Bowery: Funky history meets new glamour
Walking down famed Bowery street, from which the Bowery neighborhood takes its name, the sight of trendy restaurants and swanky nightlife spots mingling with sophisticated art galleries, the world-renowned New Museum and high-rise hotel and condo units makes it hard to believe the area has a less-than-pristine past.
The Bowery went through a huge transformation, even in the past 10 years, evolving from gritty to polished at rapid speed.
The former skid row is now booming with new establishments and modern architecture that makes a mark on the city’s skyline.
Where flophouses and squats once thrived, eateries such as DBGB, owned by French chef Daniel Boulud, and The General, the casual trendy venture of “Top Chef” season three winner Hung Huynh, along with boutiques from the likes of designer Patricia Field, now take their place, attracting wealthy professionals to the area.
As the old, unwanted skin has shed, making way for a safer, cleaner neighborhood, the richer artistic and historical aspects that the Bowery is well-known for still linger.
Whether it’s the 18th and 19th century low-rise buildings that still stand, a poetry club that recalls a generation of Beat poets who wrote love letters to the Bowery or the few family-owned restaurant supply and lighting stores that refuse to leave, the area’s speedy gentrification did not discard everything.
“You feel like you’re in a part of history still,” said real estate agent Larry Carty of Corcoran. “When you step out, you have old-school places along with new institutions. People see the culture and the restaurants as amenities to their spaces.”
According to local experts, the Bowery is the city’s oldest thoroughfare. It has served as a foot trail for Native Americans, then as a home for freed slaves in 1654 and for wealthy butchers in the 19th century.
Though it was later infested with flophouses, drug dealers and gangs like the Bowery Boys, it also served as New York’s first entertainment district.
Yiddish theater had a hub on Bowery, and later punk rock took root at the now defunct CBGB club, where bands like Blondie and The Ramones played.
In 2011, the Bowery Historic District, which runs the entirety of Bowery Street from Chatham Square to Cooper Square on both sides of the neighborhood, was listed in the State Register of Historic Places. And on Feb. 20 this year, the historic district was included in the National Register of Historic Places.
However, while the recognition is worthy of praise, some longtime neighborhood residents are still concerned that the gentrification will push out the remaining remnants.
Many of the restaurant supply stores that once thrived on the Bowery packed up and went to other boroughs.
And the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, an organization fighting to maintain the area’s old charm, say that in addition to displacement, the new high-rise hotels and condo units threaten the neighborhood’s historic character.
“We’re trying to educate both the local residents and elected officials of the significance of the Bowery’s history and the architecture,” said Mitchell Grubler, a 63-year-old resident who has lived in the Bowery for 9 ½ years and also serves as the Landmarks Committee chair of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors.
The organization’s East Bowery Preservation Plan, which covers Canal to Stuyvesant Street, aims to preserve the remaining low-rise structures in the area and prevent further out-of-scale developments.
“What we identify as special — and worth fighting for — is the low-rise character and its historic architecture. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” Grubler said.
But as the change continues, Carty is confident that the neighborhood will not lose its historical features.
“New York changes all the time, and this is part of New York changing,” he said. “But you can never really just wipe out a character of a neighborhood; it’s not possible.
The Bowery is a small, rectangular-shaped neighborhood that runs north to south from East Fourth Street/Cooper Square down to Canal Street. To its east is Allen Street below Houston Street and First Avenue above Houston. Its western boundary is Bowery street.
-- F train to Second Avenue
-- J train to Bowery
-- B, D to Grand Street
-- M15, M21, M103
The closest public library is the NYPL Ottendorfer branch, located at 135 Second Ave., between St. Marks Place and East Ninth Street.
The nearest post office is just outside of its southern boundary at 128 E. Broadway.
The NYPD’s Fifth Precinct at 19 Elizabeth St. covers the Bowery area, as does the Ninth, at 321 E. Fifth St., which monitors north of Houston Street. The murder rate for the Fifth Precinct decreased by 84% from 1990 to 2012. Robberies were high in the ’90s; there were 983 in 1990, compared with 121 in 2012, an almost 90% decrease. Burglaries have also seen an 84% drop, from 863 in 1990 to 137 in 2012. There were 12 rapes reported in 2012.
Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria, 282 Bowery. This always-packed bar offers tasty entrees and pizzas in addition to their glamorous décor. Along with lunch, brunch and dinner, they also serve breakfast Monday through Friday and late brunch on Saturdays. 212-226-1966.
Rayuela, 165 Allen St. This cozy, freestyle Latino eatery aims to put a new twist on traditional dishes such as tapas and ceviche. The olive tree in the center — which extends to the second floor — adds an organic ambience to the already romantic, dimly lit dining room. 212-253- 8840.
