SoHo, also spelled Soho, is a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, New York City. Since the twentieth century, it has been home to many artists’ lofts and art galleries, as well as a diverse range of shops ranging from trendy upscale boutiques to national and international chain store outlets. The history of the neighborhood is a model of inner-city regeneration and gentrification, encompassing socioeconomic, cultural, political, and architectural changes.
Chester Rapkin, an urban planner and author of The South Houston Industrial Area study, also known as the “Rapkin Report,” coined the term “SoHo” in 1962 to refer to the area “South of Houston Street.” The name is also reminiscent of Soho, a district in London’s West End.
The SoHo–Cast Iron Historic District, which was designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1973, was extended in 2010, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978, encompasses almost all of SoHo. It is made up of 26 blocks and about 500 buildings, many of which feature cast-iron architectural elements. Many of the district’s side streets are paved with Belgian blocks.
SoHo is in Manhattan Community District 2 and has the ZIP codes 10012 and 10013. It is patrolled by the New York City Police Department’s 1st and 5th Precincts.
The land that is now SoHo was part of a grant of farmland given to freed slaves of the Dutch West Indies Company during the colonial period, and it was the site of the first free Black settlement on Manhattan Island. Augustine Hermann purchased this land in the 1660s, and it was later passed down to his brother-in-law, Nicholas Bayard. The estate was confiscated by the state as a result of Bayard’s involvement in Leisler’s Rebellion, but it was returned to him after his sentence was overturned.
Natural barriers – streams and hills – hampered the city’s growth northward into the Bayard estate in the 18th century, and the area retained its rural character. Several fortifications, redoubts, and breastworks were built in the area during the American Revolution. After the war, Bayard, who had suffered financially as a result of it, was forced to mortgage some of the property, which had been divided into lots, but there was still very little development in the area, aside from some manufacturing on Broadway and Canal Street.
Serious development of the area did not begin until the Common Council, in response to complaints from local landowners, drained the Collect Pond, which had once been an important source of fresh water for the island but had become polluted and rank, as well as a mosquito breeding ground. The pond was drained into the Hudson by a canal, and both the canal and the pond were later filled in with earth from nearby Bayard’s Hill. After Broadway was paved and sidewalks were built along it and Canal Street, more people began to settle there, joining earlier settlers like James Fennimore Cooper.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the early Federal- and Greek Revival-style homes had been replaced by more-solid structures of masonry and cast iron, and large marble-skinned commercial establishments such as Lord & Taylor, Arnold Constable & Company, and Tiffany & Company, as well as grand hotels such as the St. Nicholas and the Metropolitan, began to open along Broadway. Theatres followed in their wake, and Broadway between Canal and Houston Streets became a thriving theater and shopping district, as well as the city’s entertainment center; as is customary in such areas, it also housed many brothels, and the side streets off Broadway became the city’s red-light district. As a result of this shift in character, small manufacturing concerns such as cabinetmakers and the lumberyards that supplied them, brass and copper firms, makers of china and glassware, locksmiths, snuff manufacturers, and book publishers took their place.
This dramatic shift in the nature of the neighborhood continued to drive out residents, and the Eighth Ward, which included the SoHo area, lost 25% of its population between 1860 and 1865. Following the Civil War and the Panic of 1873, large manufacturers, particularly textile firms, began to move into the area in the 1880s and 1890s, and the area became the city’s mercantile and wholesale dry-goods trade center, as well as the subject of significant real-estate speculation. By the end of the nineteenth century, this phase had come to an end, and as the city’s center continued to move uptown, the quality of the area deteriorated.
Following WWII, the textile industry largely relocated to the South, leaving many large buildings in the district vacant. Some buildings were demolished to make way for warehouses and printing plants, while others were demolished to make way for gas stations, auto repair shops, and parking lots and garages. By the 1950s, the area had become known as Hell’s Hundred Acres, an industrial wasteland that was busy during the day with sweatshops and small factories but deserted at night. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when artists became interested in the tall ceilings and many windows of the empty manufacturing lofts, that the neighborhood’s character began to change once more.