The Last Days of Loserville

Saying Goodbye to the old Bowery, street of lost and found souls, Village Voice cover

by Joy Press

It's just a construction site now, girders and planks strewn on the floor. Instead of giant picture windows and balconies, there are unfinished walls and a sheer drop. But use your imagination: In a few months, this will be a glorious 16th-floor penthouse, complete with panoramic views, Sub-Zero fridge, and Italian bathroom fixtures. For $4.4 million, you can hover over all of downtown Manhattan like some kind of god, absorbing the sunlight that once flowed west down Spring Street. 

You can gaze down upon the crumbling tenements far below you, the lamp stores, the scrawny men who shuffle in and out of the flophouse next door. Your address is 195 Bowery and you are part of the transformation of a street once synonymous with bleak failure into a new millionaire's row.

Up and down the northern end of the Bowery, luxury apartment buildings are shooting up over the low-rise thoroughfare like iron weeds, framed by two nearly completed 16-story megaliths: 195 Bowery and Gwathmey Siegel's "Sculpture for Living," a curvaceous glass tower rising above Astor Place, where the asking prices range from almost $3 million to over $12 million. In between is the controversial (and nearly completed) Avalon Chrystie Place at Houston Street, with its giant Whole Foods and YMCA. If you consider all the current and planned activity, there's likely to be at least 600 or 700 pricey new apartments on the street. To keep pace, developers may have to bus in the rich—just as long as they call the buses jitneys. Sure, this instant infusion of wealth sounds like a grotesquely accelerated version of what's happened elsewhere in the city. Except this isn't elsewhere: 

It's the Bowery, a legendary slum.

You might wonder why anyone would mourn the passing of such a hard-luck street. This isn't the loveliest place in New York, though it has a frayed grandeur, a corroded quality that's always attracted artists and writers like Mark Rothko, Nan Goldin, and William Burroughs. It has an assortment of characterful old buildings, but the Bowery is more than just a physical place. For centuries, it has also been an imaginary zone onto which the world projected its most lurid fantasies and anxieties. This was capitalism's wasteland, a refuge for failures and fuckups. And the Bowery bum was a living, breathing cautionary tale for the burgeoning American middle class: Look what happens when you stumble in the rat race.

Some urban preservationists are worried that all evidence of this street's remarkable history will be trampled, its oldest buildings demolished within a few years to make way for mini-skyscrapers. "If the scale and architecture remain, you can use your imagination to understand what was here before," says Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia. "But as it gets replaced so quickly, you're losing that feel that this was a place where history happened. You might as well change its name if it doesn't mean anything anymore." 

At the same time, it's hard to argue for preserving a place that has been the staging ground for so much misery, home to such an ever changing population. As Chinatown historian Peter Kwong says, "This is a city that's very pragmatic. A new group comes and wipes out the old. That's always been the case in New York—but of course it's not always a good thing."

Shamble down the street with eyes peeled and you can still find traces of the Bowery emblazoned on our national consciousness by a hundred novels, songs, and movies. Mottled old buildings huddle next to each other like a mouthful of rotten teeth that have somehow remained intact from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries; houses that survived all manner of despair and abuse stand here today, testament to a city's tender neglect and a thousand happy (or more likely, unhappy) accidents.

Farmland, theater district, battlefield for the gangs of New York, immigrant haven, viceland, street of lost and found souls, cradle of minstrelsy and punk: The Bowery has careened through at least nine lives. In the 1700s, it was just a lane on the outskirts of New Amsterdam used by cattle drovers; at the end of the Revolutionary War, the last of the redcoats marched down the street on their humiliating retreat back to Mother England. By the early 19th century, fashionable entertainment spots like the Bowery Theater had popped up, as well as "pleasure resorts" such as Vauxhall Gardens (located on the block the Voice now occupies on Cooper Square), where locals could eat, drink, and take in music and fireworks.

