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Wilderness to brothels to Apple store: the History of Development in one block

We usually analyze Development at the national level. Why not other levels? At the other extreme, here is a short and surprising illustrated history of one city block.

Before Europeans arrived, it was a wilderness lightly inhabited by the Delaware ethnic group.

Before the Europeans arrived

By the late 1600s, this block was part of a hilly 200-acre farm owned by the prominent Dutch official Nicholas Bayard (1644-1707). By the time of this painting in 1768, there was more development to the south, but this farm was still owned by the Bayard family.


A map in 1782 shows a 100 foot hill and Minetta Creek. The hill would later be levelled and the creek paved over.

Relief map 1782

In the summer of 1822, a yellow fever epidemic in the city to the south prompted an exodus of wealthy residents to this block. Anthony Arnoux, a merchant tailor, built this house in 1824. The Arnoux family would remain until 1860, when they relocated further uptown.

1825 residence

Their exodus reflected the deterioration of the neighborhood. The location of many hotels nearby on Broadway fueled a boom in prostitution in the 1850s. In this one block alone, there were 23 brothels. In 1862, Mary Ann Temple was arrested for running a whorehouse in the former Arnoux house.

Location of brothels in 1870

The next boom was in more traditional sectors. The construction of a railroad depot nearby and good transport connections to national and international markets fueled a neighborhood boom in factories and warehouses.  In 1880, this factory was constructed, next door to the old residence and brothel, using the cast iron process that made it possible to build 6- and 7- story buildings with spacious rooms and high ceilings. The process was pioneered by James Bogardus, who had built a cast iron factory downtown in 1848.

1880 factory

Alas industrial booms don’t last forever, and in the 20th century the neighborhood became a decaying industrial wasteland.

The powerful urban planner Robert Moses wanted to raze the neighborhood for his 8-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway, which he had first proposed in 1928. His plan was finally approved by the City Council and Mayor Robert Wagner on February 13, 1961. Opposing Moses was the great neighborhood activist and author Jane Jacobs, whom New York police arrested at one point for “inciting to riot.” But on August 21, 1969,  Mayor John Lindsay finally killed the project.

around 1970s

In 1967, with real estate prices depressed by the uncertainty about the Expressway and the deterioration of the neighborhood, a Lithuanian-American artist named George Maciunas had bought one of the old factories and converted into a studio and residence for his artist co-op. Many artists followed in his wake. The neighborhood was not zoned for residences, so the pioneer artist-residents lived illegally, finding ways to tap into power and water supplies.

The block in 1970

Eventually, city bureaucrats passed an artist exemption legalizing the arrangement. The neighborhood was reborn as an artist colony and attracted a huge concentration of art galleries.

location of art galleries today

Non-artist celebrities and the rich found a way to get lofts for themselves in the neighborhood in the following decades. Upscale shops followed.

Ground floor today of 1884 factory

The ultimate culmination of centuries of development was of course the Apple store located at the end of the block.


Today this block (Greene Street between Houston and Prince) is part of Soho and one of the wealthiest blocks in the city (and the world).

Its history had been a series of unexpected events involving many actors, from Nicholas Bayard to the yellow fever mosquito to Anthony Arnoux to James Bogardus to Jane Jacobs to George Maciunas, few or none of whom could have anticipated the outcomes of their actions. Like many other examples, Soho illustrates that a lot of economic development is a surprise.

Photo credits: 1,2,3: Manahatta; 4 author; 5 New York Times ;  6,7 author; 8 Life Magazine March 27, 1970, 9 The Historical Atlas of New York City; 10, 11 author; 12 photo from Google Maps.

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  1. Mozza wrote:

    Thank you. What’s also interesting is that every era had something interesting about it, which makes you wonder if preservation efforts are also making us “lose” something by freezing places into a certain moment.

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  2. sam wrote:

    Very interesting. Can we get an updated map of the brothels please, just for research purposes of course.

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  3. Gregory Rose wrote:

    I had to do a very similar project when I went to high school in NYC. Now whenever I look around the city I think to myself how old that building is and what the history behind it is.

    As someone who writes/studies about international development, I’m glad you used NYC as a example of development. Most people (not experts) tend to look at today’s LDC’s as a completely different situation then what America’s was.

