Archive for the ‘Before SoHo Was SoHo’ Category

Welcome to Year Six: The SoHo Memory Project in 2016

January 2, 2016
The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society is ready to roll!

The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society is ready to roll!

On January 1, 2011, I started writing this blog without a clue about where it would lead. I began almost grudgingly, thinking that someone ought to be preserving SoHo’s important and endlessly interesting history, but not me. Five years later, I am very happy that I took the plunge, as this project has only reinforced my conviction that preservation in all of its forms is not only important, but essential to how we situate ourselves in the present and how we envision our future.

2015 was a very busy year for The SoHo Memory Project. After a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign and a fabulous article by Kyle Spencer in The New York Times, my project expanded in leaps and bounds, keeping me busy with exciting new developments. Here’s an overview of what’s to come and nja recap of highlights from the past few months.

Many thanks to all of you for your continued support in input!


The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society

A visitor watches a film at the SMP Portable Historical Society

A visitor watches a film at the SMP Portable Historical Society

It’s finally finished and ready to hit the streets! Thanks to a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities, The SoHo Memory Project Portable Historical Society will be popping up at SoHo Arts Network (SAN) member organizations throughout 2016 beginning with four dates at Judd Foundation in January and February. The Judd sessions require a reservation, and we are currently fully booked, but the mobile museum will be at The Drawing Center two weekends in February and March, open to all:

Saturday, February 20, 12-4pm
Sunday, February 21, 12-4 pm

Saturday, March 5, 12-4pm
Sunday, March 6, 12-4pm

For a full schedule of events, please click here. I hope to see you at one (or more) of these sites in 2016! (more…)

Going Greene—The Greene Street Project: A Long History of a Short Block

October 31, 2015


What can one block, a span of less than 500 feet of a New York City street, tell you? If you look closely enough, you can see 400 years of economic development. In a new website entitled, “Greene Street Project: A Long History of a Short Block,” (, William Easterly and Laura Freschi of NYU and Stephen Pennings of the World Bank have created an interactive timeline covering 400 years that charts the economic evolution of one NYC block, Greene Street between Houston and Prince, that reflects the broader evolution of the entire SoHo area from rural farmland to high-end retail hub, thus placing current day SoHo in the context of New York City’s history.


From the site: “By 1700, the block was part of the large Bayard farm. The farm stretched from what is now Chinatown to the southern part of Greenwich Village, around 200 acres.” (Thomas Howell, ‘Greenwhich Village painting,’ 1768. Via Greene Street Project)

In many ways, the objective of this site mirrors the mission of The SoHo Memory Project. The website preserves and shares the history of this one block, explaining how its communities evolve due to the changing economic forces that continue to drive growth in New York City today. NYU professor William Easterly, co-author of the paper and this companion website, explains in a recent article in Wired Magazine:

Most research on economic development takes a very broad view, focusing on a country or other relatively big region, Easterly says. Very few studies have tried to investigate how the fortunes of much smaller areas map onto broader trends.

Indeed, the timeline illustrates quite clearly how this block, once inhabited by half-free slaves from the Dutch colonial era, became British-owned farmland, a wealthy residential area, an entertainment district that included a red light district, a factory hub, a deserted area declared by some as obsolete, an artists community, and then the wealthy residential and commercial area that it is today.

Red markers show the locations of brothels in 1870 and 1880. (image: G.W. BROMLEY & CO. / DAVID RUMSEY COLLECTION)

Red markers show the locations of brothels in 1870 and 1880. (image: G.W. BROMLEY & CO. / DAVID RUMSEY COLLECTION)

Is it true that history repeats itself? Does this timeline hold clues to what is next for SoHo? Mega retailers have taken over Broadway as the popularity of online shopping continues to rise. What will happen once everyone is a half-free slave to Amazon Prime? Who will shop in SoHo? What will become of these vast commercial spaces? The answer to this question will surely affect what will become of its residential real estate as well.

