Changing SoHo Artful Living South of Houston

Changing SoHo

 Today’s SoHo is synonymous with world class dining, prestigious art galleries, chic  clothing stores, luxury boutique hotels, trendy lounges, picturesque cobble  stone streets and stunning cast iron architecture.  

 The Lower Manhattan neighborhood SoHo is shorthand for South of Houston, the  first official acronym given to a New York City neighborhood. Others eventually followed, NoHo (North of Houston), Tribeca (Triangle below  Canal Street) and Dumbo (Down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.)  

 The neighborhood stretches roughly from Canal Street to Houston Street and lies  between the Hudson River and Lafayette Street. Nearby neighborhoods include  Greenwich Village, Tribeca, Little Italy and Chinatown.  

 SoHo has a colorful past and rich history and the area has undergone extreme  changes.  

 Radical Transformations

 In the 1700s’ SoHo was subdivided into sprawling farms. Broome Street, between Thompson and  Greene Streets were covered with trees and peppered with rolling hills and  streams. Beekman’s swamp (yes, a swamp) encircled Spring Street, and Bayard’s Mount (named after Nicholas Bayard, the 16th mayor of New York City) was the  highest point in Manhattan, located west of Broome Street.  

 The early 1800s’ was a grand period in SoHo history. The upper class residential neighborhood  was populated by an array of prominent and wealthy New Yorkers. The area was teeming with shops, theaters, hotels, stately mansions, minstrel  halls and gambling casinos, especially along Broadway. In the mid-1800s upscale  stores such as Tiffany & Co. and Lord & Taylor set up shop in the area. During this time SoHo had more bars and  brothels than any other part of New York City.  

 Cast Iron Heyday

 Roughly between 1840 and 1880 cast iron buildings were being constructed at a  fast and furious pace. Pioneer architects Daniel D. Badger and Griffin Thomas led the way in this  American architectural phenomenon. Approximately 250 cast iron buildings stand  in New York City and the majority of them are in SoHo.  

 Originally, the inexpensive cast iron was used as a prefabricated cover over  existing buildings with the intention of attracting new commercial clients with  its newly modern façade. In addition to revitalizing older structures, cast iron was also cheaper  than stone or brick. The buildings could also be built efficiently and quickly,  in some cases, as little as four months.  

 Since cast iron was pliable, it could be easily bent and molded, and as a  result, intricately designed window frames were created by craftsmen. The  strength of the metal also allowed these frames considerable height and  permitted high ceilings. Sleek supporting columns were added and interiors  became more expansive. The spaces were now flooded with natural sunlight through newly enlarged windows. Gone were the days of dreary gas-lit interiors.  

 This explosion of commercial activity attracted million dollar textile  industries, small firms, import/export houses and factories, but it also  prompted wealthy residents to flee the area. Many of area’s wealthy residents found refuge uptown.  

 As commerce settled into the area, bordellos became common and during this time  and Soho became home to the city’s first red light district. Two of the most popular houses of ill repute were  located at 119 Mercer Street and 76 Greene. The brothels were patronized mainly  by Southern merchants and planters who had to be recommended in order to gain  entry.  

 Hell’s Hundred Acres

 By the turn of the 20th century the area had drastically declined. The area was  rife with sweatshops and factory owners illegally employing minors and  immigrants with little pay to work in horrendous conditions.  

 In 1960, New York City Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanaugh Jr. nicknamed SoHo ‘Hell’s Hundred Acres’ (The term was widely used during World War II to describe a difficult  battleground) because of the epidemic of accidental fires that swept through  the area. The fires were fueled by the wooden floors and beams in the factories  that were usually loaded down with highly flammable items such as clothing that  would spread rapidly. SoHo had officially become an industrial wasteland.  

 In 1962 the New York City planning commission issued a report titled “The Wastelands of New York City,” and SoHo was characterized as an enormous commercial slum filled with run-down  lofts and warehouses.  

 The report proposed demolishing the area to make way for the Lower Manhattan  Expressway (LOMEX.) The ambitious Robert Moses project was intended to create  an auto and truck through-route connecting the Manhattan Bridge and  Williamsburg Bridge on the east with the Holland Tunnel on the west.  

 The plan was met with fierce opposition from local civic leaders, the young  preservation movement, architectural critics as well as SoHo residents. New  York City Mayor John V. Lindsay officially put an end to the highway plan in  1966.  

 The Burgeoning Art Scene

 Many New Yorkers viewed the area as an industrial wasteland but artists saw an  opportunity in the large unobstructed spaces, large windows admitting natural  light and low rents. Artists such as Phillip Glass, Twyla Tharp, Chuck Close  and Frank Stella, among others flocked to the area, transforming the once urban  wasteland into a hipster, avante garde destination teeming with art galleries,  performance art spaces and cafes. Shortly after, the SoHo cast iron historic district was created in 1973.  

 In the 1980s’ and ‘90s SoHo began to once again attract affluent residents and property values soon  skyrocketed.  

 SoHo is also a frequent backdrop for movie and television locations and fashion  shoots.  

 While strolling through the Lower Manhattan neighborhood today you might catch a glimpse of Academy Award winning actress Sandra Bullock, rocker  Jon Bon Jovi, talk show host Kelly Ripa or comedian Tracy Morgan, in addition  to host of other celebrities, artists and musicians who all call SoHo home.                   

 Christy Smith-Sloman is a staff writer and editorial assistant at The  Cooperator.


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