Previously a neighborhood of sweatshops and factories, SOHO is now home to artists, multi-millionaires, celebrities and some of the best shopping in NYC. The area stretches North to South from Houston Street to Canal Street, and East to West from Lafayette/Centre Streets to West Broadway. As the largest and best example of cast iron architecture in the world, the district is has been given National Historic Landmark status, and is therefore regulated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
SOHO’s modern history
Soho’s modern history begins during the colonial period, when it was the site of the “first free African-American settlement on Manhattan Island”, courtesy of the Dutch West Indies Company. Initially used as farmland, the area has passed through several phases, serving as the city’s theater and shopping district, the red-light district and a center for manufacturing – especially textiles.
In the mid 1800’s, landlords began using cast iron facades to improve the look of older buildings. As opposed to bronze, cast iron was inexpensive, flexible, and allowed for Classical French and Italian designs. The strength of the metal allowed for high ceilings, curves and large, bright windows. It is this period that gives SOHO the unique character it still has today. Unfortunately the cast iron era came to an end quickly with the adoption of steel as the dominant construction material.
Shortly after the end of the cast iron era, the city’s industry began to move uptown, and SOHO began its decline. After World War II, the textile industry largely moved to the South, leaving SOHO’s buildings mostly empty. In the sixties and seventies, artists realized that the cheap, large and well-lit spaces would be perfect for studios, even to live in.
After a brief period of disagreement over zoning, the city officially authorized artists to live and work in the area in 1971. In 1987, non-artist residents were permitted to stay as well. Since then, public appreciation for lofts as living spaces, SOHO’s unique architecture and hip reputation have driven property values sky high and attracted celebrities, high-end boutiques and a large number of tourists. At street level, SOHO is now largely a shopping district. However, if you get the chance to peek into a real historic SOHO loft you will certainly be in for a treat. If not, an afternoon walking through SOHO’s cobblestone streets and shopping at John Varvatos, APC and Cappellini will certainly be worth your while.