Market value of the real estate on the Greene Street block, from 1830 to 2010. (image: WILLIAM EASTERLY, LAURA FRESCHI, AND STEVEN PENNINGS)

Market value of the real estate on the Greene Street block, from 1830 to 2010. (image: WILLIAM EASTERLY, LAURA FRESCHI, AND STEVEN PENNINGS)

Remember, SoHo as a residential neighborhood with a catchy name is only 50 years old, a long span in a person’s lifetime, but a blip in the lifetime of New York City. SoHo’s pioneers invented to concept of adaptive reuse by converting factories into homes and art galleries. But as long as time goes on, New York City will continue to change, and there is nothing anybody can do to stop it. That is not to say that we, as a community, cannot have a say in how it changes. SoHo pioneers proved that by fighting off Robert Moses and powerful real estate developers—and winning. What can we do to shape SoHo’s future?, Learning about its past will inform how we shape its future, and the Greene Street Project is a great place to start!

Yes, The SoHo Historical Society!

May 1, 2015

So here it is—my big plan. Drumroll please….. I plan to design and build a portable historical society that can navigate the bustling urban environment of today’s SoHo while showing a glimpse of its past. and today I am kickstarting a fundraising campaign through Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform for creative projects. Kickstarter-Logo- (more…)

Back to the Future on Mercer Street

January 31, 2015
The SoHo weekly News, November 1973.  See the end of this post for highlights from this issue.

The SoHo weekly News, November 1973. See the end of this post for highlights from this issue.

So here I am one month into cataloging The SoHo Memory Archive, and I have begun with the easiest collection first—a box of The SoHo Weekly News that contains issues beginning with Volume One, Number 1, dated October 11, 1973 (the very first issue!), through the September 16, 1976 issue, with lots of gaps in between. Every issue I picked up contained something post-worthy. When I came across the November 29, 1973 issue, however, the headline seemed especially relevant to SoHo of today.

The headline reads “City Closing SoHo’s Historic Fire Station.” The brief article states that Engine Company 13 and Ladder Company 20 are moving out of the historic 155-157 Mercer Street building to a more modern building on Lafayette (where they and their Dalmatian named “20” still reside today) and that the building was to be returned to the real estate department of New York after 120 years of continuous use. The article goes on to say that the land was originally purchased in two pieces for a total of $3,900.

Drawing of the oringinal Firemen's Hall (source: MCNY via NYT)

Drawing of the original Firemen’s Hall (source: MCNY via NYT)

Firemen’s Hall, as the building was originally called, is an 1855 building that has been stripped over the years of most of its features and details.  In the early 19th century, fire fighting was done by an assortment of rival volunteer groups with no centralized director.  This hall was built as a headquarters for two of these groups—a move toward cooperation amongst competitors.  The upper floors housed a library, meeting room and reading room.  In 1865 the volunteer system was replaced by a professional fire department and in 1885 a new headquarters was built on 67 Street, leaving Firemen’s Hall to become a regular firehouse. (more…)

Back to the Future: A History of SoHo from the 1700’s through the Present

June 1, 2014
Collect Pond: 1700’s — The Collect Pond was a fresh water pond that served as the main water supply for the city, located just south of the intersection of present day Broadway and Canal Street.  In the early 1700’s, the area was used for recreation, but by the late-1700's, the pond became very polluted with industrial waste. (image: Wikimedia Commons, Archibald Robertson)

Collect Pond: 1700’s — The Collect Pond was a fresh water pond that served as the main water supply for the city, located just south of the intersection of present day Broadway and Canal Street. In the early 1700’s, the area was used for recreation, but by the late-1700’s, the pond became very polluted with industrial waste. (image: Wikimedia Commons, Archibald Robertson)

I recently gave a presentation about the history of the area of Manhattan that is now called SoHo at Judd Foundation for their artist/guides so that they could better contextualize Judd’s SoHo (1960’s/1970’s) as well as his building (constructed in 1870) within the larger history of New York City.  I have revised and expanded the presentation as a slide show (see below).  Click on any image to enlarge.  Enjoy your trip down memory lane! (more…)

Reading SoHo: Recent Books

February 1, 2014
Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via

Babette Mangolte, Roof Piece (Trisha Brown), 1973, photograph of Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece performed from 53 Wooster to 381 Lafayette Street, New York City, 1973. Courtesy Babette Mangolte via  From Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock.

