Like so many of Manhattan's neighborhoods, SoHo went through a number of incarnations before becoming the artistic and commercial hotspot it is today. There was a significant period of time when the area when there were no apartments in Soho at all. Interestingly, the history of the area has only recently come full circle.
The area South of Houston- the expressionfrom which SoHo received its name- was a brisk shopping spot in the 1850s. Back then, the city hadn't yet expanded its reach over the entire island. But as the city continued to grow, the stores began moving further uptown. In their place arose a myriad of warehouses.
Unlike TriBeCa, the warehouses in this section were generally filled with material such as boxes, furs, and even rags. Because the majority of these materials were highly flammable, innumerable fires broke out in the area. The neighborhood soon acquired the rather unattractive nickname of Hell's Hundred Acres.
Eventually, the manufacturers left the area, leaving their warehouses unoccupied. The big, low cast-iron buildings didn't require large interior walls to support their weight, and had enormous interiors and larger windows than most apartment buildings. Artists found them perfect places in which to both work and live - except for the fact it was illegal to live there. The city had zoned the area for commercial use, not residential use, but this didn't prevent artists from turning lofts in SoHo into apartments. Eventually, there were enough people residing in SoHo that they were able to successfully lobby that the district be rezoned.
With all the artists now living in the area, it was only a matter of time before some of them began displaying their work to the public. Within the space of ten years, SoHo became the hottest spot for galleries in the city.
For sheer browsing pleasure, than the strip of Prince Street between the two Broadways should fit the bill. In between the assorted galleries are several hip stores, restaurants, and bars. Although certainly not as inexpensive as in the past, you may be able to find that obscure little item you've been hunting for.
The indisputable epicenter of SoHo, however, would have to be West Broadway. Bustling with pedestrians just about any time of the week, this street kicks into overdrive during the weekends. In addition to the many outdoor cafes that place tables out on the sidewalk, many local artists and knick-knack vendors display their wares for the numerous passers-by.
As part of their struggle to keep their buildings intact, the artists who initially inhabited these cast-iron buildings had many of them declared historic landmarks. Now, newer stone and steel buildings model themselves in the same ornate style to such a degree that you might have trouble telling them apart. Chances are, however, that the newer buildings aren't quite as spacious inside. So if you feel like you'd like to spend your time in a low-rise district with loft apartments big enough to play racquetball in, then give SoHo a look.