Archive for the ‘SoHo’ Category

Touring Manhattan’s 19th century French Quarter

November 16, 2015

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]

This might be the spookiest house in Soho

October 5, 2015

With its boarded-up parlor windows, wispy lace curtains, and lone light coming from the attic dormer windows, the 1824 Federal-style house at 139 Greene Street certainly gives off a spooky vibe.


Number 139 has an interesting history as a family home, brothel, factory, and longstanding renovation project. If any house in Soho is haunted by ghosts, this would be the one.

139GreenestreetnightIt all started in 1825, when the home was built by a merchant tailor named Anthony Arnoux, who ran a shop on Broadway and East Fourth Street.

In the 1820s and 1830s, Federal houses were all the rage, and the newly fashionable streets north of Canal Street on the west and east sides of Broadway were lined with similar residences built by the city’s elite.

Arnoux didn’t move in until the 1830s, but he and his five adult children (plus one female servant) occupied what must have been a lovely house at least through 1850, according to census data.

139GreenestreetsignSome of that loveliness remains: the arched dormer windows, red brick, marble stairs, and elegant front entrance.

The similar yet beautifully restored Merchant’s House Museum, across Broadway on East Fourth Street, is a Federal-style house that gives an idea of what the Arnoux house looked like in its prime.

As Greene Street became shabby, the Arnoux family didn’t stick around. By 1860, the neighborhood had become a bustling strip of hotels, shops, and brothels—lots of brothels.

Number 139 became a house of assignation, according to the Gentleman’s Companion, a guide to New York City’s premier red-light district in 1870.

Greene Street “has become a complete sink of iniquity,” the guide states, with 41 brothels luring in men between Canal and Bleecker Streets.

139Greenestreetnyt1867sept139 Greene Street was a third-class “disorderly house” with 7 “inmates” run by Patrick and Amelia Whalen. A fire broke out there in 1867, reported the New York Times.

After the prostitutes left, the millinery trade moved in, followed by light industry.

Perhaps the manufacturer of printers rollers (as advertised on the facade of the cast-iron loft building next door) had something to do with the bashing in of the front wall of the house, as well as the destruction of the marble front stairs.


In 1968, with Soho’s fortunes rising, an art dealer bought it to use as a storage space, then sold it to an art conservationist—who has been restoring 139 Greene Street ever since . . . and perhaps allowing its 19th century ghosts free reign to haunt the premises.

[Third image: New York Times; fifth image: MCNY; 1970s]

The most sensational actress of the 1860s

March 16, 2015

Adahmenken19Adah Isaacs Menken (at right, in her teens) was never considered a great actress.

But she sure was a colorful one, hanging out with Walt Whitman, Ada Clare, and other bohemians at Pfaff’s saloon on Broadway and Bleecker Street and earning notoriety in a tawdry play that required her to appear naked on a horse.

She spun many tales about her origins, but Adah may have been born Ada Berthe Theodore to mixed-race parents in New Orleans in 1835, according to Rebel Souls, Justin Martin’s wonderful book chronicling New York’s 19th century bohemian crowd.

To support her family, she became a New Orleans chorus girl, then joined a traveling circus.

After a few marriages, some theater work, and a conversion to Judaism, she arrived in Manhattan, taking roles at the Chatham Theater and working at the Canterbury Concert Saloon on Broadway in today’s Noho.


She was fearless, sensual, acrobatic, and gorgeous—all of which helped her land her big break: the lead in Mazeppa (above), a play based on a Byron poem about a 17th century Cossack.

Menken would play the title role, requiring her to wear a body stocking for a pivotal nude scene during which she was strapped to the side of a horse.

Adahmenken1855“The audience was shocked—scandalized—horrified—and delighted!” states one source.

A huge hit, Mazeppa toured the nation before landing on Broadway in 1866 at Wood’s Theater at 514 Broadway.

Adah never abandoned her literary aspirations, publishing a book of poems in 1868 dedicated to Charles Dickens.

“Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menken’s deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet,” states

She maintained her friendship with Whitman and the Pfaff’s crowd and also became close to Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne.


