SoHo is a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, New York City, notable for being the location of many artists' lofts and art galleries, and also, more recently, for the wide variety of stores and shops ranging from trendy boutiques to outlets of upscale national and international chain stores. The area's history is an archetypal example of inner-city regeneration and gentrification, encompassing socio-economic, cultural, political and architectural developments.
Almost all of SoHo is included in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, which was designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1973, extended in 2010, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978. It consists of 26 blocks and approximately 500 buildings, many of them incorporating cast iron architectural elements. The side streets in the district are notable for being paved with Belgian blocks.
The name SoHo refers to the area being "SOuth of HOuston (Street)". This naming convention has become a model for the names of new and emerging neighborhoods in New York such as NoHo, for "NOrth of HOuston Street", TriBeCa ("TRIangle BElow CAnal Street"), Nolita ("NOrth of Little ITAly"), NoMad ("NOrth of MADison Square"), and DUMBO ("Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass").
SoHo as a specifically-zoned neighborhood is bounded roughly by Houston Street on the northern side, Lafayette Street and Centre Street on the east, Canal Street on the south, and West Broadway on the west.
Nearby neighborhoods include:
To the north: Greenwich Village and NoHo
To the east: NoLIta, Little Italy and Chinatown
To the west: South Village and Hudson Square
To the south: TriBeCa
The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District is contained within the zoned SoHo neighborhood. Originally ending in the west at the eastern side of West Broadway and to the east at the western side of Crosby Street, the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District was expanded in 2010 to cover most of West Broadway and to extend east to Lafayette and Centre Streets. The boundary lines are not straight, and some block-fronts on West Broadway and Lafayette are excluded from the District.
Although the SoHo Alliance, Manhattan Community Board 2 and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) all agree that the western boundary of SoHo north of Broome Street ends at West Broadway, some have claimed that the current understanding of the neighborhood extends west to the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue), an area that has traditionally been considered part of the South Village, which does not share the same zoning and lacks the cast-iron architecture that characterizes SoHo. More recently, some realtors have claimed, without evidence, that SoHo extends west to the Hudson River, including the industrial area called the "Printing District" or, more recently, "Hudson Square" or "West SoHo".
During the colonial period, the land that is now SoHo was part of a grant of farmland given to freed slaves of the Dutch West Indies Company, and the site of the first free Black settlement on Manhattan island. This land was acquired in the 1660s by Augustine Hermann, and then passed to his brother-in-law, Nicholas Bayard. The estate was confiscated by the state as a result of Bayard's part in Leisler's Rebellion, but was returned to him after the sentence was annulled.
In the 18th Century natural barriers – streams and hills – impeded the growth of the city northward into the Bayard estate, and the area maintained its rural character. During the American Revolution, the area was the location of numerous fortifications, redoubts and breastworks. After the war, Bayard, who had suffered financially because of it, was forced to mortgage some of the property, which was divided up into lots, but even then there was very little development in the area, aside from some manufacturing at Broadway and Canal Street.
Serious development of the area did not begin until the Common Council, answering the complaints of landowners in the area, drained the Collect Pond, which had once been an important source of fresh water for the island, but which had become polluted and rank and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. A canal was built to drain the pond into the Hudson, and the canal and pond were both later filled-in using earth from nearby Bayard's Hill. Once Broadway was paved and sidewalks were built there and along Canal Street, more people began to make their homes there, joining earlier arrivals such as James Fennimore Cooper.
By mid-19th century, the early Federal- and Greek Revival-style homes were replaced by more-solid structures of masonry and cast iron, and along Broadway, large marble-skinned commercial establishments began to open, such as Lord & Taylor, Arnold Constable & Company and Tiffany & Company, as well as grand hotels such as the St. Nicholas and the Metropolitan. Theatres followed in their wake, and Broadway between Canal and Houston Streets became a lively theater and shopping district and the entertainment center of New York; as usual with such areas, it was home to many brothels as well and the side streets off of Broadway became the city's red-light district. As this change in character drove out the middle-class, their place was take by small manufacturing concerns, including cabinet-makers and the lumberyards that supplied them, brass and cooper firms, makers of china and glassware, locksmiths, snuff manufacturers and book publishers.
This dramatic shift in the nature of the neighborhood continued to drive out residents, and between 1860 and 1865 the Eighth Ward, which included the SoHo area, lost 25% of its population. After the Civil War and the Panic of 1873, in the 1880s and 90s, large manufacturers began to move into the area, especially textile firms, and the area became the mercantile and wholesale dry-goods trade center of the city, and was the subject of significant real-estate speculation. This phase came to an end by the close of the 19th century, and as the center of the city continued to move uptown, the quality of the area declined.
After World War II, the textile industry largely moved to the South, leaving many large buildings in the district unoccupied. In some buildings they were replaced by warehouses and printing plants, and other buildings were torn down to be replaced by 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, full of sweatshops and small factories in the daytime, but empty at night. It would not be until the 1960s, when artists began to be interested in the tall ceilings and many windows of the empty manufacturing lofts, that the character of the neighborhood began to change again.