Events & News

Board Member Spotlight: Yukie Ohta

November 30, 2023

By Yukie Ohta 

From the 2023 Newsletter

I am a native New Yorker. There are not too many of us around anymore, at least people who are my age. I am more specifically a product of 1970s SoHo, when the neighborhood was a flourishing, and then a declining, artists’ community. It was a very special place at a very special moment in time. My experiences growing up in SoHo have made me who I am today. Since graduating from college, I have been a grants administrator, an editor, a literary translator, a handbag designer, a boutique owner, an artist, an archivist, and a writer, and I have also gone to graduate school twice, once in my twenties and once in my forties. 

I am currently the founder and director of SoHo Memory Project (SMP), a small nonprofit organization that celebrates the history of SoHo as a New York City neighborhood. SMP began as a blog in 2011 and has grown by leaps and bounds since then. At first I thought it would only be my family and friends who would read the blog, but then more and more people started reading. A community grew up around this blog where people who lived the stories offered me their papers and the people who read, listened to, and watched the stories were interested in learning more. My mission over the past decade has thus been to preserve SoHo’s past so that present generations understand our neighborhood’s rich history and can make informed decisions as we shape its future.

The inspiration for SMP came to me when I was taking a class on archives for my degree in Library Science. We were studying various archives that document the history of places, people, and historical eras. It was then that I realized there was no archive documenting the history of SoHo, a very interesting neighborhood that has a very rich history. I thought such an archive should exist and that someone should do it. I then realized that time was of the essence, that the SoHo stories in need of preservation would disappear with those who lived them, and that I could not sit around and wait for that someone to come along. That someone had to be me.

I am uniquely positioned to serve as SoHo’s memory keeper. As a child of SoHo who still lives in the building where she grew up, I have a lifelong connection to those who were on the front lines of SoHo’s transformation from an all-but-abandoned manufacturing area to a thriving artists’ community at a time when the area’s approximately 250 cast-iron buildings were considered outmoded, and powerful forces felt the City would be better off with a highway or a housing complex instead of the architectural treasures that still stand today. SMP collects archival documents in many forms that tell the story of how SoHo’s magnificent built environment was preserved by artist-activists, making it the first instance of widespread adaptive reuse in New York City, as well as how a tight-knit artists’ community formed along the way. 

SMP is a labor of love and my way of giving back to the community that raised me. My now retired parents, a painter and a poet by nature, and a carpenter and general contractor by trade, respectively, came to SoHo from Japan in the 1960s to build a life, and what a life it was. I experienced a singular childhood spent inhabiting a magnificent built environment in a community of extraordinary creatives, all the while thinking that that was how everyone lived. Back then, I had no idea how lucky I was. With 50 years of hindsight, it is unfathomable to me that before now, there was no repository that held the evidence of a now-fading artists’ community and the 26 blocks of cast-iron buildings this community fought to preserve.

Now that SMP’s document archive has been accessioned by the New-York Historical Society, where it will be preserved and made accessible to the public, my next step is to use SMP as a model to help other New York neighborhood groups and organizations preserve their own histories. My ultimate dream is to create an interconnected network of neighborhood memory projects that each contribute to the collective of a New York Memory Project. We may never get there, but it will sure be a fun ride trying!