Broads Along Broadway

broadway houston today

The intersection of Broadway and Houston Street today

The intersection of Broadway and Houston Street is currently a shopper’s paradise. Looking south, one is greeted by the flagship stores of American Eagle Outfiters and Hollister, which serve as a gateway to a retail corridor that stretches to Canal Street and beyond.

Back in the late 1800’s, however, this corner was a paradise for a very different sort of consumer, when the area that is now called SoHo was New York City’s first red light district, as well as a meeting place where thieves fenced their stolen goods.

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A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside (photo via The New York Times)

The Gentleman’s Directory (1870), a guidebook of the area’s houses of ill repute that could be picked up at local newsstands, informs readers that on this stretch of Broadway, one encounters many young ladies “between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five.” These “Nymphes de Pave or as they familiarly termed ‘Cruisers’ have furnished rooms in which they receive visitors of the other sex, and ply their vocation in the streets for a livelihood,” and who have “robbed many an unsuspecting stranger of his all.”

gentleman's directory

The book also provides detailed descriptions of public houses, or drinking establishments, in the area. A “large red lamp before 25 East Houston street marks the establishment of Harry Hill” where “an hour cannot be spent more pleasantly,” and “on the corner of Broadway and West Houston street is the ‘Revellier Concert Saloon.’”

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Old Tavern on Broadway near Houston, 1861

If ladies of the night did not suit your fancy, this corner was where one could not only find the trafficking of prostitutes, but also stolen goods of all kinds. Herbert Asbury writes of the criminal underworld in Gangs of New York that “one of the notorious places of the city was the Thieves’ exchange in the 8th Ward, near Broadway and Houston St, where fences and criminals met each night and dickered openly over their beer and whiskey for jewelry and other loot.”

As if to add insult to injury, in the midst of all this iniquity, there stood a house of worship. In a letter from Gene Schermerhorn to his nephew,When Broa Phil, he writes, “St. Thomas Church was at the corner of Broadway and Houston Street; opposite to it was a row of small two-storied wooden houses; many of them low grog shops—a very bad neighborhood.”

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St. Thomas Church, 1887 at the corner of Broadway and Houston (drawing by Gene Schermerhorn)

A very bad neighborhood indeed! This corner, where two of New York’s grandest boulevards intersect, has gone through many changes since the bad old days of yore, when today’s green globes indicating the entrance to Broadway-Lafayette subway station once burned red.

 

 


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