Safe as Warehouses
By David Crohn
When city officials established the easy-to-navigate grid system of streets in 1811, they stopped at Houston Street. I take that to mean that the fact that the neighborhood South of Houston is composed of even squares and rectangles is a happy accident. But that’s also why Wooster, Greene and Mercer St. begin at E. Houston Street and end at Canal, without lining up with any streets north or south. They exist only here. From a geographical perspective, this is what makes SoHo so self-contained.
That, and the architecture, all Italianate facades, and baby townhouses that are a common sight in the countryside and in postcards but remarkable in any urban locale.
This week, I managed to find perhaps the one block in SoHo that’s comparatively dreary. Greene has its frills and Prince its Apple Store. On Mercer Street between Spring and Broome, however, it’s mostly warehouses. But in a neighborhood loaded with red-brick, well-maintained warehouses, this block has my favorite: the Rosenbluth Bros. building, at 84 through 94 Mercer St. It’s bigger and older than me, it will be there when I die or move away, and important things go on inside. The sign’s typeface is exquisite. (Sporting goods are sold from the ground floor storefront, but it’s easy enough to look past this prosaic detail.)
A young laborer was buffing graffiti off a small segment of my warehouse’s exterior when I strolled by. Watching this was like watching a natty giant lay back and get a manicure.
The Rosenbluth building also quietly hides a conundrum in plain sight. It has 14 columns of windows across but only one set of fire escapes servicing the middle four. So what are you supposed to do, God forbid, in the event of a fire if you are on either end? Do people still use fire escapes, except to grab a quick smoke or drop water balloons on passersby? I asked the warehouse. It stood silent.
What Happened Here
The neighborhood was once known as Hell’s Hundred Acres, because the warehouses were filled with flammable materials, no one payed attention, and the city’s fire men were little more than gangsters with trucks and buckets. The zero hour for modern-day SoHo is 1974, when the city passed the Loft Law, which allowed those huge lofts to be zoned residential, and thus paved the way for artists to move in and have a cheap place to live and work. According to a recent exhibition at a downtown gallery that took stock of the lower Manhattan arts scene in its heyday, this era ended in 1984—the year Ronald Reagan was reelected. Rents skyrocketed, Starbucks paved the sky, the moon turned to blood, blah blah blah.
The artists sold out and moved to Brooklyn and elsewhere, but no one bothered to subdivide those huge lofts. So there’s still plenty of space to live and work. Like at one apartment we found, at Spring and Mercer and listed by Knickerbocker Village, Inc. It’s a 950-square-foot one-bedroom with a full-sized separate kitchen, a walk-in closet, even a big, human-body-sized tub. $5,500 per month.
This block seems quieter than most in SoHo, but not for long. The sights—scaffolding everywhere, debris from gutted ground floors spewing into the street—and sounds—hum of drills and clangs of moving steel—of construction are rife. Those new projects may some day look like 72 Mercer, a recently renovated building at Broome with condos available ranging from $3.23 million to $3.45. Since you can still actually score a condo in SoHo for a hair under a million, that seems excessive. Those are one-bedrooms. Double the bedrooms, and it’s triple the price and then some. So goes the funky algebra of downtown real estate.
Residents and Regulars
Claire Danes lives a block away. She’s one of those people who perpetually begs the question, Has she been in anything lately?
No grocery stores nearby, but it is charge card heaven. Helen Wang, Ugg, Kate Spade—God knows what those shops sell; all I can do is read the signs and report back. But there is a cocktail lounge, called Bar 89, on this block. I know what they sell: Martinis, lots of martinis, in all the primary colors.