Historian Traces 400 Years of History on a Single New York City Block


The stretch of New York City’s Greene Street between Houston and Prince is a tiny block with a long and often surprising history. Today, it’s home to an Apple Store and several upscale boutiques, but over the last four centuries, it has served as unwanted farmland, a red light district, a garment manufacturing center, and, during the Great Depression, a shantytown. In order to study the economic development of New York City on a micro level, Futurity reports, economist William Easterly has traced, in extensive detail, the history of Greene Street since the 1600s.

In addition to documenting his findings in a study [PDF], Easterly created an interactive website, Greene Street Project, that allows anyone to explore the SoHo block’s history. The website includes photos, videos, illustrations, and maps of the little street in the big city stretching back 400 years. It’s a rich resource for urban history enthusiasts, providing fascinating insights into the unexpected ways in which cities evolve, all through the lens of a single New York block. Though Greene Street’s particular evolution may be unique, its history reveals how rich our cities’ histories truly are. Today, you’d never guess that Greene Street's cast iron apartment building (which now houses a co-op and a Christian Dior Homme) was once a garment factory, and before that, a brothel. But like Greene Street, most cities in America are full of spaces with strange and fascinating histories just waiting to be uncovered.

According to Easterly, much can be learned by studying forgotten local histories. “I think the advantage of looking at things at the local level is you can really see the bottom-up way in which a lot of good things happen,” he says in the video above. “Conversely, you can see the possible damage that could be done by somebody trying to exert control from the top down without adequate knowledge.”

[h/t Futurity]

Banner Image Credit: New York University, YouTube