Great Big City, Tiny Little Districts
Mapping the Microdistricts of New York City
Upper West Side. Meatpacking. Washington Heights. Little Italy. TriBeCa. This isn’t a story about Manhattan’s well-known neighborhoods. This is a story about the microdistricts within those neighborhoods — small commercial zones with an overabundance of similar businesses that only New York’s density could create.
A few weeks ago, as I walked to work in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, I noticed something unusual — not one, not two, but four tile stores, side by side, on 21st Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. Strange. Then, I remembered rumors about a magical street in Chelsea populated by dozens of flower nurseries. I already knew of Manhattan’s legendary Garment District. I wondered — how many microdistricts could there be in the city?
Tiles to the Furniture District
I wasn’t imagining things — the Flatiron District, or more specifically, a stretch of 18th Street between Fifth and Eighth Avenue, is home to an unusually high concentration of furniture, kitchen, and bath stores. SoHo also has a high share of furniture stores, in spite of, or alongside, its famed shopping. Most surprising, however, is the concentration of furniture stores at 59th and Third Avenue, at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge. Does the cluster serve Queens residents as they leave Manhattan, or was this location best, decades ago, for Queens furniture makers to sell their work in the city?
The Flower District
The rumors of a Flower District proved true. Thirty-two florists and nurseries remain on 28th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue — half as many as called the neighborhood home in the 1960s.
In fact, some sources refer to a Fur and Flower District in the neighborhood. According to the New York Times, florists migrated to the neighborhood before the turn of the twentieth century. “They wanted to be closer to their customers, both the upscale department stores along Ladies’ Mile and the elegant residences on Fifth Avenue, but also the theaters, restaurants, and brothels in the nearby Tenderloin district.”
The Garment District
Perhaps it’s not surprising that New York’s famous Garment District is nearby — or that a concentration of bridal stores occupies the same space!
The garment industry once dominated New York’s economy. In 1910, 70% of all women’s clothing, and 40% of men’s clothing, was made in New York City, the result of a fortuitous mix of easy port access, new industrial machines, and cheap labor. The Garment District located itself close enough to the shops of Fifth Avenue for easy delivery yet maintained some distance to separate the consumption and production of luxury goods.
Chelsea Art Galleries
In the 1970s, cheap overseas labor undermined businesses in the Garment District just as New York lost some power as a port city. These conditions created an abandoned warehouse district on the western fringes of Chelsea with large spaces and cheap rent — ideal territory for art galleries that found SoHo rents too expensive. Over 350 art galleries now call this microdistrict, between 18th and 30th Streets, west of Tenth Avenue, home.
Also note the many art galleries on 57th Street, known as “Billionaire’s Row,” mixed with ultra-luxe shopping and impossibly expensive real estate.
The Diamond District(s)
The locations of New York’s jewelry shops also bear evidence of neighborhood migrations. Today’s Diamond District on 47th Street was first preceded in the 1800s by the storied Maiden Lane in the Financial District. According to a New York Times article from 1924, “the bride-to-be who could show a ring from Maiden Lane was thrice happy.” Time has all but erased any evidence of this once metonymic district.
As rents rose, diamond merchants moved en masse to a new district, at the intersection of Canal Street and the Bowery, which still appears on the above map. A massive influx of merchants after World War II encouraged another move for New York’s jewelry shops to today’s Diamond District in Midtown, where over 4,000 merchants produce over $24 billion in sales every year.
Finally, New York City’s famous shopping, revealed neighborhood by neighborhood. Sure, the usual suspects all appear, from SoHo to Fifth Avenue, but the details tell an interesting story. Notice the mix of department stores in each shopping microdistrict, from the mainstream businesses of 34th Street to the independent West Village. Other small pockets stand out, such as Orchard Street in the Lower East Side. Also remarkable: SoHo’s utter dominance of the shopping scene.
Truth be told, I was hoping to find even more magical little districts — perhaps a few tenacious farriers in the West Village, or something that could only be described as “The Teddy Roosevelt Memorabilia District.” Even without, Manhattan’s lesser-known microdistricts still present an incredible, indelible, and absolutely unique commercial and cultural tapestry.