Even back then, there was a tug-of-war over territory: Wealthy New Yorkers bought into this up-and-coming neighborhood, pushing property prices way up. Jacob Astor actually chopped Vauxhall Gardens in half to create the exclusive enclave of Lafayette Place. And then the fickle rich deserted the area, leaving it to a growing immigrant population and the working poor, some of whom styled themselves as Bowery Boys and Gals.

"The Republic of the Bowery was a powder keg of pre-political class rage that required only a slim excuse to go off," Luc Sante writes in his cultural history, Low Life. Dressed like a dandy, the Bowery Boy (whose legend calcified over the ages into Hollywood's Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys movies) roamed the neighborhood with his gang, looking for pleasure and trouble, occasionally erupting in bloody riots and battles with rival gangs. The Bowery Boys and Gals introduced plenty of raw-knuckled slang into the American vocabulary (bender, blowout, chum, kick the bucket), and patronized emerging popular-entertainment forms like melodrama, vaudeville, and freak shows.

As a shady interzone, the Bowery allowed certain freedoms to flourish. "Fairy resorts" allowed men to cross-dress and use back rooms for sexual liaisons. Slumming parties of respectable uptown folk often trooped down to the street seeking cheap thrills, and locals quickly learned how to exploit the sleaze tourists. One rough bar near the corner of Houston and Bowery became so notorious for the regular suicides that took place there (prostitutes threw themselves out of an upper window, possibly to protest working conditions) that its owner rechristened the place McGurk's Suicide Hall. And a local entrepreneur named Chuck Connors led wide-eyed customers through Chinatown; he showed them ersatz opium dens and bordellos, reinforcing seedy clichés about the exotic new immigrants on the block.

Sensationalist books and magazine articles popularized the Bowery as a den of sin. It slid so far down-market that in 1845, residents between what is now Cooper Square and Union Square successfully petitioned to have the street's name changed from Bowery to Fourth Avenue to separate themselves from its shabby aura. Things only got worse when the city erected an elevated railway that shrouded the thoroughfare in shadows. At the turn of the 20th century, the street became a kind of underclass ecosystem in which, as Sante writes, men "rotated among the missions, the flophouses, the greasy spoons, the barber colleges." Living there meant that you had somehow fallen off the treadmill of the moneymaking world, beyond striving—you'd hit the literal embodiment of the phrase rock bottom. With the pressure of cultural expectations gone, men found a kind of relief in "reaching the finality," as Benedict Giamo wrote in the 1970s, "being there in that place you have feared all of your life."

The bustle of flophouses, nightclubs, and rummy bars had dwindled by the 1940s and the street settled into an industrial twilight. Chinatown businesses gradually started edging uptown. In the '60s and '70s, artists, writers, and musicians moved into ramshackle lofts—figures like Burroughs and Rothko, Kate Millet and Roy Lichtenstein, Nan Goldin and Debbie Harry—attracted by the street's abundant sunlight and dirt-cheap rent, but probably also by its aura of outsiderness and decay. It was no longer just the last resort for those ejected from society, but a refuge for those who rejected it.

CBGB founder Hilly Kristal saw an art colony taking shape in the neighborhood, and in 1969, he rented a dive bar underneath a flophouse called the Palace Hotel. While he was rebuilding the inside of the old bar that would five years later become ground zero for American punk rock, Kristal remembers how the guys from the hotel upstairs—remnants of another era—would line up outside his door "at eight in the morning for the first eye-opener of the day. If they could reach the bar and put down 35 cents, they got a little glass of wine to keep them going."

Now the residents of the Palace Hotel are all but forgotten, and CBGB's status as a cultural landmark has been cemented by the renaming of 2nd Street at Bowery as Joey Ramone Place. Yet Kristal says his landlord has threatened to double his rent, leaving the future of CBGB on the Bowery in question, along with all those joints selling cash registers and chandeliers.

