The Intersection of Broadway and Broome Streets in SoHo during the early 20th century. SoHo during this time was categorized by an industrial area, especially due to the cast iron work on the buildings. In this picture cast iron work is clearly depcitected, especially on the right and left buildings, and the building placed in the forward back of the photo.

SoHo

SoHo is a neighborhood in New York City that is located in Lower Manhattan, and the letters “SoHo” actually stands for south of Houston Street. In the early 1900s, Soho was mostly a place of business, and this part of the city was completely covered in warehouses. However, by the mid-1900s, Soho began rapidly changing from a district of business filled with warehouses and factories to a district that was lively with art and people. From the industrial Soho of the early 1900s to the residential, upbeat Soho in the late 1900s, Soho is a bustling part of New York that demonstrates how quickly growth and change occurred in New York during this period.

Looking back on the history of SoHo, it is clear that this area was constantly changing and was a prosperous community. From the 17th century until the 20th century, SoHo went through many changes, from being occupied as farmland, to a wealthy neighborhood, and then in the 20th century, SoHo was changed into an industrial community due to the Industrial Revolution.[1] When more and more people who resided in New York City, especially the wealthy and the middle-class began to move northward on the island during the 19th century, the area that was once a wealthy neighborhood dispersed, and it became a place of mostly business and industrial work.[2] The population of SoHo during this time decreased since many people moved to the north, which allowed businesses and corporations to enter the district, and the area of SoHo “quickly became a center for the mercantile and dry goods trades”.[3] During this time during the 19th century, the place we now see with stores and shops basically at every turn was filled with businesses and factories. Moreover, these businesses and different industries located within SoHo, would for the most part remain in their place until the 1960s.[4] ­

During the early 20th century, and most evidently during the 1960s, New York City aggressively tried to renew the area of SoHo, with a process known as urban renewal.[5] Urban renewal was occurring all over the United States during the mid-20th century, it was “a pervasive ­planning focus throughout mid-twentieth-century America” and by 1957 New York City “had spent two times more on renewal than the rest of American cities combined”.[6] Urban renewal was used during this period to “clear out” the slum areas, and by this, it means that many neighborhoods were destroyed altogether. New York City during the 20th century was trying to restructure and rebuilt neighborhoods, however, this was harmful to the SoHo area, especially due to the industries and their employees, since more than half of the buildings occupied were for business activity.[7] Moreover, during the 1960s artists also occupied the SoHo area, but not legally. Artists living in this area were mostly residing in areas zoned for business, which was illegal, but the rent was cheap, and these buildings once used for business were large enough for an artist to conduct their business.[8] However, the city was not relaxed with its eviction policy, and more precisely, the landlords of these buildings did not treat the artist tenants well. In response to this, artists from SoHo began to create coalitions in the early 1960s, one being the Artists Tenant Association (ATA). This coalition of around 500 artists decided to protest the city’s eviction policy by keeping their art out of the art galleries within New York City unless the policy was made less strict.[9]

The Artists Tenant Association made gains with their protest, and the city administration decided to allow artists to reside in places that were deemed to be commercial. However, artists from SoHo wanted to push further, so they decided to create another group in 1968 known as the SoHo Artists Association (SAA). The main function of this group was to zone the buildings in SoHo as residential, and the artists of SoHo once again made gains, and the City Planning Commission made over one thousand lofts available for residential use in SoHo.[10] A newspaper article from the New York Times written in 1971 details this win. The article states that “SoHo zoning, approved by the commission eased existing restrictions on the use of loft space for residential use…the neighborhood is not one that would be generally considered residential but for many artists the lofts’ space and light more than compensates for such disadvantages as the noise of the districts’ heavy truck traffic”.[11] This demonstrates that during this time, this transition from industrial to residential was not something people were used to, however, they understood the reasoning. Moreover, this piece of the article also demonstrates that the changes within SoHo were widespread news across the city, and people were interested in what was occurring. This signaled a win for the artists, however many things would change in the next ten to twenty years for the area. As mentioned, the lofts that artists would reside in within SoHo were much more spacious compared to other residential areas, and this enormously benefited the artists, since their work took up a decent amount of space. Nevertheless, by the early 1970s, these large lofts within SoHo attracted more than just artists.

