Before SoHo Was SoHo (Part II): Red Light Go!

A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside (photo via The New York Times)

Back in February, in my Before SoHo Was SoHo (Part I) post, I described the area during the early 1800’s, during its previous heyday as a commercial destination for well-to-do New Yorkers.  By mid-century, while Broadway was still the “Fifth Avenue” of its day, bordellos began popping up on side streets, and the area that is now SoHo became New York’s first red light district:

These houses of “ill repute” were often luxurious. Guidebooks told potential customers where to seek their pleasures. Particularly informative listings could be found in the Directory to the Seraglios in New York, published by A Free Loveyer, in 1859:

Miss Clara Gordon
No. 119 Mercer Street
“We cannot too highly recommend this house, the lady herself is a perfect Venus: beautiful, entertaining, and supremely seductive. Her aidesdecamp 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, constantly on hand, and in all, a finer resort cannot be found in the City.”

Mrs. Bailey
No. 76 Greene Street, below Spring
“This quiet and comfortable resort is situated very central, and within a few moments’ walk of Broadway and the principal hotels… Gents must come well recommended or they won’t get in. . . The hostess is an agreeable lady, indued with a tasteful mind. . . Her young ladies behave with much prudence and propriety…”

(Exerpted from: SoHo A Guide by Helene Zucker Seeman and Alanna Siegfried, published by Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., New York, NY Copyright 1978)

Former brothel at 105 Mercer Street (photo: Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times)

There was a high concentration of brothels along Houston Street and also Mercer Street, where the oldest still-standing (former) house of ill repute can be seen at number 105, now a private home.  Many guidebooks were published for visitors to the area, with Zagat-style reviews, one of which was The Gentleman’s Directory, published anonymously in 1870 that can be seen in its entirety on the New York Times website.  There were an estimated 500 brothels in New York City at the time of its publication.

After the Civil War, as New York’s commercial and entertainment centers began moving further uptown, to Union Square and then to what is now Times Square, the textile industry began moving into the area and remained until the 1950’s, when the first artists in search of large raw spaces began moving in.  By the 1970’s the galleries had taken over, and by the 1990’s, the galleries had been replaced by retailers.  If history is indeed cyclical, should we soon expect the ladies who lunch to be replaced by ladies of the night?

A page from The Gentleman's Directory (1870), in the New York Historical Society archives

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One Response to “Before SoHo Was SoHo (Part II): Red Light Go!”

  1. Aristides Pappidas Says:

    Not a reply Yuki but a reminiscense of pre-Soho, circa 1969. How is Himi, Fusako and your dad doing?
    ” I first moved to Prince Street, after living on Thompson St., in 1963… above Fanelli’s Bar for 19 years; pre-“Soho”. There still were plenty of small light manufacturing businesses in the area and a memorable Manhattan phenomenon was that [usually] by 6 p.m. the entire area was virtually silent. Few people walking north and south and the same for vehicles. This created a silence at night that was largely true on weekends too. There were some people living in the area like myself…..*artists, artisans, experience seekers, eccentrics, et. al. All seeking out-of-the-ordinary and inexpensive large spaces to live and work in. There was also a small semi-nomadic group of homeless men living there too.
    But the first paragraph was a prelude to a ghastly murder that took place in these streets in those early years.
    Not all of the homeless people living there were alcoholics and some of them would do odd jobs for Mr. Fanelli and a great guy named Morris who was the superintendent of 96-98 Prince Street. One of these itinerant, occasional workers (Morris affectionately referred to them as ‘satellites’) was nicknamed ‘Bluebeard’ which had nothing to do with his character or personality but was given to him simply because he had a good sized (but trimmed) dark beard. B., whose real name I never learned, was a gentle guy, had some education, was from the South, never drank, could be engaged in easy but short-durationed conversation and had had a job (or profession) as a draftsman. Because he had this background and had a steady hand he would be the guy-to-go-to if any signage had to be created or if a neat hand was necessary for small paint jobs. B. during the warm months would make a cardboard lean-to for himself and sleep in some deserted doorway. He was clean, never soiling the area he slept in.
    Then one summer night (I was away from the city) some local youths from the then-predominatingly Italian neighborhood just contiguously west of West Broadway, poured flammable liquid on Bluebeard and set him on fire. They fled and given the isolated surroundings he probably wasn’t discovered for some hours. He was still alive unfortunately.
    My memory of this event is that he lived, in extraordinary pain, for several days. Perhaps uniquely, the investigating detective, who was no novice and had seen much violence and horror during his police career, was affected deeply by this crime. He mde repeated visits he made to the hospital to try and gain some information about who had committed such a vile act. He was determined to find out who had done this and ultimately he was successful and a few of these depraved things were arrested and prosecuted. But what I’ll also remember forever is what one of their mother’s said to the detective after the arrests: “What’s the big deal…. he was just a bum!”

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