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  4. William Easterly wrote:

    Comment from @cblatts on Twitter:

    the secret to development is ethnic cleansing, river destruction, disease, sex trade, railroads, riots & iPods

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  5. Andy wrote:

    This is weak. What is your conclusion Professor Easterly? Your main takeaway, if you will.

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  6. Vivek Nemana wrote:


    “Like many other examples, Soho illustrates that a lot of economic development is a surprise.”


    Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  7. joe wrote:

    Is Apple corporation a ‘development’ over fields or brothels? Discuss.

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  8. Dan Kyba wrote:

    This is as good a visual presentation as any as to why the phrase ‘developing’ when applied to the poorest countries of the world can be so misleading.
    It is the richer countries that are ‘developing’ since they are in a constant state of innovation, destruction and renewal.

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  9. Matt wrote:

    The main takeaway is that if we follow this exact recipe in a one block area of Port-au-Prince, in a few hundred years, it will become the next Soho!

    Or maybe it’s that development is chaotic, unpredictable, and difficult to replicate.

    Posted February 22, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Permalink
  10. Diane Bennett wrote:

    What about the recent NYC enforcement that Soho lofts are reserved for working artists? Apartments are now languishing on the market, waiting for a well-heeled “starving artist,” the city rejecting as many applications as it approved last year.

    Posted February 23, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Indeed!Note that the Bayard family was French not Dutch.Nicholas Bayard was the son of Samuel Bayard and the nephew of Judith Bayard Stuyvesant.Judith and Sam’s grandfather Bayard was a professor of theology at the Sorbonne who left France on account of the persecutions against the protestants.The family is one of the oldest Huguenot families in the USA.

    Posted February 24, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink
  12. Troy Camplin wrote:

    Very interesting. As someone working on a spatial economics/economic geography paper using Austrian economics and focusing on far-from-equilibirum states, this example of a microcosm over time is fascinating.

    Posted February 25, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink
  13. Nela wrote:

    I think this portrayal of the “development” of a city block is fascinating. Great job at showing how much of development tends to be random and haphazard; perhaps this lesson can be taken to the designers of “Millennium Villages” as a lesson in not trying a cookie cutter approach to development?

    Posted February 25, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  14. Librarian wrote:

    I would just like to point out that that big white building in the 1768 painting is King’s College, the predecessor of today’s Columbia University.

    Posted February 26, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink
  15. Phil Gyford wrote:

    Very interesting, thanks. A nice lens for a long-term look at historical ebbs and flows. However, I’d take issue with one of your final sentences:

    The ultimate culmination of centuries of development was of course the Apple store…

    It’s only the “ultimate culmination” of development if you think New York is going to stop changing because it’s now finished. Just like Arnoux’s house, or the 1880 factory, the Apple store, and everything else there now, is just one more mid-point on a much longer path. Who knows what people will think of the current state of the block in a couple of hundred years time.

    Posted February 27, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink
  16. Varun wrote:

    Next step in evolution: a fruit market. 😉

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  17. Georgia wrote:

    Learned of this post via Urban Omnibus. I live nearby and have been wondering about the house on Greene at Houston that you identify as the Arnoux house. Thank you.

    Do you know of The SoHo Memory Project (

    Posted March 6, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

11 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Duane Moore, Conduit Journal. Conduit Journal said: Wilderness to brothels to Apple store: the History of Development in one block […]

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  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ディミック, Aid Watch. Aid Watch said: "The ultimate culmination of centuries of development was of course the Apple Store." […]

  5. By Evolution of a New York City Block « 2011 Cities on February 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    […] This post takes a look at the development of a block in SoHo, NY, NY. From a hilly wilderness to one of the wealthiest blocks in New York City with an Apple Store at its corner. Even Robert Moses makes an appearance. […]

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    […] Evolves Tweet William Easterly tracks development over time on a single block, from "wilderness, to brothels, to Apple […]

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  10. […] W. Houston and Prince Streets in New York City was once the site of several brothels, according AidWatch. The location of many hotels nearby on Broadway fueled a boom in prostitution in the 1850s. In this […]

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    […] love seeing layers of history being unwrapped – history of the city block where the Soho Apple Store […]

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