Like most of Manhattan's neighborhoods, SoHo has gone through multiple incarnations to become the part of town we know today. Long, long before Prada and Bloomingdale's staked their claim along Broadway and exclusive hotels sprang up on the neighborhood's side streets, the area known as SoHo (so named to refer to the area "SOuth of HOuston" Street and above Canal Street, between Lafayette Street and the Hudson River) was a marshy meadow, and the future of New York City was only a far-off dream.
Before New York
Hard as it may be to imagine today, prior to the arrival and proliferation of European settlers in North America, Manhattan was a lush green island sparsely populated by Native American groups who hunted the forests, fished the streams, and cultivated small gardens in their villages. According to
"Manhattan in the 1600s was covered with grassy hills, streams, meadows, forests, and marshes. Trails through this wilderness connected six Indian villages that had settled here: Warpoes, Nahtouk, Ispetenga, Sappokanican, Muscoota, and Sherakopak. Present-day Broadway was then known as the Weckquaesgeck Trail."
Even after the Europeans arrived, it took some time before they put down roots and began building what could be considered permanent towns. At first, the area now known as SoHo was somewhat north of the Dutch settlement of Niew Amsterdam, confined mostly to the southern tip of Manhattan. By 1639, Dutch settlers had constructed plantations, roads, and buildings, and by the 1660's, a few powerful Dutch farmers had purchased the land to the north; including the area that was to become SoHo.
According to Seeman and Siegfried, by 1728, the area had been subdivided into sprawling farms. Broome Street between Thompson and Greene Streets was covered with trees, and Beekman's Swamp encompassed Spring, Broome, and Grand Streets. West of Broome Street stood Bayard's Mount, the highest point in Manhattan. True settlement did not occur in the SoHo area until after 1775, when Broadway was extended north of Canal Street by the Dutch. The area then became a country retreat for wealthy Dutch settlers.
SoHo Comes of Age
By the early 1800s, SoHo was entering into the first of its incarnations as an elegant residential neighborhood populated by wealthy and upper-middle-class homeowners. Businesses and transportation soon followed, and a few years' time, shops, theaters, hotels, and entertainment venues proliferated in the neighborhood, especially along Broadway.
Another change that came upon the area between 1840 and 1880 was the innovation of cast iron as an architectural material. The area now called SoHo is home to what's generally regarded as the greatest collection of cast iron structures in the world. There are only about 250 cast iron buildings still standing in New York City, and the vast majority of them are in SoHo.
In the late 1800s, iron was cheaper to use for facades than stone or brick, and could easily be molded into ornate shapes and decorative elements. Not only that, but iron buildings were quick and relatively easy to build some going from groundbreaking to completion in just a few months. Iron could even be painted to look like various kinds of architectural stone.
And, say Seeman and Siegfried, the use of cast iron also made it possible to put enormous windows into dim factory and warehouse buildings and vault ceilings higher overhead than was ever possible before features that would serve the area very well a generation or two after their initial installation. (But more about that later.)
Along with all the residential development and architectural innovation came some interesting if somewhat less desirable, depending on your perspective commercial enterprises on the newly-paved side streets; namely, bordellos. In short order, SoHo became one of New York City's first red-light districts, complete with guidebooks to the various houses of ill-repute, descriptions of their architecture and facilities, and reviews of the ladies who plied their trade within.
One such guidebook was the
"We cannot too highly recommend this house, the lady herself is a perfect Venus: beautiful, entertaining, and supremely seductive. Her aides-de-camp are really charming and irresistible, and altogether honest and honorable. Miss G. is a great belle, and her mansion is patronized by Southern merchants and planters principally. She is highly accomplished, skillful, and prudent, and sees her visitors are well entertained. Good wines of the most elaborate brands [are] constantly on hand, and in all, a finer resort cannot be found in the City."
Of course, not everyone cottoned to the idea of living next door to a brothel regardless of how "honest and honorable" their proprietors may have been and in the years leading up to the Civil War, SoHo cooled as a residential neighborhood and its cobblestoned streets gave way more and more to light industry.
By the 1880s, SoHo's population began to drift further uptown, and the gracious homes and mansions south of Houston Street had been torn down and replaced by a multi-million dollar textile industry. According to Seeman and Siegfried, for several decades, sweatshops occupied entire buildings, and small firms, import/export and trucking companies, and wholesale textile houses dominated the neighborhood. By the middle of the 20
The intimidating name and deteriorating building stock didn't dissuade one group from turning their eyes toward SoHo, however. Artists and performers, ever on the lookout for large spaces with tall ceilings and lots of light as well as cheap rents began moving into SoHo's old and disused industrial buildings, making use of the skylit, high-ceilinged spaces as studios and performance venues.
