Every global powerhouse has a neighborhood that's just a little bit trendier than all of the rest (Saint-Honoré, oui?). In New York City, that neighborhood is SoHo. Named for its location just SOuth of HOuston street, SoHo features cobble-stone streets lined with fashion boutiques, cafes, and art galleries. Be warned though, fashion comes at a price, and in SoHo that means some of the most expensive rents in the City.
In the the sections below, you'll get a glimpse into life in SoHo. But before you go anywhere, make sure you scroll through the photos in the gallery below. Nothing can tell the story of a neighborhood as well as a few good photos.
Once on the brink of being razed, SoHo is now a cultural and commercial hub of New York City.
In the 17th century, SoHo was home to the first free African American settlement in Manhattan. Former slaves received a grant of SoHo farmland after being given their freedom from the Dutch West India Company. Later, the farmland was purchased by Dutch settler Augustus Herrman. Several generations of his heirs, the Bayards, owned the land until it was divided into lots at the end of the 18th century. It became a residential area for wealthy and middle class families.
By the 1850s, SoHo began its transformation into a commercial and shopping district and a center for the garment industry. Stores, theaters, and casinos were built, and the neighborhood became the entertainment capital of the city. Not all of the entertainment was considered respectable - much of it took place behind closed doors in neighborhood brothels - and SoHo became the city's "red light district."
With the influx of new industries and brothels, wealthy and middle class residents left in search of more family-friendly neighborhoods. Small buildings were demolished and replaced with multi-story offices, factories, and warehouses. Hundreds of buildings were constructed using cast iron, and the resulting SoHo Cast Iron District was designated as a historic preservation district in 1973. Hundreds of the buildings are still standing today, giving the neighborhood an architectural feel unlike anywhere else in New York.
During the mid-1900s, large numbers of SoHo industries relocated due to cost pressure from foreign competitors. The rag trade, an industry that sorted and recycled used fabrics, occupied many of the empty buildings until the 1960s. At that time, the neighborhood's nickname only partially reflected how tough living conditions had become: "Hell's Hundred Acres."
New tenants became hard to find, and many buildings were razed. SoHo's architectural heritage was spared further destruction through the concerted work of preservationists and historians, who stopped a highway from being built on top of the neighborhood. It was during this time in the 1960s that the name SoHo originated as an acronym to refer to the area south of Houston Street.
Revitalization of the neighborhood began to occur after artists flocked there in the late 1960s and rented the large and inexpensive lofts to use as studios. During the 80s and 90s, many upscale shops, art galleries and restaurants opened in SoHo and continue to flourish today.
For most New Yorkers, SoHo is the ultimate shopping destination. But for the lucky ones who live here, it's also a neighborhood of historic buildings, spacious lofts, cobblestone streets, and adorable little eateries. It's an iconic place, partly because of its famous transition from artists' haven to residence for the rich and famous; and also because of its cool-infused nickname (short for "south of Houston"). In both respects, it started a trend that plenty of other Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods have since followed.
SoHo's crowds and most of its stores are centered on Broadway, which is bursting with flagship stores and stylish chains. Sidewalk vendors get in on the action too, setting up tables of scarves, sunglasses, and jewelry. A little further off the main drag, you'll find boutiques selling off-the-runway fashions by most of New York's famous designers.
It's this off-the-beaten-path (off-Broadway) part of the neighborhood where you'll find most of its charm and a much calmer vibe. Cobblestone streets are still common here, and most of the buildings are included in a historic district distinguished by its cast-iron facades. Especially after the stores close, the area can be beautiful and serene.
There's a sprinkling of restaurants throughout, including tiny neighborhood coffee shops where the owner might just know your name. And the owner of the luxury pet-grooming salon definitely knows your Yorkie's name. Many SoHo businesses off of the main shopping strip cater to a wealthy clientele, as rents here are not for bargain seekers. But despite being a place for the rich and chic, the neighborhood has managed to maintain a laid-back vibe.
Besides fashion, SoHo is famous for art. Once a major hub for artists, the neighborhood is still home to some galleries and performance spaces, although most have moved to Chelsea or other neighborhoods. Many of the apartments housed in the historic cast-iron buildings are spacious lofts once occupied by artists, before the full gentrification of the neighborhood played out (and still occupied by the super-successful ones).
Nowadays, young to middle-aged couples and stylish people of all ages live in SoHo. Besides the iconic cast-iron-facade lofts, other architectural gems such as brick townhouses can be found as well. Most buildings don't rise above six floors, although some taller apartment buildings have made their way in, especially west of 6th Avenue.
With all of its shops and restaurants, SoHo is a perfect neighborhood for a nice leisurely stroll. That doesn't mean there aren't great transportation options though. SoHo's central location makes it easy to get to all different spots in Manhattan either by foot or subway.
SoHo Subway & Walking Times
SOHo Guidebook Landmarks
Cast Iron Buildings
In 1973, nearly all of SoHo was designated as a historic district to protect one of the most spectacular displays of cast-iron architecture in the world. In the 1850s, as SoHo exploded as a center of the Dry Goods trade, cast iron was used to quickly erect new buildings. Fun architectural fact: the more the building looks like stone, the earlier it was likely built. As cast iron production improved after the Civil War, builders wanted to show off their technical know-how with more elaborate designs.
NYC Fire Museum
The New York City Fire Museum is housed in a renovated 1904 firehouse, a Beaux Arts building at 278 Spring Street. The original FDNY museum was established in 1934 in Long Island City, Queens; the current location opened in 1987. The museum shows off firefighting equipment and practices through the ages, dating back to the 1650s—from bucket brigades to carriages to the modern technology used. There is also, of course, a permanent tribute to the FDNY and EMS members who lost their lives in the September 11th attacks.
SOHo Insider LANDMARKS
Film Forum is the most indie of the indie movie theaters in the city. Established in 1970 and maintaining a nonprofit status, the theater regularly screens independent films, foreign films, and art films, as well as classics. So if you want to learn how to carry on an intense cultural debate like an intelligent New Yorker, just hang out here before and after films.
Sidewalk Subway Map
In front of 110 Greene Street lies an 87-foot-long, 12-foot-wide subway map. Rather than a clearly marked map for getting around Manhattan, this rendering is actually a piece of art titled "Subway Map Floating on a New York Sidewalk" by Francoise Schein. Created in 1986, the installation may be missing some details—as well as any subway lines outside of Manhattan. But it was an award-winning project, and back when SoHo was still a transitional neighborhood, it lit up the block with its twinkling LEDs embedded in the sidewalk to mark the SoHo-area subway stops
SOHo Parks & Recreation
It might be hard to believe, but there are no significant parks in SoHo. The area still feels a bit more manageable because of it's low skyline, but you are going to have to find tranquility in boutique shopping instead of nature