The Bowery (/ˈbaʊ.əri/ or New York English /ˈbaʊər.i/) is a street and neighborhood in the southern portion of the New York City borough ofManhattan. The street runs from Chatham Square at Park Row, Worth Street, and Mott Street in the south to Cooper Square at 4th Street in the north, while the neighborhood’s boundaries are roughly East 4th Street and the East Villageto the north; Canal Street and Chinatown to the south; Allen Street and the Lower East Side to the east; and Little Italy to the west.
In the 17th century, the road branched off Broadway north of Fort Amsterdam at the tip of Manhattan to the homestead ofPeter Stuyvesant, Director-General of New Netherland. The street was known as Bowery Lane prior to 1807. “Bowery” is an anglicization of the Dutch bouwerij, derived from an antiquated Dutch word for “farm”, as in the 17th century the area contained many large farms.
A New York City Subway station named Bowery, serving the BMT Nassau Street Line (J Z trains), is located close to the Bowery’s intersection with Delancey and Kenmare Streets. There is a tunnel under the Bowery once intended for use byproposed but never built New York City Subway services, including the Second Avenue Subway.
Colonial and Federal periods
The Bowery is the oldest thoroughfare on Manhattan Island, preceding European intervention as a Lenape footpath, which spanned roughly the entire length of the island, from north to south. When the Dutch settled Manhattan island, they named the path Bouwerij road—”bouwerij” being an old Dutch word for “farm”—because it connected farmlands and estates on the outskirts to the heart of the city in today’s Wall Street/Battery Park area.
In 1654, the Bowery’s first residents settled in the area of Chatham Square; ten freed slaves and their wives set up cabins and a cattle farm there.
Petrus Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam before the English took control, retired to his Bowery farm in 1667. After his death in 1672, he was buried in his private chapel. His mansion burned down in 1778 and his great-grandson sold the remaining chapel and graveyard, now the site of the Episcopal church of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery.
In her Journal of 1704–05, Sarah Kemble Knight describes the Bowery as a leisure destination for residents of New York City in December:
Their Diversions in the Winter is Riding Sleys about three or four Miles out of Town, where they have Houses of entertainment at a place called Bowery, and some go to friends Houses who handsomely treat them. […] I believe we mett 50 or 60 slays that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’le turn out of the path for none except a Loaden Cart. Nor do they spare for any diversion the place affords, and sociable to a degree, they’r Tables being as free to their Naybours as to themselves.
The Bull’s Head Tavern was noted for George Washington’s having stopped there for refreshment before riding down to the waterfront to witness the departure of British troops in 1783. Leading to the Post Road, the main route toBoston, the Bowery rivaled Broadway as a thoroughfare; as late as 1869, when it had gained the “reputation of cheap trade, without being disreputable” it was still “the second principal street of the city”.
Rise of the area
As the population of New York City continued to grow, its northern boundary continue to move, and by the early 1800s the Bowery was no longer a farming area outside the city. The street gained in respectability and elegance, becoming a broad boulevard, as well-heeled and famous people moved their residences there, including Peter Cooper, the industrialist and philanthropist. The Bowery began to rival Fifth Avenue as an address.
When Lafayette Street was opened parallel to the Bowery in the 1820s, the Bowery Theatre was founded by rich families on the site of the Red Bull Tavern, which had been purchased by John Jacob Astor; it opened in 1826 and was the largest auditorium in North America at the time. Across the way the Bowery Amphitheatre was erected in 1833, specializing in the more populist entertainments of equestrian shows and circuses. From stylish beginnings, the tone of Bowery Theatre’s offerings matched the slide in the social scale of the Bowery itself.
Slide from respectability
By the time of the Civil War, the mansions and shops had given way to low-brow concert halls, brothels, German beer gardens, pawn shops, and flophouses, like the one at No.15 where the composer Stephen Foster lived in 1864. Theodore Dreiser closed his tragedy Sister Carrie, set in the 1890s, with the suicide of one of the main characters in a Bowery flophouse. The Bowery, which marked the eastern border of the slum of “Five Points”, had also become the turf of one of America’s earliest street gangs, the nativistBowery Boys. In the spirit of social reform, the first YMCA opened on the Bowery in 1873; another notable religious and social welfare institution established during this period was the Bowery Mission, which was founded in 1880 at 36 Bowery by Reverend Albert Gleason Ruliffson. The mission has relocated along the Bowery throughout its lifetime. From 1909 to the present, the mission has remained at 227–229 Bowery.
By the 1890s, the Bowery was a center for prostitution that rivaled the Tenderloin, and for bars catering to gay men and some lesbians at various social levels, from The Slide at 157 Bleecker Street, New York’s “worst dive”, to Columbia Hall at 5th Street, called Paresis Hall. One investigator in 1899 found six saloons and dance halls, the resorts of “degenerates” and “fairies”, on the Bowery alone. Gay subculture was more highly visible there and more integrated into working-class male culture than it was to become in the following generations, according to the historian of gay New York, George Chauncey.
From 1878 to 1955 the Third Avenue El ran above the Bowery, further darkening its streets, populated largely by men. “It is filled with employment agencies, cheap clothing and knickknack stores, cheap moving-picture shows, cheap lodging-houses, cheap eating-houses, cheap saloons”, writers in The Century Magazine found it in 1919. “Here, too, by the thousands come sailors on shore leave,—notice the ‘studios’ of the tattoo artists,—and here most in evidence are the ‘down and outs'”.Prohibition eliminated the Bowery’s numerous saloons: One Mile House, the “stately old tavern… replaced by a cheap saloon” at the southeast corner of Rivington Street, named for the battered milestone across the way, where the politicians of the East Side had made informal arrangements for the city’s governance, was renovated for retail space in 1921, “obliterating all vestiges of its former appearance”, The New York Times reported. Restaurant supply stores were among the businesses that had come to the Bowery, and many remain to this day.
Pressure for a new name after World War I came to naught and in the 1920s and 1930s, it was an impoverished area. From the 1940s through the 1970s, the Bowery was New York City’s “Skid Row,” notable for “Bowery Bums” (disaffiliated alcoholics and homeless persons). Among those who wrote about Bowery personalities was New Yorker staff member Joseph Mitchell (1908–1996). Aside from cheap clothing stores that catered to the derelict and down-and-out population of men, commercial activity along the Bowery became specialized in used restaurant supplies and lighting fixtures.
The vagrant population of the Bowery declined after the 1970s, in part because of the city’s effort to disperse it.Since the 1990s the entire Lower East Side has been reviving. As of July 2005, gentrification is contributing to ongoing change along the Bowery. In particular, the number of high-rise condominiums is growing. In 2006, AvalonBay Communitiesopened its first luxury apartment complex on the Bowery, which included an upscale Whole Foods Market. Avalon Bowery Place was quickly followed with the development of Avalon Bowery Place II in 2007. That same year, the SANAA-designed facility for the New Museum of Contemporary Art opened between Stanton and Prince Street.
The new development has not come without a social cost. Michael Dominic’s documentary Sunshine Hotel followed the lives of residents of one of the few remaining flophouses.
The Bowery from Houston to Delancey Street serves as New York’s principal market for restaurant equipment, and from Delancey to Grand for lamps.