According to author Glenn O'Brien, in an article he wrote for
"Loft living back then meant a raw space made habitable by any means necessary. The downsides included living with your own plumbing, iffy heat, funky freight elevators or heroic climbs, industrial neighbors and industrial-strength rodents, and spooky streets late at night. The upside: Lofts were big enough to produce museum-size paintings in natural light and to accommodate artists' penchant for wild dance parties and Ping-Pong."
Impoverished artists didn't do much to revive the neighborhood commercially, however, and SoHo property values eventually deteriorated to the point that in the 1960s, Highway Commissioner Robert Moses proposed plans for a Lower Manhattan Expressway. The vast highway would have cut directly through SoHo, demolishing many beautiful (if poorly maintained) historic buildings and driving out many of the area's newer artistic tenants. The proposal met with strong opposition, however, and (unlike many of Moses' ambitious urban development plans) the Lower Manhattan Expressway was never built. Not long after that, SoHo got permanent protection from developers in the form of a designation as an official historic district.
By the 1970s, SoHo was the premier address for artists, their admirers, and gallery owners. The neighborhood bristled with galleries, performance spaces, and artists' studios. But that was not to last for long; just as it had attracted the wealthy Dutch landowners of the 1700s, SoHo now became an attractive address for people who had nothing to do with the art world.
Prices Up, Artists Out
By the early 1990s, more "mainstream" apartment hunters were discovering the joys of SoHo living. The vast loft spaces, with their tall, arched windows, cast iron columns, and exposed brickwork became desirable to those looking for an alternative to uptown living. The tide of new, not-necessarily-artists moving into the area began to change the face of the neighborhood yet again and meant that more changes were afoot for the long-time residents.
According to O'Brien, "This transformation seemed to have occurred literally overnight. At first, it came in the form of the alfresco exhibitors of paintings who thought they would peddle their oils, aimed at tourists, a little closer to the real art world. The takeover of the storefronts was more insidious. The galleries brought the rich, and the rich brought the stores, from agnès b. to J.Crew. Soon this neighborhood would be too expensive even for the galleries."
After that, says O'Brien, the march from hip urban wasteland to sanitized tourist mecca was fast and unstoppable. "Probably the biggest lesson of SoHo was learned early by real-estate speculators, that artists are the ideal shock troops of real estate. Find a spacious hellhole, and give them a few years," O'Brien continues. "When you return, they will have transformed a crumbling warehouse into a showplace that reeks of glamour. Then you will be able to evict the artists and sell the lofts to cosmetic dentists."
And those cosmetic dentists (and some of the more successful artists) set about converting many of the old warehouses and loft buildings into luxury condos and co-ops, banking on the area's hip, artsy aesthetic and Downtown sensibility. Throughout the 1980s and "˜90s, SoHo continued to attract a wide-range of co-op and condo residents, from bankers to painters to actors.
The area heated up very quickly, says Steve Kliegerman, director of Downtown sales for Halstead Properties. According to Kliegerman, property values shot up 50 to 65 percent just between 1999 and 2001. "It increased a tremendous amount," Kliegerman says, due in large part to "economic availability, a dearth of housing and the attraction of the SoHo area."
According to Andrew Gerringer, executive vice president of mega-brokerage Prudential Douglas Elliman, "SoHo always remains a very interesting area," and says that that "The area where the West Village, SoHo, and Tribeca converge (around Spring and Washington Streets) continues to be especially desirable."
Gerringer shares O'Brien's view of how gentrification takes place if not his bleak response to the process. "Artists always lead the front, looking for the cheapest places," he says. "Restaurants and bars follow. Then the rental guys come in with market-rate housing, and condo guys come in."
Today, buyers and renters both pay top dollar to live in what used to be called Hell's Hundred Acres. Apartments in the neighborhood's cast-iron buildings and former warehouses rent for thousands and sell for millions. For a "relatively average space," Kliegerman estimates that a buyer could pay between $600 and $800 a square-foot. That price increases for prime space, edging toward $1,000 per square-foot.
Buyers are willing to pony up, says Kliegerman, because SoHo offers "a style of living that's really not available in any other place." A mind-boggling array of fabulous restaurants call the neighborhood home, and the area has become a shopper's paradise, offering everything from ultra-high-end designer clothing and furniture to flea-market bargains and vintage gems. "And," says Kliegerman, "all the subway lines converge in this area. East Side, West Side, Uptown subway trains all lie within easy walking distance of each other."
According to figures in
It would have been difficult for the gentleman farmers, or the garment workers, or the artists of the 1950s to imagine what the SoHo of today is like, with the throngs of tourists browsing and buying along Broadway, the exclusive restaurants and uber-hip bars dotting the landscape and occupying spaces that not so long ago were deemed part of a slum of old warehouses and industrial buildings gone to seed. But like so many other New York neighborhoods, SoHo has gone through many incarnations and this is just the newest one.
Mary Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.