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Streets in modern-day SoHo resound with echoes from the Revolutionary War and the legacy of 19th-century movers and shakers. Though the original streets of this nabe have much changed, their names have remained much the same. So what was the ‘canal’ in Canal Street, and who was the Mr Houstoun whose name was misspelled in Houston Street?
SoHo’s streets mostly acquired their names after the Revolutionary War as what had been a farming settlement evolved into a bustling town complete with houses, music halls, hotels, shops and brothels.
“With the growth of mechanisms of municipal order, the informal adoption of place names gave way to the official or ceremonial,” Sanna Feirstein writes in her book Naming New York. “Government figures, church leaders, and war heroes were honored by having their names conferred on a public place.”
A key year in the naming of Manhattan streets was 1794, when the city’s Common Council, anxious to expunge memories of colonial days, renamed streets that previously had royal associations. When, in 1808, the second Trinity Church (near Wall Street) relinquished streets it owned to the city, several of them took the names of prominent church dignitaries.
“Historically, some names were attached to places to designate a feature of the adjacent landscape,” Feirstein adds. Spring Street and Canal Street are examples.
What about the name “SoHo” itself? By the 1950s, many manufacturing companies had abandoned the area’s iron buildings and artists began moving into them. In 1962, according to the SoHo Memory Project, the urban-planning theorist and city planning commissioner Chester Rapkin issued a report called The South [of] Houston Industrial Area that gave SoHo its name and effectively prevented most of the buildings from being razed. By 1970 SoHo was a full-fledged neighborhood, and in the ’80s it emerged as a center for art galleries and restaurants, presaging its status today as a swanky fashion-shopping area.
With thanks to information supplied in Don Rogerson’s book Manhattan Street Names Past and Present, here are the original sources of 14 SoHo Street names.
Formerly Bullock Street and partially William Street, Broome Street was named after John Broome (1738-1810), a New York merchant, alderman and lieutenant governor of the state (1804-10). He fought with the Second New York City regiment of militia during the Revolutionary War. Broome twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress. As a merchant, he is believed to have started the importation of tea from China.
In 1807, New York’s Common Council authorized the building of a 40-foot-wide (12 meters) canal to drain excess water from the polluted Collect Pond into the Hudson River. The pond was filled in by 1810, and the canal, a virtual sewer, was covered up by 1820. Tree-lined Canal Street was laid on top of it.
This street was named after John Charlton (c. 1731-1801), a British physician who fought with the patriots during the Revolutionary War. Charlton served as the innovative president of the Medical Society of the State of New York. He was also a warden of Trinity Church, which owned Charlton Street and ceded it to the city in 1808. Charlton Plaza is also named after him.
Crosby Street is supposedly named for William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865), a millionaire and philanthropist. His parents died when he was two, and he was adopted by the Revolutionary War hero Colonel Henry Rutgers, his mother’s uncle. Upon Rutgers’ death in 1830, Crosby inherited his estate, which sprawled over the Lower East Side. Crosby devoted much of his time to charity and made donations to organizations such as the Bible Society, the Seaman’s Friend Society and the Reformed Dutch Church.
Size, of course, would have to come into this. The ‘grand’ in Grand Street refers to the street’s breadth and its centrality within the downtown street grid laid out by the Delancey family prior to 1767. Originally known as Crown Point Road and confined to the area between Mulberry Street and the East River, it had extended west by 1823 to Varick Street.
Pronounced “HOUSE-ton” Street, this busy thoroughfare, which divides SoHo from NoHo and central Greenwich Village, originally extended from Sixth Avenue to Broadway. It was named after William Houstoun (1755-1813), a Georgia delegate to the Constitutional Convention who was the son-in-law of the New York landowner Nicholas Bayard. The street was renamed “Houston” in 1833, possibly because of the growing fame of Texas revolutionary Sam Houston. Just don’t pronounce it “HEW-ston” in NYC.
King Street was once known as Hazard Street. Since 1897 it has commemorated Rufus King (1755-1827), a lawyer, senator, presidential candidate, diplomat and abolitionist. Like John Charlton, King was a warden of Trinity Church, which ceded the street to the city in 1808.
Lafayette Street (formerly Lafayette Place) opened in 1826 and commemorates the French-born American Revolutionary War general the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834). He served as commander of the Paris National Guard from 1789 to 1792, when he was forced to flee France for having protected the king and queen from their enemies. Lafayette embarked on a triumphant procession through America’s 24 states in 1824-25 (though that was nothing compared with his appearance in Hamilton: An American Musical). There is a bronze sculptural tableau of him in Prospect Park (at Third Street) in Brooklyn.
Originally First or Clermont Street, Mercer Street was, in 1799, named after Hugh Mercer (1726-77). Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Mercer was a soldier and physician who served with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. As a fugitive in his own country after the rebels were defeated, Mercer escaped to the American colonies where he served with the British army during the French and Indian War. However, he once again took up arms against the British at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. His friend George Washington personally requested Mercer’s promotion to brigadier general in the Continental Army. Mercer died after being savagely bayoneted at the Battle of Princeton.
Ready to be confused? In 1794, the name “Prince Street” migrated … sort of. The city’s Common Council, anxious to remove street names pertaining to British royalty, renamed the old Prince Street (near today’s City Hall Park) Rose Street. Simultaneously, present-day SoHo’s Prince Street acquired its name. It was a road on council member Nicholas Bayard’s farm. We can only assume it did not refer to a British prince.
Formerly Oliver Street (between the Bowery and Broadway), Spring Street had by 1799 acquired its new name and stretched as far west as Sixth Avenue. It was “probably named,” writes Rogerson, “for a spring on the Bayard farm which is said still to exist in the basement of a Spring Street building.”
It was Locust Street until 1799, when it was named after John Sullivan (1740-95). A New Hampshire delegate to the First Continental Congress and later that state’s governor, he was also the Revolutionary War general whose 1779 “Sullivan Expedition” wiped out some 40 pro-British Native American villages in Pennsylvania and New York.
When Budd Street was ceded by Trinity Church to the city in 1808, it took the name of Anthony Van Dam, vestryman of the church from 1762 to 1783. He was not just a man of God, however. Naming New York says that he was a “wine and liquor dealer active in civic affairs.” The joined-up spelling of “Vandam” clashes with the Dutch “Van Dam,” which is how certain street names in Brooklyn and Queens are spelled.
Named by 1799, Wooster Street probably commemorates David Wooster (c. 1711-77), a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Wooster was commander of the Connecticut provincial militia when he died of injuries sustained at the battle of Ridgefield, the only inland battle fought in Connecticut during the war.