Crowds Sow Discontent in SoHo

By Rebecca Ungarino The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, as defined by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1973, was bordered by Houston Street to the north, the easternmost portion of West Broadway to the west, Crosby Street to the east and Canal Street to the south. In 2010, the Commission extended the neighborhood’s eastern borders to Centre and Lafayette streets, and included all of West Broadway. The borders of SoHo have expanded, even as its new buildings rise upward and the population density increases. But the picturesque, albeit narrow, cobblestone streets remain the same size. SoHo is a crowded neighborhood, and there are conflicting views about how the changes of the last decade, have impacted this historic artists’ colony-turned-shopping mecca as the area has become overrun by pedestrians.

Heavy pedestrian traffic often clogs the streets of SoHo. Photo by Emma Kazaryan.
Heavy pedestrian traffic often clogs the streets of SoHo.
Photo by Emma Kazaryan

Bob Gormley, district manager for Community Board 2 since 2006, ascends from the R train subway station at the corner of Prince Street and Broadway every day to walk to his office at 3 Washington Square Village. Community Board 2 covers Greenwich Village, SoHo, NoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, Hudson Square and Gansevoort Market. “It’s always crowded down there, and it’s even busier now for the holiday season,” said Gormley, shortly before Christmas, hands clasped atop a conference room table. He acknowledged that an enormous number of street vendors in SoHo contribute to crowding on the streets. Gormley, a graduate of Hunter College/CUNY and Buffalo State Law School, said the competition of street vendors and a “crush” of pedestrians made for a crowded neighborhood. “We are in no way in opposition of street vendors,” said Gormley, who worked at the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs before being elected to the Community Board. “They go where their clientele is; the sidewalk. But we have been asking the city to ensure that street vendors are complying with regulations,” including making sure that they have proper permits. Gormley noted that officers from the 1st Precinct, which encompasses SoHo and its surrounding neighborhoods, have begun to hand out tickets for vendors’ violations in Hudson Square during the past few months. Hudson Square is often referred to as “West SoHo.” The crowds are getting to some people. Seymour Miles, 63, lives on the Upper West Side and has worked in SoHo since 2007 as a real estate broker for Corcoran Group Real Estate. “Let’s put it this way, I don’t walk on Broadway anymore,” said Miles whose office is on Broadway. “Why? Because Broadway sucks.”

Miles was referring to the section of Broadway that cuts through SoHo between Crosby and Mercer streets. “I think more people are walking on Crosby now,” said Miles, who was sipping coffee inside the Starbucks on the corner of Crosby and Spring streets. “I think people are realizing how much cooler Crosby is than other streets. There are still small stores on Crosby, not like the big-box stores around here,” a reference to the large chain stores that have moved into SoHo, which was once dominated by independently owned shops and galleries.

Among the chains in the neighborhood, a 25,000 square-foot Old Navy sits on Broadway between Broome and Spring streets, a Chipotle Mexican Grill on Spring Street between Crosby and Lafayette streets and an Apple Store on the corner of Prince and Greene streets.

Tour buses regulat deposit out-of-towners in Soho, adding to the congestion. Photo by Emma Kazaryan
Tour buses regulat deposit out-of-towners in Soho, adding to the congestion.
Photo by Emma Kazaryan

Tour buses disgorging people who shop at the big-box stores and boutiques are a regular sight on Broadway and Spring Street. SoHo also has a growing number of hotels, including the Crosby Street Hotel and the Mondrian SoHo Hotel, both on Crosby Street, with roughly three blocks between them. “The area has totally changed since we moved here in 1974,” said Judy Blum Reddy, an artist and longtime SoHo resident who lives on Wooster Street. In the 1980s and 90s, SoHo was full of bars and clubs, recalled Reddy. When the noisy bars and clubs disappeared because of residents’ complaints, the neighborhood became quieter. Since then, walking tours and shopping have come to dominate the area. Reddy, a Queens native, moved to Wooster Street with her husband, the printmaker and artist Krishna Reddy, after returning to New York from Paris in the 1970s. She said the neighborhood she once loved has become practically unrecognizable and mentioned the irony of finding it difficult to walk her dog on congested streets even as she sees hired dog walkers with eight or nine dogs at one time. The neighborhood is so overrun by crowds of tourists on walking tours, Reddy said, that she rarely frequents stores and eateries in SoHo. “We go to Brooklyn!” said Reddy, whose daughter lives in Carroll Gardens. “They have more room there. They’ve got the Fairway, Trader Joe’s, Italian food and bread and cheese stores. We don’t.” In 2011, the city’s Department of Transportation released a “pedestrian volume index,” which revealed that the sidewalks of Manhattan were indeed becoming more crowded. In an elaborate chart, the department highlighted 50 of the city’s busiest intersections. Although a SoHo intersection is not explicitly noted in the list, lower Manhattan intersections such as Broad Street between Beaver and South William streets are noted with growing pedestrian volume. Overall, the city’s index grew exponentially between 2007 and 2011: from 367,935 pedestrians at the 50 selected intersections in 2007, to 416,648 pedestrians in 2011. Ron Smyth, who has an office in SoHo, said it was delightful to walk through in the morning, “around 8, 9, 10:30.” But unlike many local residents, Smyth, 61, a graduate of New York University Stern School of Business, said he thought the crowds and tourism were great because they promote commerce. Vince Prezioso, a New York native, is co-founder of the Access Organization, a health and lifestyle group that matches members with doctor visits, pharmacies and general care plans at discounted rates. The Access Organization’s office is in Chelsea, but Prezioso often holds meetings in other neighborhoods. “We like to keep our meetings out of SoHo,” said Prezioso, “because it’s just so crowded.”