Bowery history and height limits top the bill at civic groups forum

By Albert Amateau

The history and preservation of the Bowery and the Lower East Side was the focus last week of three civic groups at a forum in the landmarked Ottendorfer Library on Second Ave.

David Mulkins, a co-founder of Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, or BAN, and an advocate for a Bowery Historic District, called for support of an East Bowery Preservation Plan to curtail rampant high-rise development on the east side of the fabled street. The west side of the Bowery already has a measure of protection because much of the street is within the Little Italy and Noho historic districts.

Elizabeth Solomon, preservation advocate for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, told the forum that the society’s building-by-building survey of the East Village from Broadway to the East River between E. 14th St. and Houston St., which began two and a half years ago, will be completed next year, when an architectural historian will analyze the information and write a report with recommendations for the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Rob Hollander, of Save the Lower East Side, and Eric Ferrara, director of the Lower East Side History Project, spoke about the historical contrasts of the street known as Bowery, the city’s first theater district and at the same time the notorious red light district of early New York City.

The term “Jim Crow,” meaning black segregation, originated with a character in a Bowery minstrel show, according to a timeline that BAN has issued. The great 19th-century American actor Edwin Booth performed on the Bowery, and later, so did Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, Al Jolson and Jimmy Durante. Yiddish theater in America was born on the Bowery and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had its opening on the Bowery.

Punk rock and the Ramones rocked at CBGB (closed in October 2006) on the Bowery. The Bowery Mission, which takes its name from the street famed as the city’s Skid Row, has been saving derelict bodies and souls since 1879. In the 1890s there were a dozen gay bars in the Bowery neighborhood. It was where early gangs — associated with political clubs and volunteer fire companies — constituted the underworld. McGurk’s Suicide Hall, a brothel that got its nickname from the prostitutes who decided to end it all there, was at 285 Bowery.

But many historic buildings have been demolished and replaced by high-rise hotels on the east side of the Bowery.

Construction of an 18-story hotel at 91 Bowery last year destabilized an old building at 128 Hester St., forcing 60 tenants out and the eventual demolition of the Hester St. building.

“We see projects like that as a threat to small businesses, residents and to the historic fabric of the community,” said Mulkins, a high school history teacher by profession. The area 100 feet east of the Bowery has a height limit imposed by the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning two years ago, but the east side of the Bowery itself is a high-rise free-for-all, Mulkins said. Preservation advocates have asked the City Planning Commission for height limits on the street’s east side, but have had no response.

“We went to see Amanda Burden [C.P.C. chairperson] in December with the councilmember-elect, Margaret Chin, and the outgoing member, Alan Gerson,” Mulkins said. “She said the department would consider the idea, but we haven’t heard anything since then.”

Nevertheless, BAN is planning a Bowery design charrette to take place later this year involving prominent architects Nicholas Quenelle, Ric Scofidio, Robert Rogers, Leo Blackman and Michael Geyer, as well as Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society and Anthony Tung, a former L.P.C. member.

At the same time, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, which recently got much of Chinatown and Little Italy added to the National Register of Historic Places, is helping BAN get similar designation for Bowery.