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Bowery Neighborhood Primer

Over the past two weeks Gesso has provided neighborhood primers for New York City including Greenwich Village and Harlem. This week we're introducing you to the Bowery. More than just a neighborhood, the Bowery is also a street that has constantly changed throughout history.

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How much do you know about New York City’s Bowery? Part of Gesso’s city guides, the Bowery Neighborhood Primer is one of many neighborhood primers (see Harlem and Greenwich Village) that we plan to unveil. Our goal is to provide you with city guides that enable more meaningful explorations of the world and enhance our experiences, not detract from them. Whether you’re a local resident or someone living across the globe with a bit of wanderlust, we’ve put together this neighborhood primer to help you see this part of Manhattan in a whole new light.

 

 

The Bowery is both a neighborhood and a street that has constantly changed throughout each century. Its earliest form can be traced back to the 16th century, when the Lenape tribe used the Bowery as a footpath, an environment very different from what it is today. It’s not hard to imagine groups of people today walking along the Bowery grabbing a cup of coffee, but it is hard to imagine being surrounded by birds chirping as you walk through a forest. It doesn’t sound like Manhattan but it is. The tranquility that the Lenape experienced here changed in 1624 when the Dutch arrived. Taking control over the land now known as New Amsterdam, the Dutch assigned a name to this path: Bouwerij Road, “bouwerij” meaning farm. An appropriate name considering the Dutch used this path to connect this area to numerous farms and estates in the north.  

 

Years into their new lives in New Amsterdam, the Dutch introduced new ways of hunting and trading, making the Lenape way of life merely a memory. With this new style of Dutch living came the introduction of enslaved individuals from Africa… some of the first traces of slavery in North America. By 1644, these enslaved groups were given freedom, to an extent. Dutch settlers allowed slaves to live on small plots of land along the footpath turned street known today as the Bowery. While this was one of the first free Black settlements in the United States, the motives of the Dutch weren’t quite admirable. The Bowery acted as a buffer between the New Amsterdam settlement and the rest of the surrounding territory. If the Dutch faced any type of attack, whether from Native Americans or the British, the Black settlements would be the first to be attacked. 

 

Despite Dutch efforts to hold onto the land, the English eventually took control of the Bowery just forty years after the Dutch originally settled there. The English occupied the land with relative stability for over one hundred years until the Revolutionary War. Suddenly, the Bowery became part of an independent United States of America. New York’s population was booming, and the Bowery street became the main road in and out of New York City. The Bowery neighborhood gained the reputation as a bustling meatpacking district.  

 

The Bowery as a whole started to gain a different reputation around the 1820s. The Bowery became a place for sailors to give into their vices, drinking and prostitution were common, and those who stayed in the area took advantage of cheap flophouses. Simultaneously, the Bowery became a hub for creativity and the arts. The Bowery Theatre flourished throughout the 1830s, introducing opera, theatre and dance to the entertainment scene. However, not all forms of entertainment that were being introduced were proud moments in Bowery’s history. Minstrel shows rose in popularity, encouraging performers to act on stage with blackface while mocking Black culture.        

 

The neighborhood also became home to new gangs, like the Irish American gang called The Dead Rabbits. Immigrant groups evidently began clashing with local gangs such as The Bowery Boys. These clashes can be seen in movies like Martin Scorcese’s film, Gangs of New York, that reflect these tensions taking place in the 1850s. Drafts during the Civil War fuel the fire. White working-class mobs, fearing that free Black men would take over their jobs, began violently attacking the Black community. Members of the Black community were lynched, murdered, and mutilated. As a result, many members of the Black community left the Bowery for Brooklyn, hoping to escape the violence.   

 

Years after the violence that ensued from the draft riots, the construction of the El trains began. This elevated public railway would occupy the Bowery starting in 1868 but faced much criticism for being an obstruction that led to air and noise pollution. The El trains would go on to transform New York, encouraging rapid transit development and allowing New Yorkers to explore outside the city’s confines.  

 

During the next fifty years, the Bowery went on to be known as New York’s skid row, a home for 14,000 homeless members of the community after the events of the Great Depression. Opened in the 1870s, The Bowery Mission was established to care for the New York metro area’s homeless population, and the organization can still be found operating on the Bowery today.      

 

By the 1960s and 1970s, after World War I and World War II, the hippies, beatniks, and artistic outsiders arrived. With these artists came the birth of punk music in the Bowery. The area became the home of legendary bar, CBGB (Country, Bluegrass, and Blues), where performers like Joan Jett, Blondie, and AC/DC would take the stage. By the time CBGB shut down in 2010, the Bowery had transformed yet again. As you walk down the street today, you’ll find trendy restaurants, contemporary art museums, luxury hotels, and organic supermarkets. 

