Apropos of yesterday’s post: I was reading in Wallace and Burrows’s
Gotham this morning while doing a little work and came across this
passage on a bunch of gentrifiers buying out a dive bar and trying to
scrub up the neighborhood:
Bowery Village remained
notorious for some of the stomach-turning stench of its slaughterhouses
and tanyards. As late as 1825, upstate drovers … were herding an
estimated two hundred thousand head of cattle across King’s Bridge each
year and making their way, accompanied by hordes of pigs, horses, and
bleating spring lambs, down Manhattan to Henry Astor’s Bull’s Head
Tavern and adjacent abattoirs. A butcher who acquired an exceptionally
fine cow would then parade it through the streets, preceded by a band
and followed by fellow butchers in aprons and shirtsleeves, stopping
before homes of wealthy customers, who were expected to step out and
order part of the animal.
Some of those customers, bolstered by gentry families filtering in from the lower wards, wanted to transform the Bowery into a more genteel neighborhood. Taking aim at the stink, the endless whinnying, lowing, and grunting, and the occasional steer running amok and goring passers-by, they set about driving the Bull’s Head from the area. In the mid-1820s, an association of socially prominent businessmen bought out Henry Astor and dismantled his enterprise. (A new Bull’s Head opened in semirural surroundings at Thirds Avenue and 24th Street and soon attracted cattle yards, slaughterhouses, pig and sheep pens, and a weekly market; the area became known as Bull’s Head Village, the city’s northern frontier.) Meanwhile, in place of the old tavern, the consortium set about erecting Ithiel Town’s splendid Greek Revival playhouse–the New York (soon to be Bowery) Theater. Mayor Philip Hone hailed the transformation as marking the “rapid progress of improvement in our city.” But neither theater nor street was destined for gentility, and the Bowery would soon evolve into an entertainment strip for surrounding communities. (475-76)
Wallace and Burrows don’t cite this (I found it instead in Robert Allen’s Horrible Prettiness, a history of burlesque), but when Mayor Hone laid the cornerstone for the Bowery Theater in 1826 he said he hoped the institution would “improve the taste, correct the morals, and soften the manners of the people.” By this he meant he wanted to use the theater (which would conveniently siphon off rowdy audiences from the more genteel Park Theater farther downtown) as a means of social uplift and social control. I doubt the hotel and condo developers have a similar benevolent — if condescending — agenda for folks living around the rapidly gentrifying Bowery today.
Hone misjudged the neighborhood. Let’s hope Bloomberg has too.