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City Residents Get Lofty Ideals

People downsizing to loft living seek 'authenticity' with urban culture and amenities.

The lofting of cities says a lot about the growing vibrancy of the downtowns, but it also says quite a bit about us and our habits at this time in history, say people who study such things.

Loft living is "part of a larger, modern quest for authenticity" in ways new construction is not, says Sharon Zukin, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and City University Graduate Center, and author of the lifestyle bible, "Loft Living; Culture and Capital in Urban Change."

Lofts are "organic," not pre-fab, and because they are both yesterday and tomorrow, they provide "landmarks for the mind," Zukin writes.

Zukin adds that the expansion of the Walker Art Center and the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis are not unrelated to lofts. "The expansion of museums in New York went hand-in-hand with the development of lofts," she said. "The development of loft living reflects the aesthetic promoted by modern art museums and exposed to an audience that wants culture capital."

Michelle Brooks and her husband, Bill Percy, are into their second downsizing from the 3,000-square-foot home they had several years ago. They broke the ice by moving into a 1,600-foot condo, and have now purchased a 1,200-square-foot unit.

To move in, they'll have to sell much of what they've collected over the years. "I've just retired from 35 years of teaching," Brooks said. "I've had a couple of surgeries and have a different idea of what's important. We're to the point that we realize we don't need all this material stuff."

It's a common theme for loft-thinking buyers, said Judith Martin, University of Minnesota director of Urban Studies. "I think there's something nice about being able to start over," said Martin. "We all have more stuff than we need. It's about being able to redefine yourself at a moment later in life in a manner that is not like your parents did."

Martin moved into a loft 25 years ago, long before her downtown neighbors from the 'burbs found it exciting.

"You can convince yourself, or maybe more important your friends, that you are still hip and cool by doing this," Martin said. "At least until everybody does it, and then it won't be cool anymore."

Vickie Abrahamson, co-founder of Iconoculture Inc., a Minnesota-based company that tracks trends, saw the loft craze coming. So she bought one. She was driven by many factors.

"People choose things based on their values, and the top value in buying a loft would be freedom — freedom from the layers of life we've built up in our homes," Abrahamson said.

It was also about community, she said. "In my loft, there's more diversity of age and race. It's a petri dish of interesting people."

Also, Abrahamson said, older loft buyers are engaging in indulgence: They added Sub-Zero freezers and Wolfe ranges. Try finding a loft without stainless steel or granite. "This is how you define fun at this age," she said.

Where we choose to live often reflects how we live, said Zukin. The small rooms of the 16th century reflected the personal and social relationships of medieval times, just as the 18th-century move to bigger public spaces inside private homes reflected a growth of the self. And the Victorians of the 19th century reflected compartmentalized lives and formal, structured roles, "a retreat into private space to protect the individual from undefined, and therefore dangerous, encounters," Zukin wrote.

Loft living did not always mean luxury. In New York in the 1950s, lofts became popular places for artists. They were ragtag spaces that cost little but had plenty of light and air.

But as artists became celebrities and held parties in their homes, the upper and upper-middle classes were exposed to high ceilings, big windows and industrial artifacts. As modern art became more accepted by the masses, so did the desire to copy the artist's romantic lifestyle. So what does the loft craze say about current times and the people who populate them?

A dissolution of formal relationships, gender inequities and walls between work and life, for a start, according to Ritsuko Ozaki, research fellow at the Innovation Studies Centre of the Tanaka Business School in London.

Ozaki specializes in social relations and values reflected in the use of domestic space. She interviewed loft dwellers in London and said their relationships and opinions about gender are more socially liberal.

"My respondents stressed that they shared household chores and that it was important for the female partner not to be excluded from social occasions they had in their home," she said in an e-mail. "Therefore, the open-plan layout can be seen as a reflection of new socio-cultural values (e.g. less unequal conjugal roles, less formal relationships among household members and more interaction between household members) of a certain group of people."

Ozaki's research also found that people were smitten with the combination of old (the structure) and new (amenities). "Foreign residents, in particular, appreciate the old elements; it appears as though they feel they are touching the English history, and are at the same time living in a convenient modern place," Ozaki said.

Zukin calls that dichotomy "the lure of obsolescence. Maybe their father or grandfather worked in a factory, and this is a way to capture a part of that."

(Jon Tevlin writes for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.)

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