 

The Bowery is evidently one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in New York City, constantly reinventing itself to fit the demands of those with power and influence. But at its core, the Bowery and everything that it represents will always be a home for the outsiders, the creatives, the misunderstood, and the misfits.    

 

Listen to Gesso’s Bowery Neighborhood Primer for more insights on this Manhattan neighborhood and be sure to subscribe to Gesso Media podcasts for future releases. If you enjoyed this neighborhood primer about the Bowery, download the Gesso Experiences app for more stories and snippets about interesting spots in the area such as Mark Rothko’s Place, the Bowery Theatre, and CBGB.

TRANSCRIPT

The Bowery is a neighborhood with a really long and interesting history. Cutting right through the middle of that neighborhood is a street, also called the Bowery. It’s difficult to imagine the neighborhood without all the chaos, but try to imagine standing on the Bowery in the 16th century, back when it was just a footpath.

 

<SFX: time travel noise> 

 

<SFX: honking and city chaos fades to birds chirping, feet padding, etc.> 

 

This footpath is modest, and rugged. It winds through a tranquil forest, with birds fluttering overhead. The Lenape, a Native American people, peacefully tread this path for centuries. They use it to navigate through the forests of the island they call Manahatta, part of the land known as Lenapehoking. It allows them to hunt, trade and live off the earth peacefully. 

 

But their way of life is disrupted in 1624 by the arrival of Dutch colonizers.

 

Through a shady land deal, the Dutch gradually oust the Lenape, claiming the Bowery and southern tip of Manhattan as their own. They label their settlement New Amsterdam.

 

<SFX: somber music> 

 

The settlers methodically overhaul the Lenape way of life, making way for their own styles of hunting, trapping, and trading. A couple years after their arrival, they import enslaved people from Africa, some of the first on the continent. The footpath becomes a boulevard for settler commerce, and a home to many settler [bEAU-were-eyyy], or the Dutch word for farm. Later, this will be Anglicized into the word “Bowery.” It’s not long before the Native American population in Manahatta declines dramatically. 

 

In 1644, the settlers grant a handful of enslaved people a sort of freedom, though their children remain enslaved. The freedmen are gifted small plots of land along the street now known as the Bowery. This is one of the first free Black settlements in the U.S. 

 

But the Dutch settlers have a hidden motive behind their so-called gift. The Bowery divides the New Amsterdam settlement from surrounding forests and sea. This means that if Native Americans or the British attack the settlement, the land along the Bowery will act as a buffer. The freed Black families are intentionally placed on this frontline, so they, and not the settlers, will be the first under attack should conflict come to call.  

 

<SFX: old timey cannons, etc.?> 

 

Fast forward just 40 years after the Dutch settled New Amsterdam. The English seize Manhattan. Many Dutch place names remain, but they become Anglicized into the names we know today: Bedford-Stuyvesant. Staten Island. Harlem are some examples. 

 

<SFX: Dutch pronunciations of these original place names?>

 

The English maintain their hold on Manhattan for the next 100 years, until settlers claim their independence by fighting the Revolutionary War. By the time the United States of America is born, New York's population has ballooned ninefold. The Bowery becomes the main road both in and out of the city, and its surrounding area, which has the same name, gives way to a lively meatpacking district. 

 

<SFX: men shouting, butcher’s shop noises.> 

 

It’s only later, in the pre-Civil War Era, that the Bowery starts to get a reputation. 

 

Starting in the 1820s, tattooed sailors come ashore to drink in seamy saloons and beer gardens, sleep in seedy lodging-houses and motels called flophouses, and take advantage of the growing network of brothels. Some residents intentionally stoke the Bowery’s unsavory reputation. Soon, it will become an infamous hub of prostitution. 

 

<SFX: historical music, sounds of a pub, perhaps?> 

 

1800s Bowery is a world full of vice -- seedy, titillating, and delightfully lowbrow on the surface. But underneath grows genuine creation. 

 

The entertainment scene is swelling, long before Broadway comes along. Venues such as the Bowery Theatre bring opera, play, and dance to their patrons in the 1830s, as well as vaudeville -- a sort of theatrical variety show. Performers embody Shakespeare, while musicians innovate across genres. Culture and leisure are at the fingertips of any visitor to the neighborhood. 

 

<SFX: Jazz music> 

 

But not all Bowery traditions stand the test of time. The Bowery also becomes known for its minstrel shows, where white performers in blackface caricature Black music and people. It’s a shameful, egregiously racist practice that persists for decades to come. 

