SoHo Cast Iron Historic District NYC

Meeting Manhattan: Behind the beautiful facades in SoHo

I still can’t believe how much we squeezed in to our first day in New York City. I arrived on Wednesday night, but on Saturday my boyfriend and I had our first day off together, so we spent the whole day exploring.

It was a hot, sunny day. I’d bought a new pair of Converse at Macy’s the day before, ready to pound the pavement.  It’s funny what weasels its way into your heart. A New York City sidewalk isn’t the sort of place that encourages you to linger, but the thrill of stepping out into the busyness of the street is one of my most visceral memories of being in the city.

SoHo NYC

SoHo NYC

Stepping out of our building on west 42nd street was always a rush, swapping the calm, dark wood-panelled lobby for the blazing August sunshine and the wide footpaths, teeming with all walks of life – half of them, four-legged. There are dogs everywhere in New York City, which surprised me considering how few apartments would have a yard. They’re parading on the street, bounding through  parks, perched on bar stools and salivating over designer shoes with their well-heeled humans at luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman’s.

When we emerged from the subway in Soho, I was bombarded with pastel coloured, intricate cast iron facades of SoHo’s buildings clashing with the dark, imposing scaffolding that covered half of the narrow sidewalks, the cacophony of traffic and booming voices that from a distance, to my Australian ears, sounded like everyone was arguing with each other.

SoHo Cast Iron Historic District NYCSoHo NYCSoHo NYC

Most buildings have summer rules, which forbid renovations in winter when your neighbours can’t escape the noise by going outside. As a result, the whole city’s renovations plans are squeezed into the summer months. I can’t imagine what New York would look like without all the scaffolding!

I decided to put my DSLR away for a while, so I could take it all in without the filter of my camera lens.

Balthazar Bakery

My boyfriend led us Balthazar Bakery, which he’d seen earlier in the week and knew that I’d love. Squeezed in beside the cavernous Balthazar restaurant, Balthazar Bakery continues the French theme of it’s older sister, but with a more authentic French approach to real estate. The shop floor barely allows four customers inside at once, and three bakers crowd behind the counter. We shared a rich, chocolate doughnut, which we ate outside the bakery on a bench. It was close-your-eyes-and-make-weird-appreciative-noises good. It wasn’t our last Balthazar doughnut of the trip! We also ended up going back to Balthazar for dinner a couple of months later.

Balthazar Bakery SoHo NYC

We shared the donut, and most other snacks during our trip, so that we could try as much as possible while we were in New York.

SoHo Cast Iron Historic District

We wandered around the cobblestone streets for a little while, admiring the cast iron facades of the buildings. SoHo is actually a protected historic district, because of these cast iron facades. The neighbourhood has a fascinating history as it’s fallen in and out of favour over hundreds of years.

SoHo Cast Iron Historic District NYC

In the late 19th century, cast iron was used as a cheap way to dress up the facade of industrial buildings to attract commercial clients. It was cheaper than stone but could be tinted in beige and marble colours to give the look of a stone facade. The iron was strong but easily pliable, allowing for tall, beautifully curved window frames that flooded the buildings with natural light. As the district became an entertainment and nightlife hotspot around the turn of the century it became less and less of a fashionable destination and more of a red life district.

SoHo Cast Iron Historic District NYC

Eventually, the city’s underbelly engulfed SoHo as residents moved north, leaving the beautiful neighbourhood to go to ruins. In the 1950s, the area was an industrial wasteland full of gas stations, factories and sweatshops, nicknamed “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” In the late ’50s and ’60s, artists began taking advantage of the cheap rents and large, spacious studios became hot property for the city’s creatives.

SoHo NYCSoHo Architecture NYC

We all know how this story ends. The artists made SoHo cool again and the rest of the city wanted in. Gentrification and urban revitalisation began in the 1980s, as affluent residents and trendy restaurants and boutiques swarmed SoHo. It’s a popular misconception that the gentrification of the neighbourhood forced artists to flee. Many artists owned their co-ops or benefited from rent protection enforced by the Loft Law, and continued to contribute to the neighbourhood’s electric atmosphere for decades.

SoHo Architecture NYC

Of course, getting an apartment in SoHo for a reasonable price these days is probably near-impossible. We walked to Prince Street and found the poster child for modern SoHo, a juice bar at the bottom of an Equinox, a trendy Manhattan gym chain. From rural backwater, to booming entertainment hotspot, to red light district to industrial wasteland and back again, the only constant in SoHo is change.

Juice Bar SoHO

Up next: Live music in Washington Square Park!

What’s your favourite neighbourhood in NYC?