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Up and down the northern end of the Bowery, luxury apartment buildings are shooting up over the low-rise thoroughfare like iron weeds, framed by two nearly completed 16-story megaliths: 195 Bowery and Gwathmey Siegel's "Sculpture for Living," a curvaceous glass tower rising above Astor Place, where the asking prices range from almost $3 million to over $12 million. In between is the controversial (and nearly completed) Avalon Chrystie Place at Houston Street, with its giant Whole Foods and YMCA. If you consider all the current and planned activity, there's likely to be at least 600 or 700 pricey new apartments on the street. To keep pace, developers may have to bus in the richjust as long as they call the buses jitneys. Sure, this instant infusion of wealth sounds like a grotesquely accelerated version of what's happened elsewhere in the city. Except this isn't elsewhere: It's the Bowery, a legendary slum.
You might wonder why anyone would mourn the passing of such a hard-luck street. This isn't the loveliest place in New York, though it has a frayed grandeur, a corroded quality that's always attracted artists and writers like Mark Rothko, Nan Goldin, and William Burroughs. It has an assortment of characterful old buildings, but the Bowery is more than just a physical place. For centuries, it has also been an imaginary zone onto which the world projected its most lurid fantasies and anxieties. This was capitalism's wasteland, a refuge for failures and fuckups. And the Bowery bum was a living, breathing cautionary tale for the burgeoning American middle class: Look what happens when you stumble in the rat race.
Some urban preservationists are worried that all evidence of this street's remarkable history will be trampled, its oldest buildings demolished within a few years to make way for mini-skyscrapers. "If the scale and architecture remain, you can use your imagination to understand what was here before," says Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia. "But as it gets replaced so quickly, you're losing that feel that this was a place where history happened. You might as well change its name if it doesn't mean anything anymore." At the same time, it's hard to argue for preserving a place that has been the staging ground for so much misery, home to such an ever changing population. As Chinatown historian Peter Kwong says, "This is a city that's very pragmatic. A new group comes and wipes out the old. That's always been the case in New Yorkbut of course it's not always a good thing."
A luxury boulevard in 2005
Farmland, theater district, battlefield for the gangs of New York, immigrant haven, viceland, street of lost and found souls, cradle of minstrelsy and punk: The Bowery has careened through at least nine lives. In the 1700s, it was just a lane on the outskirts of New Amsterdam used by cattle drovers; at the end of the Revolutionary War, the last of the redcoats marched down the street on their humiliating retreat back to Mother England. By the early 19th century, fashionable entertainment spots like the Bowery Theater had popped up, as well as "pleasure resorts" such as Vauxhall Gardens (located on the block the Voice now occupies on Cooper Square), where locals could eat, drink, and take in music and fireworks.
Even back then, there was a tug-of-war over territory: Wealthy New Yorkers bought into this up-and-coming neighborhood, pushing property prices way up. Jacob Astor actually chopped Vauxhall Gardens in half to create the exclusive enclave of Lafayette Place. And then the fickle rich deserted the area, leaving it to a growing immigrant population and the working poor, some of whom styled themselves as Bowery Boys and Gals.
"The Republic of the Bowery was a powder keg of pre-political class rage that required only a slim excuse to go off," Luc Sante writes in his cultural history, Low Life. Dressed like a dandy, the Bowery Boy (whose legend calcified over the ages into Hollywood's Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys movies) roamed the neighborhood with his gang, looking for pleasure and trouble, occasionally erupting in bloody riots and battles with rival gangs. The Bowery Boys and Gals introduced plenty of raw-knuckled slang into the American vocabulary (bender, blowout, chum, kick the bucket), and patronized emerging popular-entertainment forms like melodrama, vaudeville, and freak shows.