Archive for the ‘Before SoHo Was SoHo’ Category

Before SoHo Was SoHo IV: All in a Day’s Work

December 2, 2012

The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

One of the many perks of my “day job” at New York Bound Books is that I get to pore through lots of rare books about New York, for research and just for fun.  I recently photographed a few for our catalog that included several image of old SoHo, and when I say old, I do not mean when Dean and Deluca on Prince Street old, I mean when Canal Street was a canal old.

Title Page of the Valentine Manual 1865

The first image, of the Stone Bridge (see above) in 1800, is from the 1865 edition of the Valentine Manuals.  Officially titled The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, this series of books was commonly called the “Valentine’s Manuals” for David T. Valentine, the clerk of the Common Council who compiled the volumes that included the city’s annual reports and directories. (read more about Valentine Manuals here at New York Bound Books).

A little research produced an article entitled “The Old Stone Bridge at Canal-street and Broadway” by Capt. Walker Bicker in The New York Times about his memories of  the bridge and its environs in the early 19th century, published April 9, 1886:

Broadway was not paved beyond “the stone bridge” which stood where Canal-street now crosses Broadway.  This was a famous resort for us schoolboys.  It was considered “out of town”—all north beyond as well as the immediate vicinity was country, post and rail fences dividing the land into different sized parcels.  This bridge spanned a small stream which conveyed water from the Collect on the east side of Broadway (where now stands the Tombs) to the west side, where was an extensive meadow covering most of the ground from Broadway to the north River and from Lispenard-street to Spring-street.

Here’s another image of Broadway, just one block to the north, in 1824.

Corner of Broadway and Grand Street, 1824 from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

Perhaps even more enlightening than the Valentine Manuals is Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure that lists buildings, apartments, apartment hotels, tenements, and stores to be sold at public auction on June 17, 1929.

Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street from Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

This brochure contains a lot for sale at “513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street,” a plot that contains three buildings on Broadway, two of which go all the way through to Mercer Street, that would bring in an estimated whopping $80,700.00 in rent when fully occupied, presumably annually.  I found a recent article on Curbed about a unit in this lot for rent today:

Hank Azaria, best known for doing his voices on “The Simpsons” (Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum among others), told the Wall Street Journal that he’s renting out his loft at 84 Mercer Street for a cool $16,000 per month. For that moolah you get a 4,000 square foot loft with 3 bedrooms. He picked the place up from photographer and director Cindy Sherman for $4.25M back in 2005, but he plans to spend a lot more time on the West Coast.

If a renter will pay $16K per month for a loft, imagine how much one of those retail spaces fetches!  I pride myself on being pretty good at math, but I’m not even going to attempt to figure out the percentage of appreciation between 1929 and 2011.  (And I don’t know if Azaria is BEST known for his Simpsons voices, fantastic though they are.)

Last, but not at all least, here is a newspaper clipping from February 9, 1907 of a picture of The Hall of Science, “where the freethinkers foregathered seventy-five years ago.”

This building on Broome Street (probably between Mott and Elizabeth)  was purchased for $7,000 by educational reformer Frances Wright in 1829. According to the entry on Wright:

Commencing a career as a lecturer, she bought a Baptist church and renamed it the Hall of Science, housing a lecture hall, a secular Sunday school, and a bookstore for free-thinkers. Wright’s lectures challenged evolving concepts of domestic ideology when she explained the experience and ideals of Nashoba, criticized evangelical revivals, and advocated education and equal rights for women. Her favorite topic was educational reform. She proposed a “guardianship system” through which state government would establish district boarding schools, where Americans could be raised for social equality through a curriculum that instructed all children in free inquiry and the physical sciences. Wright found admirers in New York among the reformers and artisans who comprised the city’s Workingmen’s Party and who also advocated enlightened public education and such issues as the ten-hour workday, abolition of imprisonment for debt, and attacks on the privileges of banks and capitalists.

Three random items.  Three SoHo locales.  Three interesting stories.  All in a day’s work.

