Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Walk the Bowery under the El at night and all you feel is a sort of cold guilt. Touched for a dime, you try to drop the coin and not touch the hand, because the hand is dirty; you try to avoid the glance, because the glance accuses. This is not so much personal menace as universal — the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and poverty and the advanced stages of the disease alcoholism. On a summer night the drunks sleep in the open. The sidewalk is a free bed, and there are no lice. Pedestrians step along and over and around the still forms as though walking on a battlefield among the dead. Standing sentinel at each sleeper’s head is the empty bottle from which he drained his release . . . The glib barker on the sightseeing bus tells his passengers that this is the ‘street of lost souls,’ but the Bowery does not think of itself as lost; it meets its peculiar problem in its own way — plenty of gin mills, plenty of flophouses, plenty of indifference and always, at the end of the line, Bellevue.
E. B. White “Here is New York” 1948
From the early days of Manhattan, a path used by the Lenape tribe meandered the length of the island. When the Dutch settled here, the path, called Bowerij Road, became the main access point to the wilds beyond a small collection of farms. (The word bowery is an anglicized form of the Dutch word bowerij meaning farm.) For the next hundred years or so famous families like the Stuyvesants, DeLanceys, and Beekmans were connected by the road. As the print below shows the area was remembered as an idyllic countryside.
Yet by the 1880’s the upper class had migrated further uptown to the more fashionable districts. Instead of bucolic farmlands the area was now full of tenements, vaudeville theaters, and brothels. The Bowery’s reputation as the center of sin and vice in New York City had been cemented. Bars like The Slide, McGurk’s Suicide Hall, and Columbia Hall (more commonly referred to as Paresis Hall after the mental illness that comes during the late stages of syphilis) plied customers with cheap booze and a wide selection of willing participants for every kind of debauchery imaginable. For three cents you could get whiskey, for seven cents a bed in a cramped flophouse of questionable sanitation and for as little as 50 cents you could buy some time with a prostitute a few blocks over on Eldridge Street. As early as the 1890’s tourists and wealthy adventurers from uptown would go slumming to see how the other half lived.
By the 1930’s and 1940’s the Bowery had faded into missions to help the overwhelming homeless population which swelled due to the Depression. A New York Times article from 1935 claimed there were “…10,000 of them (bums), one estimate has it, and 90 percent of them from out of town. The bums are the chief sight of the Bowery now.” More than ever, the Bowery was seen as the Skid Row of New York City.
Yet some things did not change, such as bars offering copious amounts of alcohol to both the “bums” that lived in the area and wealthy patrons from uptown. When Sammy’s Bowery Follies opened in 1934, photographer Erika Stone captured a series of images now immortalized in public memory as the Bowery. For a really good article about why Sammy’s Bowery Follies matters historically read this tribute written on its closing in 1970.
By the 1970’s the Bowery was full of decaying buildings and had become a mecca for artists and musicians drawn by cheap rent. The punk scene thrived with bands like the Ramones and Bad Brains playing CBGB’s.
Walking along the Bowery now, there is little to suggest its history. The streets are full of high-end fashion boutiques, luxury apartments, and perhaps most incongruously a 7-11. These changes are the latest in the cycle of gentrification of the Bowery. Even as early as 1905, the New York Times was lamenting the death of the Bowery, it’s intriguing to think of what will be the next step of the cycle.