The Last Days of Loserville

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

These art projects aren't really a solution, according to Place Matters director Marci Reaven, but a stopgap measure to instill a sense of what we're losing. "Preserving the memories and stories is important," she says, "but the actual physicality of buildings and streetscape is important too. People use buildings to place themselves in time." Reaven suggests landmarking key sites as well as preserving certain uses—for instance, revivifying the flophouse, a form of shelter that's vanishing despite the city's need for more low-income housing. Barwick of Municipal Arts Society hopes to maintain the hodgepodge of residents, which he insists is the essence of urban-ness: "Old Asian men, young people drinking in bars, businessmen coming to buy dented restaurant supplies—this mix is important. It's also very hard to prescribe." But what disturbs Barwick most is the sudden profusion of 12- and 16-story buildings. "If I were God," he says puckishly, "I wouldn't let them alter the scale of the buildings the way they are."

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Anything and everything you need: Bowery and Delancey, 1939
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Not everyone agrees that preservation is the way to go. Kwong is rightly suspicious of this sepia-tinged, bourgeois nostalgia: "If you say you want to preserve culture, you have to ask, what culture, whose culture, and for what purpose? Working-class Chinese people still live here right now; they have a living culture." And yet even Chinatown businesses and residents face being priced out of the area. "If you say you want to maintain culture when people can't afford to live here," Kwong argues, "then you're basically talking about this being a museum or a tourist shop."

New and old coexist elsewhere in New York, but the transformation taking place on the Bowery right now is truly extreme, from the pits to the penthouse. Experts say that it would take a huge, concerted effort to get the city to intervene. The best-case scenario would be the preservation of some old buildings as well as the construction of more low- and middle-income housing. But in today's market, the latter belongs in the realm of pure fantasy, considering that years of community negotiation on the Avalon Chrystie Place project resulted in just 25 percent low-income apartments and no middle-income allotment. Perhaps the least one can hope for is that the anti-paradise that was the Bowery not be paved over all at once—that some of the sore patches and disheveled dwellings be allowed to remain as monuments to the not-so-distant struggles and furies that once coalesced here.

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

Details

An Elegy for the Bowery:

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    Erase all traces of the old Bowery and you lose a crucial facet of Manhattan, which always found room for the poor and desolate, not to mention the eccentric and debauched. Once upon a time, this wasn't just a city of winners: The Bowery is proof that New York had a place for life's losers too.


    Additional reporting by Halley Bondy

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