I wanted to conjure New York as an environment of energies, sounds, sensations. Not as a backdrop, a place that could resolve into history and sociology and urbanism, but rather as an entity that could not be reduced because it had become a character, in the manner that a fully complex character in fiction isn’t reducible to cause, reasons, event.

—Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers,
in The Paris Review

While recently re-revisiting my SoHo book idea that seems forever stuck in Neverland, I was thinking about books of note have recently been written about SoHo.  There is, of course, Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of Soho (2010) by Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro, a history of the evolution of SoHo as told through the history of 80 Wooster Street and the people who lived there, as well as Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (2003) by Richard Kostelanetz, which is soon to be out in a revised edition, among other excellent books that have come out over the years (see list below).

There are two brand spankin’ new books, however, published within the last year, that merit particular attention in case they’ve been overlooked by my fellow SoHo memoriticians.  The first is Ann Fensterstock’s Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from Soho to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond that follows the evolution of New York’s arts hubs over the past fifty years.  There is also the novel The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, about a young artist who moves to New York from Nevada and then finds her way to Italy where she becomes involved in a radical movement.  Although neither of these books focus solely on SoHo, the sections that do are quite compelling and each do their part in shaping our collective memory of SoHo in the 1970’s. (more…)


October 5, 2013
Nikola Tesla (c. 1896) Courtesy of Wikipedia

Nikola Tesla (c. 1896) Courtesy of Wikipedia

Now here’s a different sort of SoHo story.

Tesla.  Not the car company.  Not the heavy metal band.  The  inventor, Nikola Tesla.

AC/DC.  Not the heavy metal band.  The battle over electrical standards between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

What does this have to do with SoHo?  It turns out that Nikola Tesla had three laboratories located in the SoHo area: one at 175 Grand, one at 33-35 South Fifth Avenue (now called LaGuardia Place), and another at 46 East Houston Street.  This was in the 1880’s and 1890’s, long before SoHo was SoHo, but it is a significant part of our area’s history in that Tesla was one of the most influential inventors of his time. (more…)

Bettertex’s Better Days

August 24, 2013

Today’s guest post by Benjamin Feldman traces the history of 450 Broadway.  As  one of the only remaining unrenovated buildings in the neighborhood, this dilapidated structure harkens back to SoHo’s previous incarnation as a manufacturing district.  An ephemeral artifact worth examining, Feldman warns us, “Best to go see it soon. In the blink of an eye some condo developer will get his mitts on it and all will be lost to Mammon once more.”

The Way of All Flesh

By Ben Feldman

pics-4-7-2012-006-768x1024America’s Centennnial Year: 1876 was a time of booming fortunes, and New York was bursting with post-Reconstruction fervor, the metropolis burgeoning, robber barons feeling their oats. Thriving since the Civil War’s onset as a manufacturer’s paradise, the New York region’s many tentacled rail system and giant natural harbor fostered a cornucopia for commerce of all sorts. Wall Street remained the office work hub of the City’s financial commerce, be it stock-jobbing, cotton trading, money-lending or the like, but “uptown,” along Broadway, wholesale trades of all kinds waxed greater and greater. Immense cast iron loft buildings sprouted along Broadway and side streets like Mercer and Greene, north and south of Canal Street. 450 Broadway was one such Centennial palace of commerce, one of the hundreds of structures designed by John Snook (1815-1901) during his lengthy career.

Hardly as well known as the designer’s Grand Central Depot or his Metropolitan Hotel, 450 Broadway (listed in the New Building Application for a pair of similar structures then known as 446-8 Broadway) was a utilitarian project. Snook, whose offices were then at 12 Chambers Street, designed the buildings for the Lorillard Estate.

