Touring Manhattan’s 19th century French Quarter

FrenchquarterboulangerieThe Germans had Kleindeutschland in the East Village. The Chinese had Mott Street. Eastern European Jews settled on the Lower East Side.

And from the 1870s to 1890s, approximately 20,000 French immigrants lived and worked in today’s Soho, roughly between Washington Square South and Grand Street and West Broadway and Greene Street.

Bakeries, butchers, cafes, shops, and “innumerable basement restaurants, where dinner, vin compris, may be had for the veriest trifle” occupied the short buildings and tenements of this expat enclave.


An 1879 article in Scribner’s Monthly took readers on a wildly descriptive sojourn through the Quartier Francais, as the writer calls it.

FrenchquarterrestaurantIt’s not always so flattering. “The Commune has its emissaries and exiles here. There are swarthy faces which have gladdened in mad grimace over the flames of the Hotel de Ville and become the hue of copper bronze under the sun of New Caledonia.”

The writer of the article walked readers past tenements, with young girls fabricating fake flowers inside, to cafes where patrons drink absinthe.

A shop run by an old woman features this sign: “sabots et galoches chaussons de Strasbourg.” A restaurant called the Grand Vatel (right) “has some queer patrons.”

FrenchquartertavernealsacienneOn Greene Street is the Tavene Alsacienne (left), with its “impoverished bar” and worn billiards table, and groups of coatless men absorbed in their games.

Table d’Hote restaurants abound. “In the French Quarter in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, and elsewhere downtown, are several unique and low-priced establishments of this character,” according to King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892.

Frenchquarter2015Like so many ethnic neighborhoods, this French Quarter didn’t last. By the turn of the century, the city’s small French colony relocated to West Chelsea.

“Twenty-sixth Street west of Sixth Avenue begins to take on the air of the old French Quarter,” reported The Sun in 1894.

“It has several French restaurants, three or four French shoemakers . . . a French grocer or two, and several French bushelling tailors.”

[Top image: NYPL Buttolph Collection of menus; sketches from Scribner’s Monthly, November 1879]

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12 Responses to “Touring Manhattan’s 19th century French Quarter”

  1. John Schroeter Says:

    Winded it’s way?!

  2. Jon Phillips Says:

    I was pleased to see that your piece accurately points out that by the turn of the century the French Quarter had largely relocated to North East Chelsea. I would point out that the first manifestation of this trend was the Louis inspired cast iron trellis balconies of what is now known as “The Chelsea Hotel,” on 23rd St. that was originally one of New York’s earliest experiments in cooperative living. That coop was bankrupted by the economic disruption of the ‘Sugar Panic’ of 1893. The other major manifestation was the St. Vincent de Paul Church built from 1844-69 on 23rd Street, as the only French speaking liturgical institution in the City. Sadly, the church closed its doors in 2003, and unless the current luxury bubble bursts, will likely be replaced by a tower at a ridiculous price per square oligarch.

    Another vestige, much overlooked, is the neighborhood liquor store, “Philippe Wine & Liquor” that was owned by a druggist of that name who was French and speculated in some local real estate enterprises. Across the street from it at that time, was the Jay Gould and Jim Fisk owned Grand Opera – their nose thumb to the 100 and the Met.

    • david Says:

      wait, you’re saying there’s a direct connection to the french presence in the area? how old is this place? there’s no historic info on their website.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you, and I’m so glad you mentioned St. Vincent de Paul Church. I was sad to see it close. We’re losing many churches that for decades offered services in a language other than English or Spanish.

  4. wack60585 Says:

    Reblogged this on wack60585.

  5. Jon Phillips Says:

    I should have mentioned that while Jay Gould and Jim Fisk owned the Grand Opera, they did not build it. Fisk bought it to please his mistress, a showgirl.

    It was originally built by Samuel M. Pike, a successful wine-importer and immigrant from Germany who came to New York City via Cincinnati.

    Another sidebar- Philippe’s Wine and Liquor and the adjacent Petland were the location of Philippe’s “London Pharmacy” which was likely named after the recently built London Terrace. It was the location where “Mad Dog Coll” formerly of Dutch Schultz’s gang was gunned down while occupying a phone booth at the pharmacy on February 8, 1932.

    It was no accident that with the lifting of prohibition in 1933 the property went into the licensed liquor business. Many pharmacies thrived during the Volstead epoch on prescription alcohol.

    Vincent Coll had made a series of bad decisions probably starting with the kidnapping of Owney Madden’s business partner, Big Frenchy La Mange, but reaching its apogee with the accidental slaying of a little boy innocent bystander in a much publicized trial of the day that won him the tabloid moniker of “Mad Dog.”

    The D.A. used a witness to nail down its case in the Coll trial who fell prey to Coll’s defense lawyer, the formidable Sam Leibowitz (who also defended Capone, and the Scottsboro Boys among others). To the shock and dismay of all, except Coll and his fiance, Leibowitz won Coll’s acquittal. The tommy gun shooting of Cole at the London Pharmacy was viewed as street justice by the tabloids. Coll was staying at the Cornish Arms across the street. The Grand Opera burned in a (suspicious) five alarm fire in 1960 that rounded the corner to the Cornish Arms and was so hot that it cracked the windows facing it on the south side of 23rd Street. Today this spot is taken by 315 W. 23rd Street, The Broadmoor. The remnants of the Green Room of the old Pike’s Grand Opera House are to be found in that building’s basement.

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  7. unclejoe223 Says:

    I would love to see a follow-up article on all the myriad of French theaters and entertainment that dotted the area climaxing on Fourteeth Street, which shared it’s locations with Irish, Italian, German, Yiddish, and other forms of entertainment! Thanks.

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