Adah was a sensation during her life, but she died young, succumbing to tuberculosis and peritonitis in Paris in 1868.

[Bottom photo by Napoleon Sarony]

is this the most wonderful sign in Soho?

November 3, 2014

Long before Soho became Soho, Fanelli’s was a no-frills bar that served up cheap food and drinks for the men who worked in the neighborhood’s factories, plus the occasional artist or stumblebum.


And at least since the 1970s, that neon sign has been affixed to the red-brick building at the corner of Prince and Mercer Streets, a wonderful sight on a cold New York City night.

Fanellis1976nyplFanelli’s has a long and fascinating history. The building that houses the bar apparently has been around since 1857, when a grocery store was located on the ground floor, according to

A residential building on Prince Street adjoined the Mercer Street building. “The suspicion arises that it must have been used as a brothel since Mercer Street was lined on its west side, almost solidly by brothels during the 1850s and 1860s,” states the site.

By the 1860s or 1870s, depending on your source, various saloons served beer and liquor there. In 1922, former boxer Michael Fanelli turned it into a cafe/speakeasy.

2013_3_2_ 039

By the 1970s, Soho had arrived—and you know the rest of the story.

[Middle photo: Fanelli’s in 1976, NYPL Digital Gallery. Bottom: Fanelli’s in 1975, MCNY]

Buying produce from Bleecker Street pushcarts

June 30, 2014

Thanks to the bell tower of the Our Lady of Pompeii Church that’s still on the corner at Carmine Street, this soft, muted depiction of vegetable sellers and neighborhood shoppers at Bleecker Street is instantly recognizable.


It’s probably the early 1940s. Artist Bela de Tirefort, an Austrian native, painted many scenes of daily life around Washington Square Park and the Flatiron Building from the 1930s through the 1950s.

It’s not clear if this is also Bleecker Street, but the resemblance is strong.


“In the 1940s, pushcarts made this street all but impassable,” states the Project for Public Spaces.

“Cart operators were forced by law to move indoors, but the street retained its association with food, and today’s Bleecker Street still contains some of the best and freshest fruits, vegetables, pastries, cheeses, meats, fish, and delicacies to be found in the city.”

Thirty or so years earlier in 1915, Ashcan painter George Luks also took a stab at depicting the shops and crowds in this nighttime view of the opposite corner of Bleecker and Carmine Streets.

A beautiful Village garden on top of a garage

May 5, 2014

WashsquarevillagewikiThe four “superblock” apartment buildings collectively known as Washington Square Village received little love from the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood when they opened in 1959.

But Sasaki Garden, the one-and-a-half acre greenspace designed within the four buildings and on top of the complex’s sublevel parking garage, scored a better reception.


And no wonder, thanks to the walkways and benches that wind around an incredible variety of plants and trees: crabapple trees (and their beautiful blossoms), Japanese maples, dogwoods, maples, even a weeping willow.

Sasakigarden3Designed by Modernist landscape architect Hideo Sasaki, it was and remains still an expansive oasis of quiet and loveliness in the middle of crowded Bleecker and West Third Streets.

The slab-like buildings are like fortresses hiding a treasure within their walls.

You can’t really experience its beauty unless you take a walk through it—which the general public might technically be allowed to do, as no sign says it’s for residents only.

Go now, while the pillowy pink and white blossoms are still out, because Sasaki Garden may not be around much longer.


New York University bought Washington Square Village in the early 1960s; faculty and grad students occupy the apartments.

Yet NYU’s 2031 expansion plan calls for towering new buildings to cut into the garden and disrupt the original design. (The plan is currently on hold thanks to a recent legal decision.)

140 years of changes at Broadway and Houston

May 3, 2014

More than a century before anyone had ever heard of Soho or Noho, Broadway just north of Houston Street was a bustling business district and slightly low-rent entertainment area with the massive Broadway Central Hotel across the street and one block up.


Just look at the shops and venues: a publisher, a banner painter, and a company dealing in straw goods—plus the New York Museum of Anatomy, Science & Art at number 618 and the Olympic Theater at number 624.

