Between NoHo and East Village is New York’s oldest street. The Bowery is not just a street. It is also a small neighborhood that has carved out an identity for itself in the city since it was first used before colonization. This old street has a story to tell. Sometimes it’s sordid, other times it’s artistic, but no matter what, it’s always unique. The history of this street is also the history of NYC. They are forever bound together and will continue to be for the rest of this city’s great history. So let’s take a look at The Bowery and its impact on NYC.
What is the Bowery
Even before Europeans thought of setting foot on this land, The Bowery was already an important part of the civilizations that existed here. The Lenape Nation used The Bowery as a trail which covered the whole island. This path ran from north to south and served as the main nerve of the island when trading with other nations. It also served as a cultural marker for the Lenape, which led to meeting and storytelling places in the south, and ideal places for agriculture in the north. The path was so widespread that when the Dutch arrived on the island in the late 1600s, they saw the path as an opportunity to establish a settlement.
After the Dutch forced the Lenape out of lower Manhattan, they established a military fort as well as some farms or “bouwerie”, hence the name of the street. Many people seized land around the Bowery including the first freed slaves in the New World. The street was so popular with farmers and the growing community that the last governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, retired there after transferring the island to the British in 1664. The British saw the potential of the road and renamed it “Bowery”. a more Anglican spelling of the Dutch word.
Once the British turned “The Bouwerie” into “The Bowery” and “New Amsterdam” into “New York”, the Bowery became a popular destination for New Yorkers, even if they were just visiting. The road would remain mostly peaceful farmland until 1766, when plans for city expansion were drawn up. The Bowery was chosen to become a small shopping center, primarily for food grown on farms. Several taverns were also built near the street. However, things got a bit hectic when the Revolutionary War began.
A tavern on Bowery, The bull’s head, was a popular place for farmers and merchants, but became a recruiting center for British loyalists after George Washington was forced to withdraw from the town. However, when Washington returned to drive the British out, he used The Bulls Head to watch their retreat and made it his temporary headquarters for a brief period. After the war, the street and its taverns became very popular with senior government officials, who often went there to meet and have a drink.
By the 1800s, New York City had expanded quite far north, and nearly all farmland had become shops, taverns and theaters. In fact, The Bowery was the original home of New York’s theater district, housing grand auditoriums like the Bowery Theatre, which was the largest theater in North America when it was built in 1826, even though it probably didn’t have much competition. The Bowery Amphitheater was opened in 1833 and held horse shows and circuses.
The Bowery was the place to go if you were a wealthy New Yorker looking for entertainment. However, other streets, such as Broadway and Fifth Avenue, began to rival the Bowery in entertainment prowess. As the city expanded north, these main streets and entertainment options also increased. Soon, shops, homes and theaters were soldand were replaced by cheap brothels, flophouses, pawnshops and concert halls.
By the Civil War, the Bowery had lost most of its glamorous reputation, while simultaneously gaining a more dangerous one. The Bowery was the eastern border of five pointsa slum that saw fierce gang fighting in the 1800s, including The Bowery Boys, a gang named after the street they operated on. It remained that way during the Civil War and the Reform era despite attempts to reform and revitalize the area. The very first YMCA was built in the Bowery in 1873, but even they couldn’t bolster the area’s reputation as a haunt of criminals.
To be fair, it wasn’t all bad. The Bowery had some of the first bars for the LGBTQ+ community At New York. The neighborhood’s harsh reputation in the late 1800s largely ensured that these bars would be left alone. These places allowed the community to come together safely and be themselves. Tourists even frequented these establishments to see how the other side lived. And they saw that the other side was having a pretty good time!
Even with this progressive mindset, the Bowery was still not a place one wanted to get lost. It was dark and dreary, thanks in large part to Third Avenue El, the elevated railroad tracks that ran above the street. This reputation would continue to haunt the neighborhood well into the 1900s. The area only became impoverished during Prohibition, which closed many area taverns, and the Great Depression, which placed a financial burden on New York City in its together. Minor changes were presented as revitalization efforts. For example, city officials tried to change the name of the street three times. However, what the street really needed was a massive overhaul.
For those who live in the city and don’t see the Bowery as a seedy crime hotspot, they might be wondering how it got from “NYC Skid Rowto a place that’s actually pretty cool. The first big step forward was getting rid of Third Avenue El in 1955. This allowed the sun to shine on the streets and actually made people want to frequent the area more. The rest of the work started in the 1970s, when the city has begun revitalization efforts, seriously, for the entire lower east side of Manhattan. However, these efforts were not always seen as popular or good.
In the 1970s, the city fought back hard on crime, dismantling most of the illegal activity the street became known for in the 1990s. Once the crime element disappeared, a massive wave of gentrification swept through the area. People started flocking to The Bowery in droves and the luxury buildings started construction in the early 2000s. These new buildings destabilized the area, displacing dozens of people and closing one of the last flop houses in the country, a story that was detailed in the 2001 documentary. hotel of the sun.
Bowery in New York today
Today, The Bowery has once again become a great venue for New York’s wealthy. It’s not currently a booming entertainment district, but there are a few options for those seeking excitement. The Sperone Westwater Art Gallery, for example, is a major attraction that was built in 1975 and helped bring the street back to life. Other places also attract crowds like The new museum and The Bowery Ballroom.
A number of restaurants and bars have also opened in the area, making it a very popular dining and nightlife destination. Particularly popular locations include baar baarwhich is possibly the best Indian restaurant in town, and attaboy, a cocktail bar with a great vibe and aesthetic. While these places are great, they are still a bit scattered. The largest industry to survive Bowery’s time as a slum is that of kitchen and catering supply stores. However, over time, it seems that this area tends more towards a NoHo aesthetic rather than an industrial one.
When we think back to the history of The Bowery, many people call it a slum, a row of skids, or a place where degenerates congregate. However, I don’t think that’s fair. As the city transformed and the wealthy moved north from the Bowery, New York’s poor needed to go somewhere. With less than fair treatment from the city, it’s no wonder many of these people had to turn to crime. They felt abandoned by their city, and had to create a place that accepted them, for better or for worse. The Bowery wasn’t a bad place because the wrong people flocked there. It was a bad place because it was abandoned by the city.
The Bowery can teach us many important lessons about New York’s past, present, and future. From thriving theaters to seedy slums to today’s gentrifying generation, the Bowery is perhaps the best example of how every decision the city makes, big or small, has a massive impact on the people of the city. ‘here. The history of the Bowery is the history of NYC because the street has literally seen it all. It’s easily one of the city’s most important nerves, and will likely remain so for the rest of its existence.