14 June 2007

The History of a Slum

Oh! the night that I struck New York,
I went out for a quiet walk;
Folks who are "on to" the city say,
Better by far that I took Broadway;
But I was out to enjoy the sights,
There was the Bow'ry ablaze with lights;
I had one of the devil's own nights!
I'll never go there anymore.
- Charles H. Hoyt, 1892, from the musical "A Trip to Chinatown"

Before the Dutch West India Company settled the island called Mannahatta, the native Lenni Lenape walked a path from water to forest to hills and then to bogs. Colonists came and Mannahatta became New Amsterdam. By 1645 it had become a residential area: ten families of freed slaves were the first to bring the Bowery toward civilization. At the top of the road was the great farm belonging to Peter Stuyvesant, one of the last Director-Generals of the Colony of New Netherland. One of the first things you'll learn on a tour of the Bowery is that the name has nothing to do with the shape of the avenue (which is rather like a hunting bow), but a corruption of the Dutch word bouwerij, which means "farm." One of the other things you'll learn straightaway is how to pronounce it: "take a bow" rather than "tie a bow."

By the late 1700s, the Bowery was New York City's major uptown thoroughfare (back when Hester Street was considered uptown) and lined with mansions and trendy shops. Because this section of town was the new "it" area, the Manhattan Company, under the direction of Aaron Burr, began to develop it further. And to develop it they'd need to dry up the bogs and fill in the neighboring freshwater pond, The Collect, which had become polluted.

Soon after The Collect was filled in, people started building on the landfill. Within a decade, water began to rise under the new shops and homes and factories, and the buildings began to sink. Cholera and other diseases spread, and the denizens who could afford to move from the area, did. Slumlords bought up chucks of the Five Points and the nearby Bowery.

Historians call New York City's Bowery America's first slum. Since the 19th century, the street has boasted more than its share of saloons, flophouses, bawdy houses, and dance halls. Places like McGurk's Suicide Hall, where its backroom girls (most of whom were between the ages of 16 and 18) killed themselves by drinking carbolic acid, and brothels that catered to specific preferences helped herald the Bowery as the Devil's Own Street.

Less-sinister establishments like Steve Brodie's saloon (Brodie claimed to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge), McKeon's and Morgue were more abundant, and it was in places like these that a teenager named Irving Berlin started his career by singing and dancing. Vaudeville got its start here, at Tony Pastor's Opera House, and America's first permanent zoo, the Zoological Institute, was opened in 1821.

In 1826, the Bowery Theater opened at No. 46-48, and is considered the first gas-lit theater. On that very site was the Bull's Head Tavern, where George Washington and General George Clinton celebrated after freeing New York from British rule in 1783. The theater was burned down in an 1834 riot when one of its actors was rumored to have made anti-American remarks. The theater was rebuilt, and in 1879 the theater hosted the US debut of the H.M.S. Pinafore.

A century later, the Bowery was still fighting reformers, and kept adding to the rep it had begun building so long ago. It's no surprise that punk music found its home at CBGBs, and in the past decade, the city officially designated a stretch of East Second Street, along the Bowery, "Joey Ramone Place," and a bloke could get a room at the Andrews for $9 a night. The infamous road has attracted many a history-savvy celeb, too, with models trafficking the former Bowery Bar (now the B Bar and Grill) and Denzel Washington and Lenny Kravitz's exclusive club, Kos.

There are a hundred more stories and legends about the Bowery, and so many ghosts of ne'er-do-wells just begging to have their stories embellished that I will never, ever run out of something big, brash and brilliant to write about. While the Bowery’s past is as grievous as it is colorful, I am drawn to the street every time I visit New York. Here's hoping the recent gentrification doesn't stick, and thanks for taking a quick tour with me.