Ed Lederman
Changes in Soho: The Hood

Things Never Stay the Same in Soho…

By The Soho Insider

For almost 50 years Soho has been synonymous with Avant-Garde art, cutting edge fashion and a casual, chic lifestyle. But Soho is much more than cool stores, restaurants, clubs, bars and art galleries. Soho, (roughly 50 square blocks from Houston to Canal Street and Sixth Avenue to Lafayette Street) is also home to glorious historic 19th century cast iron architecture.If you look closely at the buildings and streets you can get as true a picture of what New York looked like from the 1850’s to the turn of the 20th century.

Soho has gone through many changes. When the architects and developers of the 1850’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s developed much of the Soho you see today, creating high end retailing establishments, and hotels (even including brothels) to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly affluent New York population, they turned to the most palatial model they knew – classical European architecture with its columns and arches, capitals and decorative pediments, friezes and grand symmetrical geometry. But in Europe this was architecture of stone and stone facades – costly and time consuming to build. America was entering and embracing an age of mass-production-industrialization – so they looked for a less expensive, faster method of building and decorating the facades of brick buildings. Cast-iron was the answer. New York builders and their architects could pick and choose from catalogues of pre-fabricated cast iron classic architectural forms to decorate and aggrandize the facades of the sturdy but plain brick buildings they constructed in Soho. The result: magnificent cast-iron palazzos to rival Europe; the same buildings that now house many of the worlds (particularly Europe’s) finest high-end retailers of men’s and women’s clothing, home furnishings, cosmetics and jewelry (e.g. Prada, Armani, and Louis Vuitton).

As Soho entered the Twentieth Century, the Grand Emporiums with their decorative cast-iron facades, huge display windows to let in natural light and large-scale spaces with high ceilings, found another use – as factories and warehouses for hundreds of businesses, both large and small. Fashionable New York had moved north, uptown and the stores and hotels of Soho went with them. With tens of thousands of new immigrants flooding into the city to find work in America, business took over the cast-iron palazzos – sweatshops producing clothing, furniture, brooms and household implements to meet America’s demands. Printers and rag pickers set up shop and truckers lined the streets to transport the goods produced. Soho was now a light manufacturing district, surrounded to the east and west by tenement buildings where its workers lived. Workers bars and cafeterias could be found where once fashionable eating establishments once stood. A few, Kasts on Spring Street and the Garden Cafeteria on Broadway survived into the early 1970’s, as artists hungry for a filling cheap meal replaced the factory workers as patrons.

By the early 1960’s, with many of the small businesses now obsolete and closed, many of Soho’s grand Palazzos stood empty. But, the large open lofts that had for over 50 years housed light manufacturing found another use. In the 1960’s and 70’s young artists working on large canvases and sculptures and in need of cheap living and working space, began to rent and then buy lofts in Soho. Soho’s most recent renaissance had begun, transforming the area into the most famous art community in the world. Art galleries soon followed and bodegas turned into jewelry stores. For the last 20 years successful artists and professionals have moved with their families into the cold water artist lofts transforming them into extraordinary homes. But what makes Soho today so special is that it still retains its historic beauty and grittiness. Its intimacy and wonderful mixture of eccentric small shops and grand stores, cozy cafes and scene stealing restaurants make this neighborhood hip, casual, progressive and most of all, fun.