To read more about rare books on  New York City visit

SoHo 101: The Donald Judd Foundation and 101 Spring Street

April 7, 2012

101 Spring Street in 1973 (photo: N.Y. Landmarks Preservation Commission)

If you walk by the corner of Mercer and Spring Streets these days, you will see a building shrouded in (soon to be removed) scaffolding and netting. 101 Spring Street, the former residence and studio of artist Donald Judd, is currently being restored by The Donald Judd Foundation.  The only single-use cast iron building left in SoHo, it is slated to reopen in 2013 as a “museum” that presents the building as it was when it was new and the interior, including the furnishings and works of art it houses, as it was when Judd lived and worked there.  As William Hamilton writes in his New York Times article about the restoration project, “101 Spring Street will have accomplished a rare feat: a restoration that honors both the building’s history and an artist’s legacy, from two points in time 100 years apart.” (more…)

From Rags to Riches

October 22, 2011

An A.I.R. (Artist in Residence) sign. These signs were often posted at the entrance to industrial buildings to indicate to the FDNY that someone was living in the building and on what floor.

By the time my parents had arrived in the US in the mid-1960’s, aside from die and mold manufaturing, SoHo was dominated by the rag trade.  Businesses would collect fabric scraps, separate them by type of fiber, and send them out to be recycled.  But then along came synthetic fabrics such as nylon and Dacron, which cannot easily be reused, and the rag business died out, leaving landlords with empty lofts that were too small (about 2500 square feet) to be used for manufacturing.  Many lofts remained empty for quite a while until artists, desperate for studio space, began moving in.  The catch was that the neighborhood was an “M” Zone, permitting light manufacturing and commercial use, but not residential use.  The artists, almost all of whom also lived in their work spaces, were there illegally.  For a while, no one seemed to notice or care, the city pretty much looked the other way, but when non-artists looking for investment opportunities began noticing the profit potential of such spaces, artists, who, until then, chose to remain anonymous and hidden, came together to form the SoHo Tenants’ Association and  incorporated as The SoHo Artists Association in order to to help legalize loft dwellings and fight to keep SoHo an affordable place for artists to work.

Sean Sweeney of the SoHo Alliance explains:

Since artists were living here in violation of the zoning, and theoretically depriving manufacturers of cheaper manufacturing space, thus depriving the city (and unskilled workers) of manufacturing jobs and a manufacturing-based economy, many manufacturers and law-and-order types at the Buildings Dept, sought an enforcement of the laws that prohibited living in an M zone.  However, they could not stop the influx of folk wanting to live here, even illegally, despite the harassments and fines and eviction threats.  So, the SoHo Artists Association, the forerunner of the Alliance, was formed in 1968 to reach a compromise and to get artist-living here legalized. The construct or the conceit used to justify their living here was that artists do manufacture — they manufacture art!    So, the only ones who could live in SoHo/NoHo were manufacturers of art, i.e., artists basically, although musicians could live here if they composed (manufactured) music, but could not live here if they solely used it as a rehearsal space. Same with dancers.  Choreographing enabled you live in your loft. You manufactured dance. Using it just for dance practice did not.

Now, who was an artist and who was a bullshit artist? That was to be determined by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, who were pretty arbitrary in their criteria, leading to much frustration.  Further, there was a general amnesty in 1987 to those non-artists living here prior to that year. But, again, no one enforced the JLWQA (Joint Live/Work Quarters for Artists) requirement, so more “illegals” continued to come into SoHo in the 80s and 90s and today.

This is just a primer for a long and complicated history of zoning laws, power struggles, and “gentrification” that spanned the second half of the twentieth century.  The evolution of SoHo set a precedent for how other neighborhoods and cities would approach adaptive reuse of non-residential urban areas.  Community-building is an ongoing, open-ended struggle.  Many of those who arrived here in “rags” were forced out of the neighborhood, by either necessity or choice, before they could enjoy any “riches” that resulted from their valiant efforts. Although SoHo has changed almost unrecognizably over the past decades, I nonetheless feel lucky to still be here and salute those who came before me.

P.S.  The SoHo Alliance is staffed entirely by volunteers, but, like all non-profits, it has expenses to meet: lawyers, consultants, computer maintenance, office charges, etc.  Please visit their website to find out more and to donate funds to help keep SoHo the neighborhood you want it to be.

The Golden Triangle

October 15, 2011

Lombardi's on Spring Street in 1905 (photo: via The Bowery Boys)

The other day, I met this great guy named Scott Wiener, who knows more about pizza than anyone else on the planet.  He researches the history of pizza. He gives pizza tours.  He blogs about pizza.  And, of course, he eats pizza.  As he explained to me  the evolution of pizza in New York, I realized that I grew up in the epicenter of pizzadom.  I never really thought about it before.  I really took it for granted.  Lombardi’s, Ray’s, John’s, Arturo’s, Joe’s, Ben’s.

