I came across a fascinating database of photographs a few days ago on the Museum of the City of New York’s website and found lots of historic photographs and drawings of Soho dating all the way back to the late 1800′s. One of my favorite pictures (below) made me realize the history of street name changes over the years. One of the captions in the photograph “Near South Fifth Avenue”. I thought, “Where is South Fifth Avenue?”
The sign is to advertise a lot at 495 Broome Street “Near South 5th Avenue”. (FYI 495 Broome Street is now a Gourmet Garage grocery store)
I started researching and it turns out, South 5th Avenue is now La Guardia Street above Houston and West Broadway below:
The history of this street is actually pretty interesting. The streets in Soho area are mostly named after Revolutionary War heros: Wooster, Greene, and Mercer, Sullivan, Thompson, and McDougal. One street that lost its name is Laurens Street, named after Henry Laurens. Laurens street is the street name prior to South 5th Avenue and prior to West Broadway and La Guardia.
Henry Laurens lived between 1724 - 1792 and became a political leader during the Revolutionary War. Laurens succeeded John Hancock as President of the Congress and was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation and President when the constitution was passed on November 15, 1777. He became very wealthy as a partner in the largest slave-trading house in North America (Austin and Laurens), over seeing more than 8,000 enslaved africans in the 1750s.
Ironically, Henry was the 5th President of the Continental Congress. Someone along the way must have decided it was worth it to lose “Laurens” street to change it to “South 5th Avenue”.
Blog Ephemeral New York has more detail: Laurens street became known as a haven for brothels and called “Rotten Row”. By the 1850′s, there were 8 houses on either side of the street containing about 250 families. The street name was changed in the 1870′s to “South Fifth Avenue” in hopes to change the street’s reputation. Finally, Mayor William Strong’s administration changed the street to West Broadway in 1896, to what its known today.
You can also read more about West Broadway on “Forgotten New York“.