The 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.
It’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.”
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.
Like 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]