SoHo in New York City

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SoHo is a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, New York City, notable for being the location of many artists' lofts and art galleries, and also, more recently, for the wide variety of stores and shops ranging from trendy boutiques to outlets of upscale national and international chain stores. The area's history is an archetypal example of inner-city regeneration and gentrification, encompassing socio-economic, cultural, political and architectural developments.

Almost all of SoHo is included in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, which was designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1973, extended in 2010, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978. It consists of 26 blocks and approximately 500 buildings, many of them incorporating cast iron architectural elements. The side streets in the district are notable for being paved with Belgian blocks.

The name SoHo refers to the area being "SOuth of HOuston (Street)". This naming convention has become a model for the names of new and emerging neighborhoods in New York such as NoHo, for "NOrth of HOuston Street", TriBeCa ("TRIangle BElow CAnal Street"), Nolita ("NOrth of Little ITAly"), NoMad ("NOrth of MADison Square"), and DUMBO ("Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass").



SoHo as a specifically-zoned neighborhood is bounded roughly by Houston Street on the northern side, Lafayette Street and Centre Street on the east, Canal Street on the south, and West Broadway on the west.

Nearby neighborhoods include:

  • To the north: Greenwich Village and NoHo
  • To the east: NoLIta, Little Italy and Chinatown
  • To the west: South Village and Hudson Square
  • To the south: TriBeCa
Historic District

The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District is contained within the zoned SoHo neighborhood. Originally ending in the west at the eastern side of West Broadway and to the east at the western side of Crosby Street, the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District was expanded in 2010 to cover most of West Broadway and to extend east to Lafayette and Centre Streets. The boundary lines are not straight, and some block-fronts on West Broadway and Lafayette are excluded from the District.

Western boundary

Although the SoHo Alliance, Manhattan Community Board 2 and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) all agree that the western boundary of SoHo north of Broome Street ends at West Broadway, some have claimed that the current understanding of the neighborhood extends west to the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue), an area that has traditionally been considered part of the South Village, which does not share the same zoning and lacks the cast-iron architecture that characterizes SoHo. More recently, some realtors have claimed, without evidence, that SoHo extends west to the Hudson River, including the industrial area called the "Printing District" or, more recently, "Hudson Square" or "West SoHo".


In the early 19th century, what was to become SoHo was an area of some farms, rolling hills, streams, and even a swamp at its southern end, with Federal- and Greek-Revival-style housing. By mid-19th century, these were replaced by more-solid structures of masonry and cast iron. It was a lively theater and shopping district, and even home to many brothels. As the center of the city moved uptown, the quality of the area declined, and became known as Hell's Hundred Acres because of the many fires in the area, an "industrial wasteland", full of sweatshops and small factories in the daytime, empty at night.

Cast-iron architecture

SoHo boasts the greatest collection of cast-iron architecture in the world. Approximately 250 cast iron buildings stand in New York City and the majority of them are in SoHo. Cast iron was initially used as a decorative front over a pre-existing building. With the addition of modern, decorative facades, older industrial buildings were able to attract new commercial clients. Most of these facades were constructed during the period from 1840 to 1880. In addition to revitalizing older structures, buildings in SoHo were later designed to feature the cast iron.

An American architectural innovation, cast iron was cheaper to use for facades than materials such as stone or brick. Molds of ornamentation, prefabricated in foundries, were used interchangeably for many buildings, and a broken piece could be easily recast. The buildings could be erected quickly; some were built in four months. Despite the brief construction period, the quality of the cast iron designs was not sacrificed. Bronze had previously been the metal most frequently used for architectural detail. Architects found that the relatively inexpensive cast iron could provide intricately designed patterns. Classical French and Italian architectural designs were often used as models for these facades. Because stone was the material associated with architectural masterpieces, cast iron, painted in neutral tints such as beige, was used to simulate stone.

There was a profusion of cast iron foundries in New York, including Badger's Architectural Iron Works, James L. Jackson's Iron Works, and Cornell Iron Works.

Since the iron was pliable and easily molded, sumptuously curved window frames were created, and the strength of the metal allowed these frames considerable height. The once-somber, gas-lit interiors of the industrial district were flooded with sunlight through the enlarged windows. The strength of cast iron permitted high ceilings with sleek supporting columns, and interiors became expansive and functional.

During cast iron's heyday, many architects thought it to be structurally more sound than steel. It was also thought that cast iron would be fire-resistant, and facades were constructed over many interiors built of wood and other flammable materials. When exposed to heat, cast iron buckled, and later cracked under the cold water used to extinguish fire. In 1899, a building code mandating that the backing of cast iron fronts with masonry was passed. Most of the buildings that stand today are constructed in this way. It was the advent of steel as a major construction material that brought an end to the cast iron era.

