist loft spaces while also preserving the historic cast iron SoHo architecture that lives on today.
For more information about Moses and LOMEX, head down to the Municipal Archives to catch their exhibition entitled “In the Shadow of the Highway: Robert Moses’ Expressway and the Battle for Downtown,” which focuses on various aspects of the proposed highway: architectural, political and personal, on view through March 24.
Read more from the Look Back at SoHo Broadway Series by Yukie Ohta