The Olympic opened in 1856 and was soon renamed Laura Keene’s New Theatre, after the actress of the era (who starred in “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington the night President Lincoln was shot).


The theater with its lovely lampposts went through more name changes before closing in 1880; the building burned down in 1881, explains the caption to this photo, from New York Then and Now.

One hundred years later, the East Side of Broadway was kind of sketchy, a sparsely populated area with fabric and supply stores.

But look at the new cast-iron buildings from the late 19th century, like the beautiful Mercantile Building. One structure from 1875 remains: it’s at the end before the Mobil Station.


Now, the Mobil Station has been replaced by the giant Adidas Store at the corner. Best Buy is renovating another cast-iron beauty, and Urban Outfitters occupies the ground floor of the Mercantile Building.

And this slip of Noho has been a prime shopping area since the 1980s.

The most beautiful Duane Reade in New York City

October 14, 2013

Duanereade30springstreet2A Duane Reade store originally designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert?

It’s hard to believe. Gilbert is the genius who gave New York the Woolworth Building, the New York Life Tower, and other spectacular structures from the dawn of the skyscraper age.

But it exists, at the corner of Spring and Lafayette Streets, inside a repurposed East River Savings Bank building Gilbert designed in 1927.

The interior space is stunning, especially if you’re used to Duane Reade’s usual bad lighting and low ceilings.


Here are detailed ceilings, vintage chandeliers, a lovely old clock above the door, and a brass staircase to the lower level.


References to the building’s past as a financial institution are mostly wiped away, with the exception of the stenciling on the exterior, between the front door and the subway entrance on Spring Street.


The lettering is faint, but you can just make out “cassette di sicurezza.”


Google translate tells me this means “safety deposit boxes” in Italian—the first language of many neighborhood residents, as Spring and Lafayette Streets would have been squarely in Little Italy territory.

Check out some other old city buildings whose original tenants departed—and now are occupied by very different businesses.

The beautiful saloon ceiling on Grand Street

October 7, 2013

OniealsexteriorThere’s a lot of New York history at 174 Grand Street.

This corner, at Centre Market Place, was the location of a polling place in the 1860s, a church in the 1870s, and a deadly jewelry store robbery in the 1920s.

A brothel operated there, as did a saloon-turned-speakeasy catering to officers who worked across the street at the old police headquarters.


Cops didn’t have to actually cross the street to get a drink there. A tunnel was dug from the police building directly to the bar (and still exists today; it’s now a wine cellar). Very convenient.

Oniealsceiling1Now it’s the site of a restaurant/bar called O’Nieal’s. And though the neighborhood no longer has raffish old New York charm, O’Nieal’s lovely ceiling will transport you back to that version of the city.

The beautifully carved chunk of mahogany wood spans the entire restaurant. Walk in, and look up.

[Top photo:]

New York’s Italian food stores are fading fast

July 11, 2013

As New York’s Italian-Amerian neighborhoods continue to shrink, more and more of the grocery stores, butchers, and bakeries that made the city’s many Little Italys so unique have packed it in.


Joe’s Dairy, the tiny cheese store on Sullivan Street (ah, the mozzarella!) was the latest old-school Italian shop to bite the dust.


But some of these little mom and pops continue to hang in there, brightening streets with their typically red, green, and white signs and 1970s-esque typefaces.


Court Pastry Shop and Mastellone Italian Deli, both on Court Street in Brooklyn, are still holding on. Home made Spumoni!


Milano’s Italian Sausage is on the outskirts of the Meatpacking District. What a list of delicacies! I wonder how much longer it will stay.

Was Columbus Avenue in the 80s once an Italian enclave? If so, I think the Zingone Brothers shop is the last survivor. The family-owned grocery has been in business since 1927.


 Albanese Meats & Poultry has stuck it out on Elizabeth Street since 1923, when this was a Sicilian block with  half a dozen butcher shops. It’s a wonderful holdout—but I’m not even sure it’s actually still open.


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