Lower Manhattan Expressway

In the 1960s, the SoHo area was to have been the location of two enormous elevated highways, comprising the two branches of the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), a Robert Moses project that was intended to create an automobile and truck through-route connecting the Manhattan Bridge and Williamsburg Bridge on the east with the Holland Tunnel on the west.

The young historic preservation movement and architectural critics, stung by the destruction of the original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 and the threat to other historic structures, challenged the plans because of the threatened loss of a huge quantity of 19th-century cast-iron buildings, which were not highly valued by the general public or the business community at the time.

When John V. Lindsay became mayor of New York City in 1966, his initial reaction was to try to push the expressways through, dubbing the project the Lower Manhattan Expressway, depressing some of the proposed highway in residential areas and stressing the importance of the artery to the city. Nevertheless, through the efforts of Jane Jacobs, Tony D'apolito, and other local, civic, and cultural leaders, as well as SoHo artist residents themselves, the project was derailed.

Artists move in

After the abandonment of the highway scheme, the city was left with a large number of historic buildings that were unattractive for the kinds of manufacturing and commerce that survived in the city in the 1970s. The upper floors of many of these buildings had been built as commercial Manhattan lofts, which provided large, unobstructed spaces for manufacturing and other industrial uses. These spaces attracted artists who valued them for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light and low rents. Most of these spaces were also used illegally as living space, despite being neither zoned nor equipped for residential use. This widespread zoning violation was ignored for a long period of time, as the artist-occupants were using space for which there was little demand due to the city's poor economy at the time, and would have lay dormant or been abandoned otherwise.

Nevertheless, as the artist population grew, the city made some attempts to stem the movement, especially concerned about the occupation of space that did not meet residential building codes, and the possibility that the space might be needed for the return of manufacturing to New York City. Pressured on many sides, the city abandoned attempts to keep the district as strictly industrial space, and in 1971 permitted certified artists to reside and work in their spaces. The Zoning Resolution was amended in 1971 to permit Joint Live-Work Quarters for artists, and the M1-5a and M-5b districting was established to permit visual artists, certified as such by the Department of Cultural Affairs, to live where they worked. In 1987, non-artists residing in SoHo and NoHo were permitted to grandfather themselves, but that was the only extension to non-artists and was a one-time agreement.

The area received landmark designation as the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District in 1973.

Gentrification and shopping

In 2005, the construction of residential buildings on empty lots in the historic district was permitted. Nevertheless, with no enforcement of the new zoning laws by the City, beginning in the 1980s, in a way that would later apply elsewhere, the neighborhood began to draw more affluent residents. Due to rent protection and stability afforded by the 1982 Loft Law, in addition to the fact that many of the artists owned their co-ops, many of the original pioneering artists remained despite the popular misconception that gentrification forced them to flee. Many residents have lived in the neighborhood for decades. In the mid-1990s, most of the galleries moved to Chelsea, but several well-known galleries remain including The William Bennett Gallery, Terrain Gallery, Franklin Bowles Gallery, and Pop International Gallery.

SoHo's location, the appeal of lofts as living spaces, its architecture, and its "hip" reputation as a haven for artists all contributed to this change. The pattern of gentrification is typically known as the "SoHo Effect" and has been observed in several cities around the United States. A backwater of poor artists and small factories in the 1970s, SoHo became a popular tourist destination for people seeking fashionable clothing and exquisite architecture.

SoHo's boutiques and restaurants are clustered in the northern area of the neighborhood, along Broadway and Prince and Spring streets. The sidewalks in this area are often crowded with tourists and with vendors selling jewelry, t-shirts, and other works, sometimes leaving no space for pedestrians. SoHo is known for its commercialization and eclectic mix of different boutiques for shopping, including Prada, A Bathing Ape, G-Star Raw, Bloomingdale's, H&M, Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Victoria's Secret, Miu Miu, Puma AG, Dolce & Gabbana, Urban Outfitters, Apple Store, J. Crew, and Calvin Klein. Yet, the southern part of the neighborhood, along Grand Street and Canal Street, retains some of the feel of SoHo's earlier days. Canal Street at SoHo's south boundary contrasts with the former's posh shopping district in offering electronics and cheap imitation clothing and accessories.

See also

  • Joyce SoHo, contemporary dance theatre
  • Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation non-profit gallery
  • Soho Repertory Theatre, Off-Off-Broadway theatre

External links