The Last Days of Loserville

Once home to hustlers, drunks, and bohemians, America's slummiest street has turned into a new millionaire's row

As a shady interzone, the Bowery allowed certain freedoms to flourish. "Fairy resorts" allowed men to cross-dress and use back rooms for sexual liaisons. Slumming parties of respectable uptown folk often trooped down to the street seeking cheap thrills, and locals quickly learned how to exploit the sleaze tourists. One rough bar near the corner of Houston and Bowery became so notorious for the regular suicides that took place there (prostitutes threw themselves out of an upper window, possibly to protest working conditions) that its owner rechristened the place McGurk's Suicide Hall. And a local entrepreneur named Chuck Connors led wide-eyed customers through Chinatown; he showed them ersatz opium dens and bordellos, reinforcing seedy clichés about the exotic new immigrants on the block.

Sensationalist books and magazine articles popularized the Bowery as a den of sin. It slid so far down-market that in 1845, residents between what is now Cooper Square and Union Square successfully petitioned to have the street's name changed from Bowery to Fourth Avenue to separate themselves from its shabby aura. Things only got worse when the city erected an elevated railway that shrouded the thoroughfare in shadows. At the turn of the 20th century, the street became a kind of underclass ecosystem in which, as Sante writes, men "rotated among the missions, the flophouses, the greasy spoons, the barber colleges." Living there meant that you had somehow fallen off the treadmill of the moneymaking world, beyond striving—you'd hit the literal embodiment of the phrase rock bottom. With the pressure of cultural expectations gone, men found a kind of relief in "reaching the finality," as Benedict Giamo wrote in the 1970s, "being there in that place you have feared all of your life."

The bustle of flophouses, nightclubs, and rummy bars had dwindled by the 1940s and the street settled into an industrial twilight. Chinatown businesses gradually started edging uptown. In the '60s and '70s, artists, writers, and musicians moved into ramshackle lofts—figures like Burroughs and Rothko, Kate Millet and Roy Lichtenstein, Nan Goldin and Debbie Harry—attracted by the street's abundant sunlight and dirt-cheap rent, but probably also by its aura of outsiderness and decay. It was no longer just the last resort for those ejected from society, but a refuge for those who rejected it.

A rubble-filled wasteland in 1963
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
A rubble-filled wasteland in 1963


An Elegy for the Bowery:

  • Noise on Music Central
    From minstrelsy to vaudeville and Monk to punk, never under-estimate urban ugliness
    By Robert Christgau

  • Mose Is Back in Town
    By Toni Schlesinger

  • The Endangered Garden
    AvalonBay makes concessions, but will Liz Christy's trees and plants survive?
    By Danial Adkison

  • The Last of the Mohicans
    Searching for a place to flop on what was once skid row
    By Darren Reidy
  • CBGB founder Hilly Kristal saw an art colony taking shape in the neighborhood, and in 1969, he rented a dive bar underneath a flophouse called the Palace Hotel. While he was rebuilding the inside of the old bar that would five years later become ground zero for American punk rock, Kristal remembers how the guys from the hotel upstairs—remnants of another era—would line up outside his door "at eight in the morning for the first eye-opener of the day. If they could reach the bar and put down 35 cents, they got a little glass of wine to keep them going."

    Now the residents of the Palace Hotel are all but forgotten, and CBGB's status as a cultural landmark has been cemented by the renaming of 2nd Street at Bowery as Joey Ramone Place. Yet Kristal says his landlord has threatened to double his rent, leaving the future of CBGB on the Bowery in question, along with all those joints selling cash registers and chandeliers. Kristal sounds philosophical about the changes. "The whole Lower East Side is changing," he says. "That new building across the street from me—people say it's so ugly but I think it's a nice modern place. A lot of this neighborhood could be nicer and cleaner. So things are gone, places are gone. You want old stuff? Go to Europe. This is New York."

    The Bowery transforms itself yet again.
    Shiho Fukada
    Maybe the new buildings going up will make us look at the place anew, lifting our eyes from the dingy storefronts. And maybe the juxtaposition between the dilapidated tenements and the angular, avant-garde building soon to be constructed for the New Museum can infuse the whole area with new resonance.

    This long unraveled seam of a street marks the border for many neighborhoods but belongs to none—one reason that development has proceeded without serious planning or foresight. Several groups, including the Municipal Arts Society and Rebuild Chinatown, have initiated studies of the area, but no grand plan has been hatched, and historians worry that this current development frenzy will destroy not just the many important old buildings but the whole spirit of the place. "The Bowery isn't long for this world unless somebody pays attention to it," says Municipal Arts Society president Kent Barwick, who's lived around the corner from the Bowery for many years. He believes it's been largely ignored "because it's been a place of degradation and despair—you still see a body bag coming out of a Bowery hotel once in a while—and because it hasn't had a middle-class constituency looking out for it."

    Urban landmarking usually focuses on quaintness or greatness. So how do you preserve lowlife? Art projects are one way to acknowledge the past, and in the last few years, the Bowery has been the subject of a few. The New Museum's "Counter Culture" show featured installations that involved local residents and businesses. Brooklyn artists Dave Mandl and Christina Ray (oneblockradius. org) are currently creating a psychogeographic portrait of a single Bowery block, while a group called Place Matters is working on an interactive map of the Bowery.

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