People who wanted to live within New York City during the early 1970s looked at SoHo, and they saw SoHo’s lofts as stylish and chic, unlike artists who used the large spaces for work.[12] Many different newspapers and magazines introduced their readers to the loft-style of SoHo, and many people wanted to live as the artists did. By 1973, the entire atmosphere of SoHo was changed and now “boutiques were a staple of the neighborhood…retail stores rapidly commercialized ground floors of industrial buildings”.[13] SoHo was rapidly changing from a place of industrial work and artists to a commercialized center, and with this came soaring rent prices from the early 1970s and on. In 1969 a 3,600-square-foot building sold for around $10,000, and in 1974 those prices jumped to anywhere from $25,000 to $45,000.[14] That means within only one year, the prices of living in SoHo went up from 150%, being the lesser, and to 350% being the greater. Another figure demonstrates that prices also went up, concerning purchasing an entire building in SoHo. A building in SoHo in 1970 was priced at $150,000 and was then three years later priced at $450,000 in 1974.[15] The middle and upper classes, most importantly people who were non-artists began to occupy the area, due to the commercialization in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a direct result of this, many artists who resided in SoHo could not afford to live there anymore due to the skyrocketing house prices, and by the late 1970s, artists only occupied 60% of the households in SoHo.[16] Moreover, during the 1980s, many people with wealth came to the area, making it more and more inaccessible to those who lived there previously.[17] As the artists in SoHo began to disappear, so did the remaining industries, and the area became more and more homogeneous with the aid of commercialization. Notably, a newspaper article from 1994 in the New York Times shows that even twenty years after the introduction of change and commercialization, the residents are still trying to keep their community whole.[18] The newspaper states that even though the neighborhood has already given away to commercialization, “many longtime residents are, through organizations like the SoHo alliance, striving to keep the neighborhood from frying even more”.[19] This demonstrates that the long-time residents even in the 1960s and the 1970s, and then fast forward to the 1990s, did not want SoHo to change. However, SoHo did indeed change throughout the times, and it was never reversed, and led to the SoHo that is now present today, heavily commercialized, and the only remains of a once mixed-use community are the iron buildings.

Today, SoHo is an immensely popular spot for visitors to the area, especially due to a large number of shops, history, and food in the area. The must-see places in SoHo for visitors today include Broadway, the Historic District: which mainly encompasses all of SoHo, and one of the local old-time favorites Fanelli’s Café. The main shopping grid within SoHo runs from “Broadway West to Sixth Avenue, and Houston Street South to Canal Street”.[20] Moreover, the most commercialized street within SoHo is Broadway. When visitors go to Broadway, they will be greeted by many name-brand shops such as Zara, Nike, Converse, Bloomingdale’s, Prada, and Brandy Melville.[21] Along with shops such as these, there will also be small and large boutiques selling anything from clothing to household items on Broadway. After visiting Broadway and looking at what all of the shops in the area have to offer, a visitor can then venture into SoHo’s history.

Singer Building Today, 561 Broadway SoHo.