CCF06292013_0000-1024x719450 Broadway is a survivor, a holdout: the majority of its tenants still in the shmate business one way or another, its main tenant, Bettertex selling drapery and upholstery fabrics at rates undoubtedly a fraction of what one finds at 57th and Third…The sad sack building is easy to penetrate: no concierge at a fancy granite-topped desk greets you with a suspicious smile as you pass through its dilapidated entry doors. Astonished when I encountered it, I crept up the sloping wooden stairs, past the peeling paint on the battered wainscoting, eyeing the ancient gas cocks and drifting back into the days when Broadway was be-teemed with horse shit and mud, and chaos of wagons and draymen’s cries filled the air.  Scores of immigrant seamstresses and tailors filled each floor, working 12 hour days for pittances to support their broods. Neighborhood saloons did a brisk business after a shift ended. Hard labor and cheap beer filled the days and lightened the nights.

niblo-litigateion-5-15-2012-046-1024x768450 Broadway, whose construction commenced four days before Christmas, 1876, sat on a 6000 square foot lot with 50 feet of frontage on Broadway, with 20” thick walls on the first story and 16” on the upper stories, decreasing to 12” on the fifth (top) floor. Cast iron fabricated by the renowned Cornell workshop of was employed on the façade, as with so many commercial structures in the neighborhood. According the 1973 designation report for the Soho Cast Iron Historic District issued by the New York City Landmarks Commission ( )

“Nos. 446-448 and 450 were built at the same time by J.. B. Snook for the LoriIIard Estate and. share a common facade. Both are five stories high; No. 446-448 is six bays wide and No. 450 is three bays wide. Quoined pilasters flank the ends of each building and form a dividing line between the two sections. Columns topped by Corinthian capitals define the window bays and the ground floor openings. A simple undecorated cornice divides each of the floors. The main entablature adds an appropriately strong accent to the composition of the joint facade. Flanked by large console brackets, each topped by a sort of neo-Grec terminal block, the cornice of each building stretches above a paneled concave frieze. Additional, concave brackets with their own incised terminal blocks alternate with the panels on the frieze. These non-traditional decorative details combine with the other, elements of the buildings to form a handsome open classical composition.” The structures were completed in six months.

The streets between Canal and Houston declined hand in hand with the decline of warehousing and manufacturing in lower Manhattan, slowly strangling to death after World War I as the development of more efficient transportation options and modern structures took place outside of the core of New York. By the close of World War II, what we now know as Soho was a half-wasteland of semi-vacant, almost century-old, obsolete loft buildings, its streets accommodating a sorry fraction of the pedestrians and commercial traffic that clogged the neighborhood in 1918. Though the ground floors of most buildings remained occupied with some sort of commercial activity, upper floors went dark, and were rented to artists, with no amenities and few utilities while Robert Moses planned the evisceration of the island with his planned but ultimately doomed Lower Manhattan Expressway, finally abandoned in 1962:

A single elevator shaft was installed in 450 Broadway in 1899 at the front of the building, and fire escapes and improved interior fire egress installed in 1917. That same, now decrepit lift services 450 to this day. In 1927, the upper floors of 450 Broadway were in all likelihood still primarily occupied by secondary manufactories in the needle trades. “B. Zatinsky & Son, Jobbers of Cotton Goods” occupied space at 450 in 1922 and pressed the owner to provide evidence of legal compliance of the structure with the New York State Labor Law. Though the outcome of that interaction is unclear, by 1941, the use of the upper floors of 450 Broadway had downgraded to storage lofts, which undoubtedly had less stringent code requirements than factory uses where workers’ health and safety issues were stronger.

niblo-litigateion-5-15-2012-026-768x1024CCF06292013_0002-718x1024pics-4-7-2012-005-768x1024The Garment District, as we call the area today west and north of Herald Square, reached the peak of its rapid construction by the onset of the Great Depression, and much of the clothing manufacturing and fabric jobbing moved uptown to more spacious and modern buildings, exacerbating the downward spiral of the Canal Street neighborhood. Even with the disappearance of garment factories from the neighborhood before World War II, some fabric wholesalers remained clustered around the corner of Broadway and Canal Street well into the 1980s.

