3. Much of the Neighborhood Was Owned by John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor immigrated from Germany and arrived in New York in the late 1700s. Originally engaged in the fur trade, he began buying property in 1799 and by 1830 had turned his attention from fur to real estate. A shrewd businessman, he had a knack for seeing a piece of land’s potential and transforming it into a profitable property. He would buy up cheap tracts of land and lock his tenants into long leases, telling them they could build on the land at their own expense. When the lease expired, he would either buy the house based on a valuation (usually lower than it should have been) or jack up the rent if the tenant wanted to renew. By the late 1800s, he was known as “New York’s landlord.”
Astor worked his way into the upper echelons of New York society by becoming a mason and befriending powerful men. One such man was Aaron Burr. Desperate for money after his duel with Alexander Hamilton, Burr signed over the lease of a large tract of land in what is now Greenwich Village. Astor owned much of Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking District, including all of Washington Street and parts of Little West 12th Street.