When I was about eight years old, my mom would give me a dollar and I would go to the Carmine Street pool during the summer with my friend, Julia.  Ten cents to get in to the pool.  Fifteen cents for candy.  Twenty-five cents for a drink.  And fifty cents for a slice at Golden Pizza (where Joe’s is now).  And if we were lucky, someone would put “Dancing Queen” on the jukebox.  A perfect day.

Scott the Pizza Guru

My friend, Anna, who lived on the Bowery, and I would get “white” slices from Ray’s on Prince.  They were way ahead of the curve with the sauceless ricotta slices.  And who knew that they were actually the ORIGINAL original Ray’s.

Ben’s on Spring Street, of Men in Black II fame, was a post-Thompson Street pool treat.  And still is.  In fact, my daughter now EXPECTS pizza whenever we go to the playground.  She is only three years old and can eat an entire slice, easy.  That’s my girl!

The older, more restaurant-y no-slices establishments came later in my life, once I was able to dine out on my own.  Lombardi’s was closed for about a decade during my youth , but John’s and Arturo’s were the obvious destinations for a relatively cheap and filling (and yummy) meal.

Did you know that most true New York pizzas can be traced to Lombardi’s?  In 1897, Gennaro Lombardi started working at a tiny grocery store at 53 Spring Street that he eventually owned.  A demand for cheap, ready-made, easily transportable food led hm to begin selling “tomato pie” wrapped in paper and tied with a string.  You could buy it by the pie or you could buy it by the inch (slices).  In 1905, Lombardi turned the store into a pizzeria.  Employees of Lombardi’s went on to open Totonno’s (1924),  John’s (1929), Patsy’s (1933), and Grimaldi’s.  Who knew we were living so close to a historical icon?  Thanks to Scott, I will never take pizza for granted again!

To listen to an interesting podcast about the history of New York Pizza, “Kings of New York Pizza: Lombardi, Totonno, Patsy, Ray?” click HERE.

Or better yet, experience history firsthand by taking a tour with Scott.

Our Visible Past

July 23, 2011

The work of the destroyers has always been made easier for them by the nature of our history: A country that is founded on a revolution is not likely to show undue reverence for its predecessors.

-Brendan Gill, “Preserving the Visible Past”
The New York Times, September 28, 1975

Detail of a cast iron building (photo: Landmarks Preservation Commission)

SoHo is also known as the Cast-Iron Historic District, as it was designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in August 1973.  Ornate cast iron facades were originally used to spruce up pre-existing buildings, kind of like brickface and stucco, but was later used in new construction as well.  There are approximately 250 cast iron buildings in New York City, most of them in SoHo and mostly dating from the mid to late-1800’s.  An American invention, cast iron facades were not only less expensive to produce than stone or brick, but also much faster, as they were made in molds rather than carved by hand, and stuck to the face of buildings.  In addition, the same mold could be used for multiple buildings and a broken piece could easily be recast, making it a very efficient decorative method.  Because iron is pliable, ornate window frames could be designed, while the strength of the iron also allowed for enlarged windows that let floods of light into buildings as well as high ceilings in vast spaces with only columns necessary for support.

Although cast iron architecture enjoyed short-lived popularity as an architectural style, being replaced by steel-skeleton construction with high speed elevators by the 1880’s, the buildings of SoHo are considered the protoypes or precursors to the skyscraper and therefore hold much historic significance in the development of New York City.

First put forth in the 1930’s, the idea for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX as it was known, which was to run the length of Broome Street, gained support in the 1950’s and 1960’s and would have razed most of what is now SoHo and Little Italy.  However, community opposition to the proposed highway connecting New Jersey and Brooklyn (via some of the most historically significant areas of New York City) killed the project, and the highway was never built (see my post on LOMEX and Robert Moses here).

Overlapping the plans for LOMEX, the historic buildings of SoHo were also slated to be demolished to make way for new housing construction.  A group called the City Club put out a study in 1962 called “The Wastelands of New York City” that recommended that a large part of what is now SoHo be razed, as “there are no buildings worth saving.”

But then Chester Rapkin, a city planning commissioner, came out with a report that same year titled “The South Houston Industrial Area” (also known as the “Rapkin Study”), which stated that, although the number of businesses in the area had declined over the years, the old buildings still housed small industries that employed many low-income and minority workers and were also a still-viable tax revenue source for the city.

