The very idea of a history-minded walk around SoHo is depressing. The buildings are there, certainly. Cast-iron masterpieces are in surplus. But nothing of great value lives inside (great cost, yes). No ancient merchants. No artists. No tradition. Just commercial chain-store mundanity. Rough and tumble SoHo once teemed with industry. In the 1970s and 1980s it found a new pulse as a haven for art and artists. Shopping and restaurants followed, which was fine, as long as the culture remained. But the artists decamped for Chelsea in the 1990s, leaving only Pottery Barn and J. Crew to bask in the reflected glory of the Belgian Blocks. There's very little living history to choose from here, but what there is I list below.
JOE'S DAIRY: For whatever reason, the greatest density of old (mostly Italian) SoHo institutions lies on Sullivan Street, beginning with Joe's Dairy, an ancient cheese shop near Houston Street. They make sandwiches, too. The Catholic church ST. ANTHONY OF PADUA is across the street. It was built in 1888 and remains the center of Italian life in this neighborhood.
PINO'S PRIME MEAT: Just across the street and down the block is Pino's, a small butcher that does things the old way. There's been a butcher here for a century. Pino Cinquemani began his occupation of the address in 1990. He obviously didn't change much about the look of the place.
PORTO RICO IMPORTING COMPANY: Turn left at Prince Street and then right on Thompson for half a block. The 101-year-old, family-owned Porto Rico has four shops in Manhattan, but this odd, narrow, aging storefront is the charmer for me.
FAMOUS BEN'S PIZZA: Continue south. Ben's has been at the corner of Spring and Thompson for, well, not forever, but what seems like forever. It's a good source of an inexpensive snack in ritzy Soho, and there's something about the fresh tomato and onion Sicilian slice. Without it, SoHo doesn't really have a neighborhood pizzeria, which would be a crime. No neighborhood should suffer that.
MILADY'S: Head back north to Prince and cross Thompson. On the corner is a rare bar and restaurant in Soho that won't piss you off with its shallow trendiness. Cheap, too.
VESUVIO BAKERY: Next door to Milady's, painted as bright green as a spring leaf, is Vesuvio. Who knows what's going with this classic bakery, one of the ten best-preserved in the city (on the outside, anyway). It's been shuttered for months, after a brief life as a cafe. In its glory days, it was owned by community activist Tony Dapolito, the unofficial "Mayor of Greenwich Village," who died in July 2003. It had a spartan glory, bread in the windows, bread inside. No decor. The business was bread and Vesuvio was all business. Still nice to look at, though.
FANELLI'S CAFE: Walk west to the corner of Mercer. As far as I'm concerned, this 1847 tavern is the heart and soul of SoHo. It had a phase as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The Fanelli family owned it from 1922 to 1982, and the dark-wood bar, which serves food and is always crowded, retains the name. Everything about the place, from the neon sign, to the diagonally framed entrance, to the bathrooms, is special. A place to while the day away in.
DEAN & DELUCA: OK, you can hate me for it, but I'm going to include the ultimate Yuppie and tourist hangout on this list, only because, as far as culinary history in America is concerned, the shop truly is historic. Nobody was doing the fancy-schmancy-artisan-made-cheese-oil-and-everything jazz before Joel Dean, Giorgio DeLuca, and Jack Ceglic the idea hatched the back in 1977. And everyone thought they were crazy to hang out a shingle in nasty old SoHo. Sure, D&D was sort of like Patient Zero when it came to the malling of SoHo. They deserve the rap for that. But that doesn't discount what they accomplished. The building dates from 1883.
THE PUCK BUILDING: Continue on to Lafayette and turn right to Houston, crossing cool little JERSEY STREET. The Puck, to me, is one of the grand architectural paperweights that keeps the changing canvas of SoHo in place. A wonderfully beautiful Romanesque Revival landmark, it was built between 1885-1893. Puck magazine gave it its name. Spy magazine carried on Puck's tradition here in the late '80s. The gold statue of the mocking Puck is just the right antidote to the hoards of clueless consumers forever milling below.
THE BROADWAY AND BROOMS PANTHEON: Walk back to Broadway and head south to Broome. At the corner is a grand cast-iron building. This was built as the E.V. Haughwout Building. Many critics consider it the crown jewel of cast-iron architecture. But I mainly point it out because it was here that Elisha Otis—who gets my vote for one of the most human-life-changing individuals of all time— installed his first passenger safety elevator in New York City. Think of it.
THE PERFORMING GARAGE: Walk west on Broome to Wooster and jog left for a bit. The faceless, undistinguished brick structure at No. 33 is The Performing Garage, long home of American's greatest avant garde theatre company, The Wooster Group. Surely, Spalding Gray haunts it now.
KENN'S BROOME STREET BAR: Back to Broome and left to West Broadway. Kenn's was a pioneer in wild SoHo back in the 1970s, setting up shop in this 19th-century building, a former hotel when SoHo was the northern edge of the city. It remains what it was then: cozy, relaxed, a nice neighborhood bar. Next door is the CUPPING ROOM CAFE, which also dates from the 1970s, but is a little more upscale.
EAR INN: After passing all those twee boutiques and chain outlets and pricey restaurants, and fighting your way through the tourists, you'll want a drink. So get to Spring Street and head as far west as you can go (almost). The weirdly named Ear Inn is old, old, old. There's been a bar here forever. It's blue collar and they don't like cell phones. There's food, too, but mainly there's enough old-world atmosphere to choke a salty sea captain. Thank God.