More than most parts of New York, Downtown readily evokes Then and Now, Before and After. History is forever bursting to the surface here, like the underlayers of subway posters for last season’s blockbusters. For this reason Downtown also evokes in its denizens a keen sense of nostalgia, usually of the pessimistic sort: Everything went downhill after Florent/CBGB/the Mudd Club closed. Alphabet City was better when it was just artists and dealers and thieves. TriBeCa was better when it didn’t exist. I moved to Manhattan at age 24—in time to catch Jeff Buckley at Sin-é but too late to glimpse Basquiat chalk-painting sidewalks. Whenever you arrived, it seems, you were either too late or too old.
A favorite lament concerns the Fall of SoHo—where, eight years ago, in a metaphor too preposterous to make up, the Downtown branch of the Guggenheim Museum was replaced by a Prada store. It’s true that SoHo’s most recent metamorphosis is startling even in a city defined by metamorphoses. But too often we neglect the long view—and across its history, the curious expanse between Houston and Canal Streets has seen plenty of ebbs and flows. Mostly farmland in the 18th century, it became, by 1825, one of the richest and most densely populated neighborhoods in Manhattan. John Jacob Astor was a principal landowner. But trendiness had its drawbacks. The 1860’s saw an influx of high-end retail—Tiffany; Lord & Taylor—that forced out a quarter of its residents. (Does any of this sound familiar?) It was at this time that SoHo’s iconic architecture took shape: the grandly ornamented commercial buildings and warehouses clad in cast iron. But in the 1890’s retailers began relocating Uptown, and SoHo spiraled into decline; through the first half of the 20th century it became a wasteland known as Hell’s Hundred Acres.
“The Fluxus artist George Maciunas really pioneered SoHo as a place to live and work,” explains Lisa Phillips, director of SoHo’s New Museum. Starting on Wooster Street in 1967, Maciunas set up co-ops in disused cast-iron buildings. So began the rise of New York’s most famous artists’ colony. “It was about more than just affordable space,” Phillips says. “It was about seeing beauty in unconventional environments—living in those interzones, in places that people wouldn’t normally think of as appropriate or safe.”
It’s easy to forget how desolate the city used to feel south of Houston Street. In 1970, TriBeCa had only 243 residents. Today, it has 26,151. Downtown still came off as a wild, vaguely menacing frontier as late as 1985, when Martin Scorsese shot his cult classic After Hours here. The film starred Griffin Dunne as an Uptown Mr. Jones lost down the rabbit hole of pre–hedge fund SoHo and TriBeCa. In the course of one long night he’s accosted by burglars and mohawked punks, flummoxed by a kinky sculptress, chased by an angry mob, and ultimately sent back to Midtown encased in plaster of paris.
“At the time it was all just called Downtown,” Dunne recalls. “Terms like NoHo, TriBeCa, and Nolita hadn’t taken form yet. And it was truly a no-man’s-land. There was no traffic to block—we would shoot all night long and no one would bother us.”
You certainly couldn’t find a place to spend the night back then, unless you count three-dollar SRO’s. High-end hotels were scarce Downtown until the mid-90’s, when a handful of boutique properties made inroads. Now they’re on every other block. The past 18 months have ushered in Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel, in TriBeCa; Sean MacPherson’s cheap-chic Jane Hotel, in the West Village; André Balazs’s the Standard, New York; the Cooper Square Hotel, designed by Carlos Zapata Studio; and the just-opened Crosby Street Hotel, in SoHo, the first stateside property from London’s ever-stylish Firmdale group.
Downtown’s hotel boom has helped to lure a relatively new demographic over the past decade: tourists. Indeed, some weekends there appear to be more visitors on Spring Street than in Times Square. No surprise, either, for SoHo and its satellite neighborhoods have become retail destinations to rival Madison Avenue, with both global and homegrown brands, outsize designer flagships and back-alley boutiques cheek-by-jowl.