In the end, it was also a simple matter of the city’s financial health that saved SoHo from the wrecking ball.  Of the minority group of people in power who preferred preservation to novelty in New York City, Brendan Gill, writer, critic, and  one time chairman of the board of the Landmarks Conservancy of New York writes:

Brendan Gill

Their unwitting allies in perserving certain remnants of the past were the poor, for if eccentricity has always been a good friend of preservation, poverty has been an even better friend.  Much of the most admired architecture of older New York—the SoHo district, for example, and scores of square blocks in Greenwich Village and Little Italy—have survived because, at a critical moment, the city didn’t have enough money to pay for knocking them down.

-Brendan Gill, “Preserving the Visible Past”

The buildings, thus, remained intact, and, as mentioned above, the neighborhood was given landmark status in 1973 and was protected from any further demolition plans.  Thanks to a variety of forces coming together in the 1960’s and early 70’s, the Rapkin Study, the tireless work of preservation activists, and a serendipitous lack of funds, SoHo has remained and will continue to be for the foreseeable future an architecturally and aesthetically significant part of New York’s “visible past.”

Getty Images

July 2, 2011

Mercer Parking Garage in the mid-1980's

I had a recurring dream (nightmare?) when I was a teenager.  I was being chased by a faceless someone.  As I turned the corner onto my block, I saw Willie standing in front of the Mercer Garage so I ran up to him and he said something like, “It’s okay.  You’re safe here.”  Since then, whenever I see the garage or Willie, who has worked there since 1983, I feel safe.

I recently spoke with Jay, the owner of the garage, and found out that his family has a long history in SoHo and on Mercer Street, WAY longer than my family.

The building at 165 Mercer Street was originally a factory but was converted to a parking garage when automobiles began to be popular.  Apparently, during prohibition, there was also some bootlegging going on in the building as well.

An FBI photo of the Mercer Parking Garage when bootleggers and cars shared space upstairs

Back in the 60’s, Jay’s father, Calman, an auto mechanic, bought the building, and he and his brother, Jay’s uncle Morris, who had worked in an embroidery workshop down the street since just after WWII in what is now the Donald Judd building, ran the garage, which used to sell Getty gasoline.  Calman would work the morning rush at the garage and then leave to work at an auto body shop on Bleecker and Lafayette (where Pinche Tacqueria is now) all day and then he would come back to the garage to work the evening rush.  He would take Saturdays off,  and then on Sundays, when the garage was closed, Jay would come in to the city from Brooklyn with his father and mother.  His father would go to the shop to work on cars he didn’t get to during the week while his mother would clean and sweep at the garage.  Jay would go across the street to the former NYU playground (see my post on the playground here) to play pickup basketball games and then in the evening the whole family would go to Chinatown for dinner.  That was their Sunday ritual.

I did not know Calman, but I have only fond memories of Morris, who passed away in 1991.  He always greeted me and my family cheerfully, and on spring and summer evenings in the 1970’s, I would sometimes sit with a friend on the bench outside his garage and practice the songs we learned in our chorus.  Morris would come out of his office applauding and give us each fifty cents for our “beautiful” singing.  Fifty cents could buy us a slice of pizza, a subway ride, or a boatload of candy, so, to us at least, it was a substantial chunk of change.

Back then, the garage’s clientele was mostly comprised of commuters coming in to SoHo to work at the factories and offices. The garage workers knew all of their customers, as they were mostly monthly parkers who would come in every weekday.  They were Monday morning quarterbacks who would talk sports and chat and there was a real camaraderie, a sense of community, at the garage.

By the early 1980’s, most of the factories closed and the clientele began changing.  There are still some monthly customers, but Jay says that there are more and more “transients” who remain anonymous.  Lunchers.  Shoppers.  Weekend partyers.  The garage is open late on Saturday nights to accommodate the dinner crowd, but they still close at 7:30 pm on weekdays, which gives them just enough time to get all the cars out and the trucks in.

Business is down due to the recession.  People are choosing to just stay home.  But Jay says he would never sell.  I’m sure he knows just how valuable his building is, that it could become the first Walmart in NYC, but he likes running a business and he plans to pass it along, just as it was passed along to him.

I find it reassuring to know that as long as I live on Mercer Street, I will always have my safe haven from my faceless pursuer.  I always woke up before I could see who he was—Sam Walton, perhaps?

Summer Reading

June 18, 2011

The cover of SoHo, a novel by C.L. Byrd

Last summer, while preparing to launch this blog, I read a novel by C.L. Byrd called Soho.  I thought I might write about it now as the 2011 summer reading season is getting started.

