Re-examining the Soho Effect

07/21/2010 4:00 AM |

Around this same time blacks, along with myriad other immigrants, began to repopulate Soho. According to the fascinating, if deeply misguided and more than a little bit salacious, article on the "Condition of the Colored Population of New York" from 1869 (4 years after the end of the American Civil War), things were not going well for blacks living along Wooster Street. The writer specifically mentions 40 Wooster, describing the tenement that stood there this way: "If the builder of this house was anxious to erect a place where thieves could play hide-and-seek, and elude the pursuit of the Police, he has certainly succeeded to his heart's content." He goes on to describe a bar on a corner of Wooster (though he doesn't say which corner), known as "The African Capitol," which was, according to the writer, among the worst of the worst places in the city because of the depraved and drunken crowd that lurched out of it after closing each night.

Despite the prurient overtones given to the neighborhood in the press at the time, there seems to have been a smattering of working-class and working poor residents, along with merchants living among the mix. A primary school teacher by the name of Eliza Cronin was living at 62 Wooster, making a salary of $100 in 1858. In 1860 Adam Prediger had a liquor shop at 64 Wooster (perhaps contributing to the seedier elements of the area). In that same year a mason named Jacob Oberlies was occupying 66 Wooster. He, or someone with a very similar last name, seems to have also been operating a club next door at 64 Wooster, where, according to an announcement in the New York Times, there was a meeting of the German Democratic Whig Union Club of the Eighth Ward scheduled for September 29, 1852. 64 Wooster remained a Whig polling place for at least a few years after that time.

An upholsterer by the name of John J. English was residing next door at 62 Wooster in 1866, and in 1877 there was both a framer and mason working at 66 Wooster. In 1864 there was a brush manufacturer, Henry H. Winans, at 64 Wooster; a draper named Charles Scholt, at 66 Wooster, and a coal and wood dealer by the name of Dusenberry & Miller at 68 Wooster.

During all this time the cast iron buildings that Soho is famous for began to be constructed. Large loft spaces meant for manufacturing and sales were built. But the real influx of industry didn't happen until the end of the 1890s, when New York experienced its second population explosion as America's industrial engine revved up to full speed. You'll remember that there were 1,206,299 in the city in 1880. A mere 30 years later, in 1910, there were 4,766,883 New Yorkers.

In 1890, Louis F. Dommerich purchased 64, 66, and 68 Wooster, then quickly proceeded to rip them down in order to erect an annex for his business on Greene Street. (You can see a record of the sale here.) According to the sale record, 64 and 66 were two- and three- story brick stores, sold together for $50,000, and 68 was a group of three sheds, which Dommerich picked up for $20,000. Dommerich had been working for some time as one of the heads of the dry goods company Oelbermann, Dommerich & Co. He was based in Germany before moving to New York in the 1858. In Europe he spent his time procuring textiles, especially silk—one of a mix of fine fabrics that helped established Oelbermann, Dommerich & Co as one of the premier textile firms in New York at the time. (Read more about the company here.) You can still see the sign at the top of the store's main building on Greene Street.