Image from New York Public Library
New York City is currently home to several ethnic enclaves, but did you know that there also used to be a “Little France” in Soho? According to a recent post by Ephemeral New York, from the 1870s until the 1890s, Soho, specifically in the area between Washington Square South and Grand Street, and West Broadway and Greene Street was home to somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000 French immigrants.
This French enclave was filled with small buildings that were often shops, charcuteries, bakeries, cafes and basement restaurants – a sharp contrast to today’s landscape of cast-iron buildings and large footprint retail. An article in Scribner’s from 1879 describes the scene: “There are secret meetings in obscure little cafes, into which strangers seldom enter; where the last movements of the Nihilists are discussed, and the would be regicide is commended over draughts of absinthe and more innocent beer.”
The author of the Scriber’s article makes note that the French are nonetheless “mostly industrious, thrifty and honest. They earn little and spend less.” Still, there is some element of distance from the writers’ explorations with the community: “They talk French and retain many of the customs of the motherland. It is notable how insular and exclusive they are; for Broadway with its assimilative influence, is the eastern limit of the district.”
Also noted, reflecting the relative importance of industrial labor during the era the article was written, is the “scattering of impecunious music-teachers and professors of languages, who maintain themselves with a frosty-air of shabby gentility on a very, very slender income. Literature and art have devotees in a particular condition of allied mental exaltation and bodily penury…men whose lives have no fruition…” practicing “unprofitable labor” yet consumes dinners of six courses at a restaurant in the quarter with an air of dignity. As you can tell, the entire article is worth a read and some laughs.
The popular locales included the restaurant Grand Vatel and the Taverne Alsacienne on Greene Street, where men would hang out to drink at its “impoverished bar” and play billiards. Table d’hote restaurants also filled the area around Bleecker Street and downtown.
However, Little France did not last long, and Soho’s French immigrants instead moved to West Chelsea. The startup of French businesses along Twenty-Sixth Street and west of Sixth Avenue, which was reported by the Sun in 1894, marked this transition.
Next, read New York City’s (and Untapped Cities’) response to the recent attacks in France. Also see Newly Released Photographs of Ellis Island Immigrants in Early 20th Century and Discovering the Cast-Iron Buildings of SoHo. Get in touch with the author @sgeier97