Judging from the cover art, Soho was probably meant to appeal to readers in search of a good soap opera-style story, and it certainly delivers on that front.  It is a saga about an immigrant family whose rise to power parallels SoHo’s rise to prominence as a center of art and commerce.  The blurb on the back reads, “From Lower East Side merchants to high-powered international art brokers, three generations struggle for love, wealth and fame in thrilling…SOHO.”

Basically, Soho is about a bunch of good-looking, ambitious, passionate, people striving for success in twentieth-century New York.  The story is pretty mundane and  bit stilted, but the novel’s landscape is actually quite interesting and well researched.  The details about early loft living and atmospheric descriptions of street scenes are astute and accurate.

The following is an excerpt from Soho, also cited by Richard Kostelanetz in his book, SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony, that is a particularly evocative passage describing Canal Street in the 1960’s:

Annie walked with Camille to the subway entrance, then strolled west on Canal Street, drawn by the activity on the sidewalks.  What she discovered, to her delight, was that a number of stores had, in effect, burst and spilled out into the street, so that their wares were displayed in irregularly ascending rows of trays and boxes—some resting on trestles,  some on other boxes—in the way that fruit and vegetables were arranged outside an old-fashioned greengrocers.  In front of one store were containers of vacuum tubes, condensers, transformers, loudspeaker cones—everything the radio or hi-fi enthusiast could require—the price of each item boldly stated on a hand-lettered card.  Another shop offered plumbing supplies—mundane objects that became exotic isolated out here on the street—and a third displayed sneakers, sandals, and several kinds of work boots, all crowded onto a kind of miniature bleachers.  A cascade of legal pads, ledgers, typewriter ribbons, old calendars, pencil sharpeners, ink pads, and desk lamps overflowed from an office supply company.  Nearby were rolls of garden hose, brass rods, hacksaw blades, nuts and bolts, hatchets, frying pans bathroom cabinets, casters, door handles, toilet paper holders—the contents of a hardware store that had been turned inside out—and next to that a cluttered assemblage of electric motors in all sizes and shapes.

(from SoHo, by C.L. Byrd, pages 129-130)

This passage describes all that I found so interesting as a child walking down Canal Street with my father to buy supplies for one of his construction jobs and lovingly portrays a street that was at once chaotic and orderly in its own way.  The “about the author” note says that C.L. Byrd is the pseudonym of two writers closely involved with the New York art world, and that seems plausible to me.

The most interesting aspect of this novel, however, is that it provides a glimpse into how outsiders, the suburban housewife or midwestern banker, would perceive SoHo if novels such as this one were their primary information source.  Although it is pretty accurate in its descriptions of everyday life in SoHo, it still paints a somewhat glossy and  romantic idea of what it was like to be a pioneer in loft living.  I guess the equivalent for me would be my perception of Dallas in the 1980’s being based on the trials and tribulations of JR and his posse.  The money, the power, the women.  I mean, quel drama!  By the way, does anyone remember, in the end, who actually shot JR?

Before SoHo was SoHo (Part III): The Etymology of Street Names

June 11, 2011

One way we New Yorkers define ourselves is by where we live—in what neighborhood, on what street.  We’ve repeated our own addresses an untold number of times, yet we usually do not know for whom or for what the streets that make up our neighborhood are named. As I discovered during my research for this post, the etymology of street names reveals much about the history of the areas through which those streets run.

Houston Street

Four Views of Houston Street, late 1800's (photo: NYPL)

In the early 1800’s, Nicholas Bayard, once the largest landowner in Manhattan, cut a street through his land and named it after his son-in-law, William Houstoun, a congressman from Georgia, who, it is thought, pronounced his name house-ton, instead of hews-ton, like the city in Texas.   There is a Houston County in Georgia that is also pronounced house-ton.  At some point, the second “u” in Houstoun was dropped, but the pronunciation remained. Some have said that the name comes from the Dutch words huijs tuijn, meaning “house garden,” but this etymology is false.

Canal Street

Early Canal Street (photo: via The Bowery Boys)

Collect Pond was a fresh water pond located just southeast of the present-day corner of Broadway and Canal Street.  In the 1700’s, it was used for recreation as well as a reservoir, but as industries began dumping waste there, it became a toxic wasteland.  In 1807, the city widened a small spring that ran from the pond to the Hudson River to drain it and planted rows of trees along both sides of this new canal.  This path was known as Canal Street, even after it was paved over in 1821 because residents complained of its foul smell.

