For better or worse, SoHo has become the model neighborhood for the full blown effects of rampant gentrification. Back when Manhattan could actually support a manufacturing economy, the neighborhood was home to textile factories, warehouses, and sweatshops. After World War II, when the industry all but died in the neighborhood, SoHo’s abandoned lofts were colonized by a wave of young artists. Eventually, as it inevitably happens, this artsy neighborhood drew the attention of a more affluent crowd. Most of the artists moved out, and the wealthy and the celebrities moved in, replacing the art studios and galleries with upscale clothing and home furnishing stores. You probably can’t afford to live here; you might not even be able to shop here, but it’s certainly free and worthwhile to wander the cobblestone streets and browse the upscale boutiques.
Much of the current appeal of SoHo can be attributed to urban champion Jane Jacobs and her activist allies. In the 1960s, the City wanted to construct a 10-lane expressway through lower Manhattan, which would have essentially destroyed SoHo. Jacobs successfully spearheaded a campaign to fight this development, and the City eventually switched its strategy from destruction to preservation. In 1973, the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District was created, preserving most of the neighborhood. While the tenants and inhabitants of SoHo continue to become more wealthy and homogenous, the face of the neighborhood remains unchanged as perhaps New York’s most architecturally significant area, a collection of ornately decorated cast-iron buildings.
There is no place on Earth with a greater concentration of cast-iron architecture than SoHo, and no place in SoHo with a greater concentration than Greene Street (particularly #s 28-30, and #s 72-76; 1 on map below). Broome Street (2 on map), between Greene and Wooster, is another great block that is representative of this architectural style, a style that developed in the 1850s and 1860s, when cast iron was an affordable material to construct these intricately decorated facades adorned with their signature fire escapes. At the corner of Broome and Broadway stands arguably the most important building in the whole city. The Haughwout Building (488 Broadway, 3 on map) was originally built in 1857 to house a department store for luxury goods, its striking twin facades designed to mirror the magnificience of the upscale items on sale within. While this is indeed a magnificient building, its importance lies not with the architecture and design but with the fact that this building was the site of the world’s first passenger elevator. Arguably, this little building is partly responsible for the iconic Manhattan skyline and the continuous vertical expansion of the world’s cities.
Despite the art scene decamping to Chelsea and beyond, SoHo still hosts a thriving cultural scene. One of the best hidden spots in the city, as well as one of the oddest, is the New York Earth Room (141 Wooster St, 4 on map). On display since 1980, the Dia Art Foundation sponsors and maintains this “sculpture” by Walter De Maria. This sculpture, which must be regularly raked, watered, and de-mushroomed, consists entirely of 140 tons of moist, rich earth packed into the space of a second floor loft. Perhaps this is De Maria’s call for urbanites to return to the earth of our primitive ancestors; or maybe it’s just a room filled with dirt. Either way, it’s a must-see.
Apparently Dia and Walter De Maria get a kick out of using some of the world’s most expensive real estate to stage free-to-the-public minimalist art installations. A couple blocks from the Earth Room is the Broken Kilometer (393 West Broadway, 5 on map). Again housed in a large and empty loft space, De Maria’s sculpture comprises 500 polished brass rods laid out horizontally across the floor of the gallery in 5 parallel rows. That’s it. And like above, don’t miss it.
Other art venues in the neighborhood include: the Drawing Center (35 Wooster St, 6 on map), the country’s only institution devoted solely to drawings, which hosts exhibitions, workshops and performances. The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (26 Wooster St, 7 on map) is the first art museum devoted exclusively to LGBT art, and with donations in excess of $10 million, it is both impressively curated and admission free. Also free, thanks to the largesse of the Swiss government, is the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art (18 Wooster St, 17 on map). Originally meant to showcase the works of Swiss artists, the Institute now commissions exhibitions from international artists, regardless of their nationalities, in its stark, modern gallery.
Or if your tastes run more to the performing arts, the Performing Garage (33 Wooster St, 18 on map) is a small off-off-Broadway theater that stages shows from emerging and experimental theater companies. Location One’s (26 Greene St, 19 on map) gallery provides a home for cutting-edge visual and performance art. But what makes us most enthusiastic about Location One is Dorkbot, a fun, informal workshop held on the first Wednesday of every month to discuss, celebrate, and experiment with the mashup of art and science.
As one of the City’s premier shopping destinations, SoHo has all the high-end global brands you’d expect to help fuel a day of credit card driven consumption. Banana Republic, Sephora, Chanel and their ilk are all represented, particularly along Broadway, and critics decry these chains for contributing to the mallification of Manhattan. But despite that, SoHo still has plenty of smaller, independent quirky stores that are fun to discover.
