Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

Following Jan Francisco, Thomas Eckerts, a vintner, owned the land beneath 64-68 Wooster for a time in the late 1600s, building a large brick building somewhere on his plot. The land then passed to the merchant William Smith in 1709.

Judging by the maps in The Iconography, in the 1760s most of the land above the swamp was still primarily farmland, even as the city was beginning to develop far northward. It wasn't until after the 1770s, when Broadway, which followed the much older Wickquasgeck Trail created by the island's original inhabitants, was extended north above the Canal that gave Canal Street its name, that the streets of Soho began to follow their contemporary layout. (View an early city plan here.)

By the early 1800s the swamp below 64-68 Wooster had been filled and the street officially had its name. In 1819, the street was "regulated" from Lispenard up to Spring, making it flat and even (or as close as they could get at the time) for carriage and foot traffic. Soho was developing into a wealthy neighborhood as the population center of the city moved north to get away from the crush and filth of downtown. The neighborhood quickly filled with theaters, grand homes, merchants, and opera houses. But Soho's first wave of wealthy residents didn't last long. As the city's grid quickly expanded northward so too did the population, looking for more space, along with cleaner, newer buildings. (Sound something like suburban sprawl in the postwar era of the 20th century?) In the mid-1800s the population of New York was exploding—it went from 202,589 in 1830 to 1,206,299 in 1880. The rush on housing and the influx of immigrants brought a whole new element to 64-68 Wooster.

1850s Soho was an exercise in contrasts. While high-end shops like Tiffany & Co had moved in, doing business on Broadway, only a couple of blocks west New York's largest red light district was taking shape. Brothels lined Wooster Street from Canal up to Bleecker. According to Timothy Gilfoyle's City of Eros, Annie Clark, one of the city's leading madams operated out of 43 Wooster between 1855-1859. Newcomers to the city could purchase books such as The Directory to the Seraglios in New York, written by "A Free Loveyer" in 1859, to help navigate the district, advising them on what was expected of visitors and what they could expect at any given house of ill repute.

According to Gilfoyle's notes, by the 1870s Wooster Street had 27 brothels, its only rival being Greene Street to the east, which boasted an impressive 52. But make no mistake about it, this was not the kind of place where you could see a fetching burlesque show with your upturned mustache and then grab an artisanal cocktail served by a tweed-vest sporting kid from Cleveland. This was a neighborhood rife with extreme poverty, murder, rape, rampant alcohol and drug addiction, violent robbery, regular fires, disease, starvation, slavery, graft, and a near-complete lack of legal recourse for those who were not voluntary participants in what was happening.