 

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is devolving daily into more chaos and conflict. The Five Points, a dangerous area just east of the Bowery, becomes home to an Irish American gang called The Dead Rabbits -- or so some claim, though historical accounts are hazy. 

 

One thing’s for sure -- immigrant groups are clashing, sometimes violently, with outsider-hating nativists like the Bowery Boys. This conflict will later be memorialized in Martin Scorcese’s famous movie, Gangs of New York, which paints a sensational picture of the Five Points during the 1850’s.

 

When the Civil War breaks out in 1860, a draft spurs even more brutality in Lower Manhattan. Predominantly poor, Irish immigrants escalate this draft dispute with the government into a full on race riot in 1863. 

 

Fueled by a racist fear that recently freed Black men will take their jobs, these white working-class mobs viciously attack the Black community. They lynch Black men on lampposts and mutilate the bodies of the dead. Not even the anemic police and military forces sent to rein in the violence are spared -- they’re beat and murdered, too, their corpses desecrated. By the end, the death toll is well over 100. Black people start to flee the area in droves, fearing for their safety. Many relocate to Brooklyn. 

 

Five years after the draft riots, the construction of the El, E-L, starts -- so called because it’s an elevated public railway that slices along the Bowery. Though the city sorely needs public transit alternatives, the train is widely hated when it debuts in 1868. Residents loathe its air and noise pollution, loathe how it casts a literal shadow across the area. 

 

<SFX: The rumble of an above-ground train> 

 

The El’s construction turns a metaphorical barrier -- between the highbrow and the lowbrow, the cultured and the uncouth -- into a literal one. The Bowery becomes even more isolated from the rest of the developing city.

 

Over the next 50 years, the neighborhood’s unsavory reputation continues to evolve -- despite its arts scene. The intense conflicts of the past century have worn down the Bowery, and it shows. After the Great Depression in the early 1930s, the neighborhood becomes host to 14,000 homeless people.

 

It’s around this time that people began referring to the area as New York’s skid row, a nickname that will stick for another fifty years.

 

<SFX: Fast-forwarding sound> 

 

Fast forward through the first and second World Wars. Now, in the 1960s, it’s the hippies and the beatniks that arrive. Perhaps they’re attracted to the counterculture current that courses through the Bowery, a current that has been its greatest gift and its most shameful curse. For whatever it’s worth, society’s rebels flock there, fueled by the trendiness of subversion. 

 

Alan Ginsberg allegedly bases his most famous work, the poem Howl, off the Bowery. Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, and others secure studios there. And after the hippies, the influx of artistic outsiders really begins to waterfall.

 

In the seventies, punks flood into the Bowery, many drawn by the appeal of the now-famous (and sadly defunct) punk bar, CBGB. When CBGB opens, its strange acronym stands for Country, Blue Grass, and Blues -- but this genre is hardly given a moment to shine.

 

Instead, the owner of CBGB goes on to book groundbreaking punk rock performers. The Talking Heads, Sting, Joan Jett, Pearl Jam, and AC/DC are just a few of the many legends who grace the CBGBs stage. Vanguard singers like the Ramones, Blondie, and Patti Smith not only perform at CBGB, they live in the Bowery. The neighborhood has become a punk haven. 

 

In the 2010's, a decade after CBGB shuts down, a new group starts to populate the Bowery. This group self-identifies as hipster, bringing with it with it upper middle class wealth, college degrees and a seemingly insatiable appetite for shopping. On its heels are multimillion-dollar real estate developments and skyrocketing rents. The Bowery Mission, which has provided homeless services since the 1870s, now shares the block with a Whole Foods, a 7-story contemporary art museum, and luxury hotels. 

 

<SFX: Checkout machines> 

 

Few neighborhoods have truly gone through as many stages of development as the Bowery. Even today, as its vestigial history is cloaked by the trappings of hip clothing stores, it’s not that hard to peel back its strange exterior to look at the patchwork of history underneath.

 

The Bowery is a neighborhood seized and controlled by the powerful -- like the Dutch, the nativists, and today’s real estate developers. But if there’s one thing consistent about the Bowery, it’s how it has always been a home for the outsiders. The punks, the creatives, the homeless and the freedmen represent the Bowery’s true roots: brave and profoundly misunderstood groups who have suffered greatly to claim the Bowery as their home. Misfits.


So when you walk the streets of the Bowery, sort the insiders from the outsiders, and pay tribute to those who embody the spirit of the neighborhood -- subversive, gritty, and alive.

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Gesso | Primer

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