Up the heavily graffitied stairs on the second floor of a grimy building, one wouldn’t expect to find such a cleverly curated store, but that is where the delightful Kiosk (95 Spring St, 8 on map) is tucked away. This shop displays a constantly changing hodgepodge of handpicked souvenirs and home items from around the world, each one affordably priced and reflecting an eye-catching design aesthetic. Stocking anything from a tin of Dutch butterscotch to a set of ice cream spoons from India, this is great place to serendipitously stumble upon a fun gift.
If your tastes run more to the macabre, cross the street for the one-of-a-kind Evolution (120 Spring St, 9 on map) store. Like a miniature Museum of Natural History where all the exhibits are for sale, this store will satisfy the eight year old boy in all of us. If you have been searching in vain for a stuffed anteater, glass-enclosed rhinoceros beetle, or that perfect human skull then good news, you can now stop searching!
Continuing with our tour of SoHo stores that occupy a very specific niche is Dube Juggling (520 Broadway, 10 on map). Serving the juggling and circus arts community, Dube sells and custom makes all the equipment you would need to start busking in the streets. Although most of their business is mail-order, you can still browse the selection of juggling knives, hula hoops, and miniature bicycles at their SoHo showroom and possibly also catch an impromptu performance.
In 1980, 18-year old Benedikt Taschen began selling comic books in his hometown of Cologne, a business that has since evolved to become one of the premier global publishers of art and design books . Ebooks may be shaking up the publishing industry, but you can’t really download a coffee table book and Taschen (107 Greene St, 11 on map) has been busy opening retail shops around the world, including this SoHo outpost, to show off their collection of glossy, provocative and beautifully laid-out books. You may not be in the market for a 75 pound tome of Muhammad Ali photographs or a thousand dollar, hand-bound volume of Japanese bondage art, but their New York store, a light-filled browsable gallery designed by Philippe Starck, is as compelling and worth a visit as any of the city’s museums or art spaces.
If you prefer your book browsing experience to be more of a cozy one, untinged by the pretense of high-brow erotica, check out the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (126 Crosby St. 12 on map). Housing Works is a non-profit devoted to advocating for and assisting homeless New Yorkers and people with AIDS. They operate a second-hand shop, completely staffed by friendly volunteers, that makes a relaxing, comfortable spot to shop for used books and music or read while enjoying a cup of coffee. And on many nights, they host everything from author talks, to concerts, to grownup spelling bees.
Apparently, SoHo likes to keeps its quirkiest and most interesting stores out of sight. Like Kiosk or Dube Juggling, you’re going to have to take to the stairs to check out the Impossible Project (425 Broadway, 13 on map). The rise of digital photography and the presence of a camera phone in every pocket has effectively been a death sentence for traditional film photography, so it was no surprise when Polaroid ceased producing its signature instant film in 2008. Impossible Project was founded the same year in the Netherlands by a group of Polaroid enthusiasts and former employees who could not imagine a world without analog instant photography. They took over the Polaroid factory, and have been manufacturing and selling instant film ever since. At their flagship store in SoHo you will find all the Polaroid equipment you could ever need, as well as a mini-museum and photography gallery.
We at Escape Pocket like to spotlight places that are unique or undiscovered, and that particularly appeal to explorers on a budget. So a store like Prada (575 Broadway, 14 on map) doesn’t quite fit that criteria, and we certainly can not imagine a time when we would ever be in the market for a $2,900 carry-on bag. But we still recommend a peek into Prada’s SoHo store. Besides epitomizing the high-end brand name consumption that the SoHo shopping experience has become, the store also serves as an example of how the Manhattan retail experience often doubles as a museum or gallery experience. Designed by Rem Koolahass, the store’s interior is dominated by a giant wooden wave that is part skateboard half-pipe, part runway, connecting two floors. The store is punctuated by other fun features that will distract you from the fact that this is a snobbish temple of pretension, like an enormous all-glass elevator that will provide you with a panorama of the shopping spectacle below and translucent changing rooms that fog over when occupied.
Obviously, you can’t leave New York without a souvenir, and what could be better than a nine foot surfboard? But even if you have no room in your luggage, it’s still worth it to visit Saturdays Surf NYC (31Crosby St, 15 on map), a store that sells surf gear and clothing, and serves as a laid-back hangout for the New York surfing community. More important, they also have a coffee bar, from which you can take your coffee and relax in their hidden garden out back, a perfect sanctuary away from the SoHo streets.
Finally, cap off your tour of SoHo with the city’s best French pastries at Dominique Ansel Bakery (189 Spring St, 16 on map). You can’t go wrong with anything that they pull out of the oven, but particularly addictive are their Kouign Amanns, round croissant-like cakes with a crispy, caramelized exterior covering the moist, buttery innards.
All photographs by Taylor McIntyre
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