Gentleman Farmer, 40 Rivington St. This French-American restaurant serves up curried snails, tortellini, red snapper and wild boar alongside red, white and sparkling wines. The olive interior and wooden ceilings help create its intimate vibe — it’s a 20-seat space. 212-677-2172.
The Bowery offers one of Manhattan’s liveliest stretches of nightlife.
The Bowery Electric, 327 Bowery. This space, previously home to Remote Lounge, is known for its dance party, “The Electric Feel,” every weekend, along with hosting acclaimed artists such as Wayne Kramer, Foster the People and Billie Joe Armstrong. 212-228-0228.
Rockwood Music Hall, 196 Allen St. This venue has given the stage to local NYC bands since the ’90s. Every day, a few indie, bluegrass and Americana bands take to either one of the two stages to showcase their talent. Big names such as Mumford & Sons and Lady Gaga have also played here. 212-477-4155.
White Rabbit, 145 E. Houston St. This chic, laid-back lounge is a prime spot for a night out with friends. On weekends and late nights, DJs spin an eclectic soundtrack, from Afro-Cuban to hip-hop. 212-477-5005.
Patricia Field, 306 Bowery. Known for dressing starlets on popular fashion-centric television shows such as “Sex and the City” and “Ugly Betty,” designer Patricia Field decided to bring her creations to the Bowery last year. The boutique stocks the latest of her designs from dresses and accessories for women to hats, tanks and tees for men. There’s something here for every edgy dresser. 212-966-4066.
International Playground, 13 Stanton St. From funky iridescent Bermuda shorts fit for men or women to button-down shirts, T-shirts, jumpsuits and maxi dresses, International Playground offers one-of-a-kind styles for the fashion-forward buyer. 212-228-2323.
DQM New York, 7 E. Third St. In business since 2003, DQM’s inventory is connected to founder Chris Keefe’s professional skateboarding roots. The store carries menswear, sneakers and skating goods from well-known brands such as Vans and Herschel, as well as its own DQM label. 212-505-7551.
New Museum, 235 Bowery. This contemporary art museum is itself a work of art, as its stacked, seven-story building, designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is considered an architectural contribution to the city’s landscape. General admission is $14, but entry is free 7-9 p.m. on Thursdays. 212-219-1222.
Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery. The well-known spoken-word spot is the place to go if you want to get in touch with your inner Beat poet (think Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac) or if you want to hear some good poetry that’s not stuffy or highbrow. bowerypoetry.com.
Bluestockings, 172 Allen St. It’s an independent bookstore, café and activist center, and it’s one of the few Bowery joints that hasn’t felt the brunt of a rapidly changing neighborhood. It carries books on gender and queer studies, social justice and feminism. Readings, workshops, performances and discussions are hosted most nights during the week. 212-777-6028.
After a push from the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, in February the Bowery was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places, joining other historic districts such as New Orleans’ French Quarter and Boston’s Beacon Hill.
The area has been on the State Registry of Historic Places since October 2011, but the national designation is a big move, as it aims to preserve the area’s character and history.
However, the national designation is only an honorific title that recognizes the value of a place but does not enforce protections such as development restrictions.
According to the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, some residents continue to push the East Bowery Preservation Plan, which focuses on the east side of the Bowery from Canal to Stuyvesant streets. The plan aims to stop out-of-scale development of buildings higher than eight stories.
The proponents want new development to remain in line with the low-rise historic 18th and 19th century buildings that still stand.
Q&A with David Mulkins
David Mulkins has lived in the Bowery since 1983.
In addition to being the chair of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, he is also a history and cinema studies teacher at the High School of Art and Design. The BAN was a 2013 recipient of the Regina Kellerman Award for its grassroots community work.
What kinds of people live here?
While there’s definitely an increase of young professionals moving into some of the awful new constructions, like the Avalon Christie building, there’s still a wide range of incomes and ethnic backgrounds, including families and hardworking low-income immigrants in places like Chinatown. The street still has a remarkable artists colony that dates to the 1940s and helped nurture Beat literature and Abstract Expressionism.
What do you do for leisure around the neighborhood?
Beer at McSorley’s, collards and mashed potatoes at Great Jones Café, shrimp and grits for breakfast at Peels, Chinese food below Canal, movies at Film Forum or Anthology Film Archives and a nature walk at Liz Christy Gardens.
Are there any drawbacks to living here or any changes you’d like to see?
Because of the sky’s-the-limit zoning on the Bowery’s east side, it is experiencing a ferocious wave of real estate speculation that has resulted in a destructive building spree that is destroying the low-rise character and causing the rapid displacement of residents and small businesses. Out-of-scale development makes no sense here. Change is inevitable, but in an area so historically and culturally important, there should be zoning restrictions that respect an area’s context and character.