Posts Tagged ‘Soho in the 19th century’

Two Prince Street relics on a pre-SoHo building

August 19, 2017

SoHo’s cast-iron commercial buildings have long been repurposed into expensive lofts and boutiques.

But hiding in plain site on the handsome, two-story brick and iron building between Greene Street and Wooster Place are two relics, nods to the neighborhood’s late 19th and 20th century manufacturing past.

These metal signs, advertising the services of a lithographer and engraver as well as an office supplies seller, flank the ends of 120-125 Prince Street, actually two separate buildings constructed in 1892-1893 with a common facade.

“Stationery, Office Supplies, Paper, and Twine” states the one on the right. Twine? To wrap packages in an era before masking tape.

The sign on the left must have advertised the latest technology in printing at the time. Lithographing, engraving . . . manifold books? Special forms?

What they were for we may never know, but these businesses must have been right at home in the area at the time, when this post–Civil War red-light district was the 20th century commercial hub known as Hell’s Hundred Acres.

Imagine the area back then: few residents, no shopping, and all day in nearby buildings machinery churned and whirled and pulsed with the energy that comes from making things.

[Bottom photo: Wikipedia, 2012]

West Broadway: once a slum called “Rotten Row”

March 16, 2011

Luxe boutiques and galleries have lined Soho’s West Broadway for decades.

Which is why it’s so hard to imagine that in the 19th century, this stub of a road—then known as Laurens Street—was so wretched, residents dubbed it “Rotten Row.”

The blight started in the 1830s, when expensive brothels moved into former residences, writes Timothy J. Gilfoyle in City of Eros.

Ladies of the night tend to drag a neighborhood down. By the 1850s, the city published a report, saying of Rotten Row:

“It consists of eight houses on either side of the street, fronting each other, with as many more in the rear, containing in all about 250 families. . . . The pestiferous stench and filth of these pent-up tenements exceed description.”

Even social reformer Charles Loring Brace condemned the street, complaining of “the notorious rogues’ den” there “where, it was said, no drove of animals could pass by and keep its numbers intact.”

Hoping to change the street’s rep, officials in the 1870s renamed it “South Fifth Avenue.”

That auspicious name turned into a citywide joke. Mayor William Strong’s administration changed the moniker to West Broadway in 1896, which stuck.

Here’s the corner of Canal and West Broadway in a NYPL photo from 1936, looking much more like the West Broadway we know today.

Where thieves met up at Broadway and Houston

June 18, 2010

Today, it’s prime Manhattan real estate, a location hosting trendy boutiques and upscale retailers.

But in the late 19th century, this heavily trafficked intersection was one center of the city’s criminal underworld, where late at night fences got their hands on all kinds of stolen goods.

Not surprisingly, police and politicians were paid off to look the other way.

Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York puts it like this:

“One of the notorious places of the city was the Thieves’ exchange in the 8th Ward, near Broadway and Houston St, where fences and criminals met each night and dickered openly over their beer and whiskey for jewelry and other loot.

“Annual retainers were paid to criminal lawyers and politicians and police received stated fees, and occasionally commission on gross business.”