SoHo Sophisticated The Changing Face of New York's Trendiest Neighborhood

English author Samuel Johnson once claimed that when a man tires of London, he is tired of life. The same could be said of SoHo. Nestled alongside Greenwich Village, Little Italy and Tribeca, SoHo has long held a reputation as New York’s artist enclave. Today, while still home to a sizeable population of working artists and countless galleries, SoHo has expanded to welcome professionals, families and a bustling commercial and retail district, housing everything from J.Crew to a new luxury hotel, dubbed one of the "world’s hippest hotels" by

In Style magazine.

SoHo Roots

What goes around comes around, as the pundits say. That seems to be the case for SoHo (which stands for "south of Houston" Street). Two hundred years ago, the area was home to New York’s upper class. Middle class families followed and the streets soon bustled with exclusive shops, elegant hotels and theaters, lively casinos and some of New York’s finest brothels. The area was so highly regarded for its houses of ill-repute that it was soon earning "five-star ratings" in guidebooks of the time.

Following the Civil War, as the industrial age took a firm hold, textile manufacturers began setting up shop in the area and continued to operate there well into the 20th Century. But as industry and commerce grew, residents began a mass exodus, moving uptown and leaving SoHo almost entirely in the hands of manufacturers.

As the face of post-war industry changed, so did the financial security of SoHo. Businesses either went under or relocated, leaving the neighborhood desolate and inhospitable. It earned such intimidating nicknames as "Hell’s 100 Acres" and "The Valley." In the early 1960s, Robert Moses proposed plans to raze the neighborhood along Broome Street to build an expressway to link the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges with the Westside Highway and the Holland Tunnel. It seemed like luck was running out for the once-vibrant area. But public outcry, stemming mostly from the new artistic faces which had begun building lofts and crafting studios and galleries from abandoned warehouses, put an end to talk of demolition.

What began in the 1950s with an influx of young artists and imaginative bohemians lured by the prospect of cheap rents and tempting dollar-to-square-foot ratios had grown by the 1970s to what could be termed a cultural phenomenon. An artist could claim no better distinction than a SoHo address. In turn, SoHo would cement its own reputation as a haven for New York’s intellectual and artistic elite.

With fame often comes money. By the early 1990s, "mainstream" residents were discovering the joys of SoHo living. And with the flush of new prosperity came a steady increase in the number of commercial and retail businesses laying claim to SoHo addresses. Today, posh restaurants rub shoulders with avant-garde art galleries while Prada shares a zip code with bargain antique shops. It’s all part of SoHo’s unique personality.

Architectural Gems

Walking the streets of SoHo brings New Yorkers face to face with the area’s rich architectural history and bold future. The neighborhood is almost as well known for its wealth of cast-iron buildings as for its artistic importance. According to the website artnyc.com, the majority of New York City’s 250 cast-iron structures are to be found in SoHo. Most of these façades were created in the mid to late 1800s at a time when the metal was cheaper than brick or stone. The flexibility of the iron allowed designers to mold it into intricate shapes, creating ornate and sophisticated architectural details. The metal also served to frame windows, allowing larger and taller openings and creating more interior light for residents, bringing new life to previously drab living areas.

SoHo’s eminence as a cast-iron capital is at least partially responsible for preserving it during its scrape with demolition in the 1960s. The threat of losing such an architectural treasure trove proved vital in making the case for the importance of the neighborhood.

Side-by-side with these cast-iron gems, new buildings are now rising to make their mark. Among them, the SoHo Grand Hotel at 310 West Broadway is quickly earning a reputation as a must-see destination. The first new hotel in SoHo in 100 years, the building features its own share of cast iron as well as bronze, brick and a stunning iron-and-bottle-glass staircase. Earning top reviews in magazines such as In Style and Travel and Leisure, the hotel serves as a perfect example of how past and present meld in SoHo to create a unique downtown experience.

A Good Investment

With its artistic reputation and economic stability, SoHo continues to attract a wide-range of co-op and condo residents, from bankers to painters to actors. Over the last three years alone, Steve Kliegerman of the Manhattan brokerage firm The Halstead Property Co., says that property values have escalated 50 to 65 percent. "It’s increased a tremendous amount," Kliegerman says, due in large part to "economic availability, a dearth of housing and the attraction of the SoHo area."

Part of what makes SoHo so attractive are the unique living spaces created by the artists who "reclaimed" the area in the second half of the century. The cast-iron buildings and former light manufacturing warehouses provided a perfect framework for expansive loft living. For artists, that means space to spread out and create. For a young, upwardly-mobile couple, it means flexibility in space design and the freedom to experiment architecturally. "It’s a style of living really not available in any other place," Kliegerman says.

SoHo also boasts ultra-convenient location. "All the subway lines converge in this area," Kliegermen says. East Side, West Side, Uptown–subway trains all lie within easy walking distance of each other.

All of this convenience and sophistication has put SoHo on the A-list of New York living. For a "relatively average space," Kliegerman estimates that a buyer would pay between $550 and $700 a square foot. That price increases for prime space, topping out at between $800 and $1,000 a square foot.

Values such as these surely would have been difficult to imagine for the residents who lived in SoHo during its first boom years, nearly two centuries ago. But they no doubt would have agreed that a home is more than a home in SoHo. It’s a way of life like no other.

Ms. Lent is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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