Posts Tagged ‘Broadway’

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 I): The Lullaby of Broadway

February 12, 2011

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

The corner of Broadway and Prince Street today.

Although this blog focuses on SoHo in the late-1960’s through the early-1980’s, I thought it would be interesting, from time to time, to look at what was happening in the neighborhood before SoHo was called SoHo.  Our neighborhood’s long history and many incarnations, from Native American territory to farmland to suburb to commercial center to red light district to industrial hub to art capital and finally to retail mecca, will remind us that, although some of us may miss the days before SoHo was a center for commerce, fashion, and gastronomy, it also wasn’t always a quiet, dirty, residential/industrial community filled with quirky creative-types living illegally in palatial, underheated dwellings.  As a matter of fact, far from it.

I was recently perusing the Bowery Boys blog and came across a post on Niblo’s Garden.  From the 1820’s until 1895, when it was demolished to make way for an office building, Niblo’s Garden was one of New York City’s premier “pleasure gardens,” venues where wealthy New Yorkers could find diversion and amusement, both indoors and out, before the advent of public parks.  It was located at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street and extended all the way to Crosby Street to the east and Houston Street to the north.  In addition to gardens, an open-air saloon, and an exhibition hall, in its heyday Niblo’s housed a 3,200-seat theater at which the first Broadway musical was performed and also at which P.T. Barnum made his show business debut.

On this same stretch of Broadway, one could also find the ultra-opulent St. Nicholas Hotel at Broadway and Spring Street.  The only remaining part of the building, which spanned the entire block to Broome Street, is now the site of The Puma Store and Lady Footlocker.

And finally, it bears mentioning that Tiffany & Co. was once located at 550 Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets where Banana Republic now resides, on the block between Niblo’s Garden and the St. Nicholas.  The Atlas clock in the image below is the clock that now adorns the facade of the Tiffany & Co. store on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street.

So although some of us lament the fact that SoHo has lost it’s edge and has become a playground for the rich and beautiful, we are also forced to admit that, what goes around, comes around.

Entrance to Niblo’s Garden in its later years, ca. 1865 (photo MCNY).

The interior of Niblo’s Theater (photo NYPL)

(See more images and listen to a great podcast about Niblo’s Garden
from The Bowery Boys.)

The St. Nicholas Hotel on Broadway between Spring and Broome Streets, built in 1854 (image NYPL)

The remaining portion of the St. Nicholas Hotel,
The Puma Store and Lady Foot Locker
at 521 and 523 Broadway today.

Tiffany & Co. at 550 Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets,
1850 (photo Curbed/Flickr)

Banana Republic at 550 Broadway today.

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