How fervently I hope and ardently I pray for the health and welfare of Bettertex and Weisenfeld Textiles at 450 Broadway, even though Mr. Weisenfeld apparently harassed one of his residential loft tenants for years after a 1981 fire made the fifth floor uninhabitable. The Owen family had claimed to have lived on that floor since 1969, a typical “Soho” use as the decrepit structures started to welcome residential tenants into otherwise unrentable spaces in the 60s.
I won’t pass judgment on the merits of the plaintiff’s claim:
(See: )

Truth be told, I do not care, though: whether by intention of mere sloth, some structures in this great city are left alone, even to rot. 450 Broadway is a treasure, as much so as any “restored” jewel of Soho or the Ladies Mile, for in its shabby decrepitude one can better grasp the rich history hidden in its walls. Best to go see it soon. In the blink of an eye some condo developer will get his mitts on it and all will be lost to Mammon once more.


This post was originally published July 1, 2012 on The New York Wanderer

Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City since 1969.  His essays and book reviews about New York City, American history, and Yiddish culture have appeared online and in print in CUNY’s Gotham History Blotter, The New Partisan Review, Columbia County History and Heritage, and Ducts literary magazine.  Read more about Feldman and his work on his blog, The New York Wanderer.

A Walk to Remember

April 20, 2013
Today’s guest post comes from Linda Chiu at New York History Walks, a “history buff who loves exploring the city on foot.”  Her blog takes you on historic meanderings throughout the city, a must read for anyone interested in our city’s past.  The following post is about the history of SoHo as it revolves around the Haughwout Building at Broadway and Broome streets.

Hell’s Hundred Acres

by Linda Chiu

Soho has undergone many transformations throughout its history, and was not always the hub of trendy boutiques and chains that it is today. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Soho development earnestly began when Collect Pond was filled and its water diverted to the Hudson River. Middle-class families inhabited Federal-style rowhomes and by the 1800s, Soho had become a popular commercial district with theaters and retailers such as Lord and Taylor, Tiffany & Co., and the long-gone Haughwout Emporium. (more…)

Urban Archaeology

February 23, 2013
Mail addressed to P. Aiervaiss with late-19th century postmarks

Mail addressed to P. Aiervaiss with late-19th century postmarks

I seem to be in full archivist mode these days and I hope you all will bear with me.  One little bit of ephemera leads to another and then another….

The other day, Chris, a local old-timer, sent me photos of a few items he has hanging on his kitchen wall.  Old envelopes, bank letterhead, and a brochure, among other things. Chris is an urban archaeologist of sorts.  He has worked in construction in and around SoHo for over 25 years and has unearthed loads of SoHo memory from in between wall joists, the detritus of past workers who were too lazy to take out the trash and, instead, buried it in the walls for future generations to find.  My father has also worked in construction since I was a baby.  He, too, found loads of mostly food wrappers and beverage cans printed with brand names that no longer exist.  We called it “wall garbage,” and it was what was left over after a lunch break or at quitting time when the floors were swept clean, which was also when the space between the walls got “dirty.”  Chris has this to say about this phenomenon:

I quickly got over the wall-garbage-habit (or as some people call it “insulation”) when I had to come back to the same job to do additional renovations and found myself with the added load of refuse. But the good stuff made its way to my house. I have found tools from a hundred years ago. Plumbers are such slobs! On Chambers Street I found a flier from the 1880’s from the Singer sewing machine company that advertised their wares. I was stupid enough to give it to the owners since it had their building’s address on it. It hangs in their office. …In my loft I found a page of the NY Post dated one day removed from my actual date of birth.   … The newspaper was still doing it’s job as backing for a quickie plaster repair. I found an American flag performing the same function on Broome Street.


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