West Broadway

West Broadway at Canal, 1936 (photo: NYPL via Ephemeral NY)

Until the mid-nineteenth century, West Broadway was called Lorenz Street, after a general in George Washington’s army.  The street was nicknamed “rotten row” because it was lined with numerous brothels.  Briefly renamed South Fifth Avenue, it was re-renamed West Broadway in the 1870’s.

In 1972, Auguest Heckscher, the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Administrator, proposed that the stretch of West Broadway between Canal and Houston Streets be renamed “Jackson Pollock Place”  The proposal was not very popular amongst residents (read my post on the controversy surrounding this proposal here).

The portion of West Broadway that is north of Houston was renamed La Guardia Place, after former New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, in 1967.


And early view of Niblo’s Garden, at Broadway and Prince Streets, ca. 1930 (image NYPL)

Originally a native American trail called Wickquasgeck that meandered through Manhattan, Broadway was made into a wide thoroughfare by the Dutch.  Before 1899 when the name “Broadway” became the official name for the entire road, it was known by different names in different parts of the island.  The name is a literal translation of breede weg (Dutch).

Spring Street

Lispenard's Meadow taken from the N.E. corner of the present Broadway & Spring St. (Drawn by A. Anderson, 1785 via Art NYC)

Spring Street was named for a spring that flowed in Lispenard’s Meadow, which, along with Collect Pond (see “Canal Street” above), was used for recreation by early European settlers.  Spring Street was earlier known as Brannon Street, because it ran through the garden of a man of that name.

Collect Pond was located just southeast of the present-day corner of Broadway and Canal Street. (Image via The Bowery Boys)

Many of the other streets that run through SoHo, such as Mercer Street, Greene Street, and Prince Street, were named for Revolutionary War heroes whose legacies stretch beyond the borders of New York City.

So the next time you are wandering through the neighborhood, if you picture it as a seedy red light district, perhaps you will feel grateful that instead of brothels, we now have not one but TWO Camper stores along Prince Street.  But if you instead conjure an image of the bucolic expanse of Lispenard’s Meadow, perhaps your yearning to run barefoot through grass will remind you that we could use a little more green space on SoHo and a little less Spanish footwear.

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

April 30, 2011

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

The Master Builder

March 12, 2011

Map of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (image: Vanshnookenraggen/Flickr)

The idea for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX as it was known, which was to run the length of Broome Street, was first put forth in the 1930’s and gained support in the 1950’s and 1960’s and would have razed most of what is now SoHo and Little Italy.  If Robert Moses and his cohorts had had their way, SoHo would never have existed, and the whole area of lower Manhattan between the Holland Tunnel and the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges would most certainly have shared the same fate as the South Bronx after the Cross Bronx Expressway (another Moses project) was built.  But thanks to community activists, led by Jane Jacobs, opposition to the proposed highway connecting New Jersey and Brooklyn (via some of the most historically significant areas of New York City) killed the project, and the highway was never built.

Like David and Goliath, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses are often held in opposition to each other, with Jacobs representing all that is right about urban planning Moses representing all that is wrong.  I readily admit that cities need public works and those who administrate them as much as they need to be checked by concerned citizens who are ready and willing to defend their neighborhoods and quality of life, but I am forever thankful that LOMEX was never built.  If it had been, SoHo would not have existed.  But it was, ironically, largely due to the  LOMEX project that SoHo was able to develop in the first place.  Beginning in 1960, support for LOMEX gained momentum in the halls of municipal government.  As a result, because the fate of the buildings around Broome Street was so uncertain, only artists were desperate (or crazy) enough to sign on to leases.  Landlords were unwilling to invest capital in the buildings, so the tenants moved into very inexpensive but raw spaces and fixed them up themselves.  Throughout the 1960’s, plans for LOMEX moved forward against growing protest from the community as well as City Hall until finally, in 1969, the project was abandoned, never to surface again.  During this time, SoHo flourished, attracting more and more artists desperate for affordable studio space and optimistic enough to take a gamble, and now, instead of urban blight we have adaptive reuse, historic preservation, and SoHo.  And who do we have to thank for this course of history, David or Goliath?

Check out this video about Robert Moses,
especially “The Meat Ax” (5:10-7:30),
which is about his fight with Jane Jacobs over LOMEX.

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