'The Bowery Boys' Obsess Over New York City History, With Thousands Listening In
Take an amble through Manhattan's Financial District and you'll run into a handful of freestanding poster-size placards near stately old buildings that look pretty, if not particularly important. There's one outside the Equitable Building, at 120 Broadway, a hulking structure with a beautiful neoclassical façade. The placard explains that Equitable's construction in 1915 set size records, with a short paragraph below about the 1916 Zoning Resolution, the first regulation of its kind in the city. The text is dense and dry. It is hard to find any of this very interesting.
Listen to Tom Meyers explain it, though, and the story becomes a fascinating illustration of a city's early growing pains. "All these revolutions in architecture — steel frame construction and elevators, mainly — let people build taller and taller and taller in the 1910s," he says, his right hand floating upward. "But all these insanely tall buildings were cutting off air and light from their neighbors. Imagine being at work all day and never seeing sunlight! And the streets were totally dark, too. People started just abandoning buildings, and the city finally had to say, 'Enough!' " Officials, Meyers continues, decreed that new buildings had to reduce their width after a certain point before building upward again; the Empire State Building's stepped construction is a perfect example of the ordinance in action.
If this is the sort of thing that fascinates you — or, even better, if it's not — Meyers and his longtime friend Greg Young are the guys to tell you about it. Together they produce and host The Bowery Boys, a biweekly podcast about New York City history, mostly before 1940. Every episode is a deep dive into some facet of the city, illuminated by small details and the hosts' charming banter. Grand Central becomes a frenetic, touristless hub thick with smog and sound; the murder of architect Stanford White has the tension of a noir thriller. "We wanted to change the city for the person listening to the show," explains Young.
Young, left; Meyers, right; history, everywhere they look
He and Meyers tell me all this outside 80 Maiden Lane, which is a few blocks away from the Equitable Building. That address should be familiar to you if, for some reason, you've ever scoured the fine print below the table of contents in this newspaper: It's the building where the Voice operates — and, today, the starting point of a local history tour Meyers and Young have agreed to take me on. "I found an article from 1924 that specifically names this building's construction in 1912 as 'signaling another blow to the jewelry district' because it was opened to house an insurance company," Meyers tells me. I learn that the stock market's boom had, in less than ten years, forced jewelers off Maiden Lane and uptown to 47th Street, turning this area of Lower Manhattan into the financial district for which it's now named.
The appeal of The Bowery Boys, as is the case with all good podcasts, is in the way the duo combines story with delivery. As fans often tell them, it sounds like two friends dishing over a bottle of wine, a relaxed and endearing style that revels in the hosts' own giddiness at their subject matter. Both are lifelong armchair historians and moved to New York from the Midwest in 1994, Meyers to go to Columbia and Young for an internship after graduating from the University of Missouri's journalism school. Young hadn't abandoned his hobby, though. "I didn't have a minor per se," he explains, "but I fulfilled every class requirement I possibly could with history courses."
As we saunter away from 80 Maiden and down William Street, they fill me in on their transition into podcasting. Young was writing for the now-defunct gay weekly HX, reviewing theater as the Drama Queen, and it was after a joint tipsy Broadway visit that they decided to record their shared obsession with Old New York. They released an inaugural episode as The New York 'Cast but renamed themselves The Bowery Boys, for episode two, after the notorious Five Points gang. Unsure of how to introduce the new name, Young offered a chipper greeting to the ten or so people they expected would ever hear their experiment: "Hey, it's the Bowery Boys!" He turned to Meyers, who, caught off guard, blurted out a hesitant "Heeeeeyyy..." The endearingly awkward exchange, scratchy from its low fidelity, still introduces every episode. "I never expected that my life would include random people walking up to me and saying 'Hey...' " Meyers laughs.
Young surveys a typical FiDi block to mine its hidden stories.
By now we've arrived at the columns in front of Delmonico's ("Not the original location," as Meyers points out), which the Delmonico brothers claimed to have plucked themselves from the ruins of Pompeii. "If that's true, they're as old as Cleopatra's Needle, in terms of the oldest artifact in the city," Young remarks. Counters Meyers: "Well, that's the oldest freestanding artifact, and I wouldn't call these freestanding." They have to be this specific, they explain, because a fan base composed mostly of history buffs tends to be an exacting one. "I'm not saying our listeners are crazy, but they're very passionate," Meyers continues. "They're...just as passionate as we are!" Fans headed to New York sometimes write to request a personalized Bowery Boys tour, often as a surprise gift to a spouse.
Such requests are graciously declined, but their frequency suggested a tour of some kind was in order. Writing a book made the most sense, and this June, Ulysses Press released The Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York. "It's a companion to the podcast," not a summation of it, says Meyers, "We want it to be interesting for people who don't live here or aren't visiting, because more than half the people who listen to the podcast don't live in New York."
Over more than five hundred pages, he and Young whisk readers through Manhattan, from the harbor to Washington Heights, stopping in 25 neighborhoods for a look at a handful of sites in each, some of which might seem insignificant until the duo unwind their relevance to a particular event or trend. "We knew that, by necessity, a lot of what we put in would be in other books," says Young. "So for each chapter, we wanted to do at least five or six things that you wouldn't see in a guidebook. Our editorial voice would come through in those entries."
“Architectural arrogance” at 70 Pine
70 Pine Street, a personal favorite building of Young's, is one of these. It's on the block behind the Voice's offices and, as he points out, easy to miss because its position on a narrow street prevents a full view. But it's stunning, the lower floors blooming with art deco adornments. I've walked by it dozens of times and marveled at the detailing, but learn now that the frequent appearance of triangles in its ornamentation is a reference to what we now know as the Citgo logo; 70 Pine was built in 1934 by Cities Services, from which Citgo emerged. Young stands beneath a miniature relief of the building above its own entrance – "architectural arrogance," he laughs. Thanks to Meyers's zoning lecture earlier, my eye immediately drifts upward to note the ziggurat of the upper floors.
If New Yorkers can learn to appreciate our city a little more deeply in this way, goes Bowery Boys' logic, we'll better understand our place in its long history. Both Boys wish they'd had a better grasp of this when they moved to the Lower East Side in the mid-Nineties, blithe to the gentrification their presence encouraged. "But 210 episodes in, we are getting an understanding of the bigger picture," says Meyers, careful to emphasize they're still learning after two decades here. "And we're now in a position where we do something positive and play a part in the stories of things that are happening right now." They recently dedicated an episode to the Waldorf Astoria hotel, the interior of which activists are fighting to landmark before the building's new condo-minded owner can modernize it (currently only the exterior is protected). With Bowery Boys downloads regularly exceeding 100,000 per month, the podcast's fans could affect the fight.
Young wants to make one more stop, at 40 Wall Street, which used to be called the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building but is now emblazoned with the surname of this year's most horrific presidential candidate. From a broad plaza across the street from the back entrance he points out the higher floors as yet another example of the 1916 zoning law's effect; unlike with 70 Pine, you can actually take in the full view, and it's stunning. If it weren't for a building to our right, you'd be able to see the Equitable Building from here, too. Young starts telling me about a spin-off podcast he and Meyers plan to launch this fall that will, for the first time, travel beyond New York. "When you pull a thread here," he says, "there are all these other stories under it that are super fascinating, and many of those take you out of the city." But, he assures me, they'll continue releasing Bowery Boys episodes. This is New York, after all; it's not like they're going to run out of history anytime soon.
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