Soho, today, is a touristy shopping destination for many. It’s filled with a multitude of trendy boutiques, national and international retail stores, restaurants, bars, and art galleries. It consists of roughly 30 blocks that were almost torn down to build an expressway in 1963. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but Soho’s history is long and storied.
Fields and Meadows
Most of Manhattan started out in the 1600s as mostly open meadows, woodlands, streams, and marshes. The area was home to six different Native American tribes. At the southernmost point of Manhattan was a Dutch settlement. Most of the land that is now Soho was owned by a descendant of one of the original Dutch settlers, Nicholas Bayard.
In 1776s, Bayard’s Mount was the highest lookout point in Manhattan which made it ideal as a training grounds for the Revolutionary War. American Spy, Nathan Hale spent several months fortifying the area so George Washington’s army could defend New York City from British attack.
Post Revolutionary War
After the war, as many large farms were being divided, wealthy families and businesses began to take up residence. As the district changed and grew, it became a hub for entertainment and commerce which led eventually led to an increase in crime. The district continued to evolve into an industrial center of production. Many factories and warehouses filled with textiles were built in the district. Fires in the area were frequent. Residents vacated their properties leaving them vacant for years.
Despite the residents leaving, factories would frequently rebuild after fires. Sparing themselves the expense of granite and marble, builders turned to cast-iron to ornately decorate the buildings making them more fire-resistant than they had been.
During the 1960s, artists began to flood the area look for cheap, or free, housing. They came to what was now being referred to as “SoHo” (south of Houston Street) because of the many vacant buildings and often illegally took up residence in them, paying little to no rent because the area was zoned for commercial use. At the same time as the artist population was burgeoning, the city’s master planner, Robert Moses, slated the area for demolition. He wanted to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway.
The plans for an expressway were eventually canceled after an immense backlash from protesters. And in 1971, the city finally updated the zoning code to allow “certified artists” to work and live in the same space. Following this in 1973, Soho’s Cast Iron District was designated a historic district by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today Soho boasts the worlds greatest surviving collection of cast-iron architecture.