Kristal sounds philosophical about the changes. "The whole Lower East Side is changing," he says. "That new building across the street from me—people say it's so ugly but I think it's a nice modern place. A lot of this neighborhood could be nicer and cleaner. So things are gone, places are gone. You want old stuff? Go to Europe. This is New York."

Maybe the new buildings going up will make us look at the place anew, lifting our eyes from the dingy storefronts. And maybe the juxtaposition between the dilapidated tenements and the angular, avant-garde building soon to be constructed for the New Museum can infuse the whole area with new resonance.

This long unraveled seam of a street marks the border for many neighborhoods but belongs to none—one reason that development has proceeded without serious planning or foresight. Several groups, including the Municipal Arts Society and Rebuild Chinatown, have initiated studies of the area, but no grand plan has been hatched, and historians worry that this current development frenzy will destroy not just the many important old buildings but the whole spirit of the place. "The Bowery isn't long for this world unless somebody pays attention to it," says Municipal Arts Society president Kent Barwick, who's lived around the corner from the Bowery for many years. He believes it's been largely ignored "because it's been a place of degradation and despair—you still see a body bag coming out of a Bowery hotel once in a while—and because it hasn't had a middle-class constituency looking out for it."

Urban landmarking usually focuses on quaintness or greatness. So how do you preserve lowlife? Art projects are one way to acknowledge the past, and in the last few years, the Bowery has been the subject of a few. The New Museum's "Counter Culture" show featured installations that involved local residents and businesses. Brooklyn artists Dave Mandl and Christina Ray (oneblockradius. org) are currently creating a psychogeographic portrait of a single Bowery block, while a group called Place Matters is working on an interactive map of the Bowery.

These art projects aren't really a solution, according to Place Matters director Marci Reaven, but a stopgap measure to instill a sense of what we're losing. "Preserving the memories and stories is important," she says, "but the actual physicality of buildings and streetscape is important too. People use buildings to place themselves in time." Reaven suggests landmarking key sites as well as preserving certain uses—for instance, revivifying the flophouse, a form of shelter that's vanishing despite the city's need for more low-income housing. Barwick of Municipal Arts Society hopes to maintain the hodgepodge of residents, which he insists is the essence of urban-ness: "Old Asian men, young people drinking in bars, businessmen coming to buy dented restaurant supplies—this mix is important. It's also very hard to prescribe." But what disturbs Barwick most is the sudden profusion of 12- and 16-story buildings. "If I were God," he says puckishly, "I wouldn't let them alter the scale of the buildings the way they are."

Not everyone agrees that preservation is the way to go. Kwong is rightly suspicious of this sepia-tinged, bourgeois nostalgia: "If you say you want to preserve culture, you have to ask, what culture, whose culture, and for what purpose? Working-class Chinese people still live here right now ; they have a living culture." And yet even Chinatown businesses and residents face being priced out of the area. "If you say you want to maintain culture when people can't afford to live here," Kwong argues, "then you're basically talking about this being a museum or a tourist shop."

New and old coexist elsewhere in New York, but the transformation taking place on the Bowery right now is truly extreme, from the pits to the penthouse. Experts say that it would take a huge, concerted effort to get the city to intervene. The best-case scenario would be the preservation of some old buildings as well as the construction of more low- and middle-income housing. But in today's market, the latter belongs in the realm of pure fantasy, considering that years of community negotiation on the Avalon Chrystie Place project resulted in just 25 percent low-income apartments and no middle-income allotment. Perhaps the least one can hope for is that the anti-paradise that was the Bowery not be paved over all at once—that some of the sore patches and disheveled dwellings be allowed to remain as monuments to the not-so-distant struggles and furies that once coalesced here.

Erase all traces of the old Bowery and you lose a crucial facet of Manhattan, which always found room for the poor and desolate, not to mention the eccentric and debauched. Once upon a time, this wasn't just a city of winners: The Bowery is proof that New York had a place for life's losers too. [Additional reporting by Halley Bondy]

--February 22, 2005

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