I wrote a while back about attempts in the 1820s to gentrify the Bowery. More recently, a couple blogs I follow have charted current efforts to remake the street’s image as a luxury shopping district with a little bit of urban edge. (That shitty Hamptons store “Blue & Cream” in the shitty Avalon building even went as far as tagging their own store with “graffiti” directing passers-by to their recession sales inside.) Most recently we’ve seen attempts to move away from the idea of “the” Bowery toward a “Bowery district” (spreading the faux-seedy influence and reputation?) or slips from newcomers calling it “Bowery Street” (as if to contain its once-unruly energy and long reputation as the dark twin to Broadway?).
The most famous Dutch bouwerij
was owned by Peter Stuyvesant, who lies buried in the churchyard of St. Mark’s in the Bowery on 10th Street and Second Avenue. For years, this church was known as St. Mark’s in the Bouwerie, its archaic spelling not only hearkened back to the days of the Dutch, but also helped distinguished it from the nearby thoroughfare. By the
late 19th century, the Bowery had become synonymous with skid row.
A lot of the Bowery’s reputation was deserved, but at least part of the blame for its near-universal name recognition was the musical A Trip to Chinatown, which featured the song “The Bowery.” Its chorus boasts:
The Bow’ry, the Bow’ry
They say such things and they do strange things,
On the Bow’ry! The Bow’ry!
I’ll never go there any more.
By 1916, the street’s reputation had gotten so bad that civic groups
battled to come up with a new name for the thoroughfare. One suggestion
was “Cooper Avenue” in honor of Cooper Union founder (and Jell-O
pioneer) Peter Cooper. A rival proposition recommended “Central Broadway.” It’s hard to imagine the chaos this name change might have brought about in a city that
already featured Broadway, West Broadway, and East Broadway.
Neither of these suggestions had any real traction, perhaps because there was still nostalgia for the old Bouwerie of Peter Stuyvesant. Indeed, that nostalgia was so strong that in 1956 a group of merchants suggested that Third Avenue be renamed “The Bouwerie,” to invoke the charm and refinement of a bygone age. (That this would have given the city a Bowery and a Bouwerie a block apart seems not to have figured into their calculations.) Plans were underway at the time to remove the last vestiges of the Third Avenue “El,” and it seemed logical to local boosters to get rid of the name Third Avenue–which they saw as intimately connected to the failure of the “El”–and replace it with Bouwerie, which would increase the street’s cachet and, presumably, retail rents.
While preparing for this morning’s lecture on Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (1868), I noticed for the first time just how much the novel hates on the Bowery. In its opening sequence the otherwise industrious street urchin Dick realizes he’s overslept and probably missed a few shines because he’d spent the prior evening at the Old Bowery theater. Even though the theater is one of the spots that keeps Dick in town, the novel remains pretty equivocal about the entertainment provided there: clearly Dick enjoys it, but later in the novel he reforms and promises not to waste his money there in the future. The book’s less equivocal about Bowery fashions: one pair of pants is frowned on by the narrator as “very loose in the legs, and presenting a cheap Bowery look.”
And Dick is fine with this dis. He’s more than happy to scrub up for an imagined life as a clerk (no Bartleby is Dick!) and he continually fantasizes about having a “manshun” on the “Avenoo.” At the novel’s close, he and his pal Fosdick resolve to leave their little pad on Mott Street and move to “a nicer quarter of the city.”
If Alger were still writing today (or if some team of underpaid ghost writers continued to churn out sequels the way someone keeps turning out new titles in the Boxcar Children series) I’m sure we’d see Ragged Dick — ragged no longer — ready to move back down to the Bowery now that the Whole Foods had arrived. Slumming’s the new Old New York luxury craze, after all!
(h/t to Grieve for the last illustration, as well as a bunch of the links above; topmost image: Reginald Marsh, “The Bowery,” 1928)