SoHo was designated as a historic district in 1973 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.[22] Within the area of SoHo as a whole, around 500 buildings feature the industrial style cast-iron facades. For a visitor, to simply just look around the area, these buildings will be prevalent. One building, in particular, that is a must-see to SoHo visitors is the Little Singer building located on Broadway, so it would be a perfect stop after visiting all of the stores located there. This building was built to hold the Singer Sewing Machine Company’s offices and manufacturing units, and it was built in 1903, and it stands out as an “L” shaped building.[23] Moreover, this building will most likely stand out to any visitor due to the “recessed windows and wrought iron balconies”[24] as it can be seen by the image to the right. As the image on the right also illustrates, the Singer Sewing Machine Company is still on the front of the building below the first façade. After seeing the cast-iron architecture, visitors can next head to Fanelli’s Café in Soho. Fanelli’s Café is located on Prince Street, and it has been there since 1847 serving both locals and visitors to the area. Fanelli’s is known as a dive bar, and many articles today rave about the cheap drinks and food, and also its atmosphere.[25] In a newspaper article from the New York Times in 1976 during the time when SoHo was changing immensely, it was in the article that a resident of SoHo stated “I have to go downstairs to Fanelli’s to find something in the world that has stayed the same”.[26] Since Fanelli’s has been around for a very long time, the residents took comfort in the space during the 1970s, when SoHo was changing into a commercialized area. This reveals that mostly everything in SoHo was changing, but Fanelli’s stayed the same. Moreover, the café is known for being one of the absolute best classic bars in New York, mostly because the café presents a “real New York experience”[27], which makes this stop in a visitors tour of SoHo an absolute must.

Overall, the history of SoHo, in general, is connected to the history of New York City, especially due to the immense changes that occurred from the early 1960s until the late 20th century. New York City was continuously expanding larger and larger, and with that came changes especially for the SoHo area. SoHo was changed from an industrialized area that was dominated mainly by factories and corporations into a commercialized area that was appealing to the eye. The costs of living in this area soared to prices never seen before due to these changes that occurred, and even today SoHo remains an affluent area filled with big brand name stores and boutiques. Thus, the immense and rapid change that occurred in SoHo during this period illustrates the quick-paced change that New York City experienced as well.

 

[1] Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980 (The University of Chicago   Press, 2016), 19.

[2] Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980 (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 18.

[3] Ibid, 19.

[4] Ibid, 22.

[5] Petrus, From Gritty to Chic: The Transformation of New York City’s SoHo 1962-1976 (Cornell University Press, 2003), 4.

[6] Petrus, From Gritty to Chic: The Transformation of New York City’s SoHo 1962-1976 (Cornell University Press, 2003), 2.

[7] Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980 (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 104

[8] Ibid., 49.

[9] Ibid, 96.

[10] Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980 (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 139.

[11] Charlton, “City Unit to Fight Eviction in SoHo: Trend from Industrial Area to Residential One Cited”, New York Times, November 14, 1971, 96.

[12] Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980 (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 183.

[13] Petrus, From Gritty to Chic: The Transformation of New York City’s SoHo 1962-1976 (Cornell University Press, 2003), 28.

[14] Ibid., 27.

[15] Ibid., 27.

[16] Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980 (The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 147.

[17] Kostelanetz, Artists’ SoHo. (Fordham University Press, 2015), 54.

[18] Deutsch, “Grit to Glamour: The Evolution of SoHo: Factories, artists, galleries, upscale shops and cafes. What’s next? Commercial Property/The SoHo District A Neighborhood’s Progress From Grit to Glamour”, New York Times, May 8, 1994, 2.

[19] Deutsch, “Grit to Glamour: The Evolution of SoHo: Factories, artists, galleries, upscale shops and cafes. What’s next? Commercial Property/The SoHo District A Neighborhood’s Progress From Grit to Glamour”, New York Times, May 8, 1994, 2.

[20] “The Top Shopping Streets and Neighborhoods in New York City”, https://www.frommers.com/destinations/new-york-city/shopping/the-top-shopping-streets–neighborhoods (accessed April 1, 2022).

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Soho-Cast Iron Historic District”, https://www.nypap.org/preservation-history/soho-cast-iron-historic-district/ (accessed April 1, 2022).

[23] Ohta, “Little Singer, Big History”, Soho Broadway, November 3, 2019.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Fanelli’s Café”, New York Magazine.

[26] Russel, “Is SoHo Going Up, Down, Nowhere?”, New York Times, March 12, 1976, 34.

[27] “Fanelli’s Café”, New York Magazine.

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