The street originates from the intersection of Reade Street and Centre Street in Lower Manhattan; this intersection is one block north of City Hall. The one-way street then successively runs through Chinatown, SoHo, and the eastern fringe of Greenwich Village and finally, between East 9th Street and East 10th Street, joins with Fourth Avenue. A buffered bike lane runs along the left edge. In the 20th century the street became known, along with other notable local streets in the Lower East Side, for housing a poor, artistic population. Later, gentrification all but eliminated the poor from the street.
The street originated as a real estate speculation by John Jacob Astor, who had bought a large market garden in 1804, for $45,000, and leased part of the site to a Frenchman named Delacroix, who erected a popular resort and called it "Vauxhall Gardens" after the famous resort on the edge of London. When the lease expired in 1825, Astor cut a new street through it, wheich he named Lafayette Place, commemorating the Revolutionary war hero, who had returned to a rapturous reception in America the previous year. Lots along both sides of the new street sold briskly, earning Astor many times what he had paid for the land two decades before. The grandest was the terrace of matching marble-fronted Greek Revival houses on the west side of the street, called La Grange Terrace when it was built in 1833, but known to New Yorkers as "Colonnade Row" for the two-story order of Corinthian columns that unified its fronts; the nine residences each sold for as much as $30,000; four that remain are the only survivors of the first fashionable residential phase of Lafayette Street, which gained its new name when it was extended noerthwards to join Astor Place.
The change in Lafayette Street's history is epitomized by the construction of the Schermerhorn building in 1888 to replace the Schermerhorn mansion, where Mrs William Colford Schermerhorn redecorated the interior to resemble Louis XV's Versailles, it was thought, to give a French-themed costume ball in 1854 for six hundred New Yorkers, at which the German Cotillion had been introduced in America. A sign of changing times, in 1860 the W.C. Schermerhorns moved uptown to 49 West 23rd Street. Before long, half of Colonnade Row was demolished to make way for the warehouse, after A.T. Stewart had constructed a palatial retail premises (1862) that occupied the full block between Broadway and the upper reaches of Lafayette Street, between 8th and 9th Streets.
Distinct landmarks around Lafayette Street include:
For three Saturdays in August 2008 the New York City Department of Transportation closed Lafayette Street, Park Avenue, and part of East 72nd Street to motor traffic, as a "Summer Streets" program to encourage non-motor uses.