Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

A Longer View

The history buffs among you know that long before New York became New York, or even New Amsterdam, it was a home and trading hub, as well as a major source of food and goods, for a number of Native American tribes that had villages on the island. Many other tribal groups traveled by water to reach the area's plentiful harbor. I couldn't find a map that gives any indication of whether or not those tribes were located near to the land beneath 64-68 Wooster, but it's safe to say that none of them ever broke bread over the actual 6,517 square feet occupied by the building, as that little area was a swamp when the Dutch West India Company first made landfall on Manhattan in the early 1600s.

64-68 Wooster is located just at the northern edge of what was known for most of New York's early history as Greppel Bosch, or the Great Cripplebush, after the menacing shrubs that covered much of the swamplands. (You can see a map depicting the outline of the swamp here.) The boggy area wound its way from the western edge of the city, around the freshwater Collect Pond that used to sit a bit north of where City Hall now stands, and over to the ports along South Street. Robert Lyons told me a story about a short-lived idea that the Ohio staff had in the theater's early days. They thought they might be able to excavate the basement of the building in order to create a space below where the theater is now. The architect they were consulting with for the project, referring to the 1865 Viele Map linked above (a topographic map of the city's original waterways overlaid with the modern street grid, which is still used to this day by builders and city planners), quickly put the kibosh on that idea—excavating a swamp, even today, is generally a bad idea.

Among the first landowners along the swamp's winding northern edges were free blacks and slaves of the Dutch West India Company. Under Dutch rule free blacks, as well as slaves, had the right to own property and with that right they amassed a smattering of small farms in what was then just beyond the northern reaches of the city. It's worth noting that "free" is not really an accurate term for these former slaves. This brief summary gives a quick, if perfunctory, overview of the terms of the "freedom" that the Dutch granted these early Manhattan landowners.

As of 1644 the land upon which 64-68 Wooster now stands was granted to one Jan Francisco. (You can see a map that shows an overlay of his property on a roughly contemporary street grid here, you'll have to really squint to see it, but it's there above the swamp.) In fact, Jan was one of the original group of eleven African slaves brought to New Amsterdam in 1624 by the West India Company, all of whom were made "half-free" and granted land by the Company in 1644. According to one source, Jan was formally granted his freedom by Dominie Megapolensis, but he was ever-after expected to pay the company annually to maintain his freedom by contributing large amounts of wheat from his farm. Further dovetailing with current artist-led gentrification trends, Jan Francisco and "Anton the Negro" signed a petition to found Bushwick (yes, seriously—Bushwick goes back to the 1600s), where Francisco became a prominent landowner. According to The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 (a New York City history geek's nirvana), Francisco still had the land in the mid-1670s when he mortgaged it for 400 guidlers worth of wampum (the Indian beads made from oyster shells used as currency for a period in early Manhattan before counterfeiting and all manner of other problems made it an untenable currency). Francisco likely used the money to pay for or develop new properties in Bushwick.