The once bawdy Bowery neighborhood of Manhattan was a thriving hub of immigrants, artists, prostitutes and people-on-the-make for generations, but nowadays its storied past has given way to an endless line of high end shops, corporate pharmacies, and the bland glass and steel towers of urban bro financiers. Cahir O'Doherty talks to David Mulkins about a new project to remind New Yorkers of the real legacy of this once glorious – and deeply Irish – neighborhood.
Long before Broadway became Manhattan's best known thoroughfare, the Bowery was the first main street of the new city. You could easily get a drink, find a companion, go dancing or get shot – or all four – in one evening there.
It had started out as a beaten path worn down by the moccasins of Native Americans long before the Dutch arrived to build their farms. But by the end of the 18th century it had grown into New York’s most impressive street, one lined with banks, grand theaters, high end shops and elegant mansions.
Its upscale heyday didn't last long though, because by the Civil War era (by which time the Irish had arrived in their tens of thousands fleeing the Great Hunger) the former grandeur had given way to concert halls, brothels, beer gardens, pawn shops, and seedy flophouses.
This week the inspired preservationists at the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors want you to remember this most American of streets in all of its sordid glory with their brilliant new walking exhibit titled Windows on the Bowery.
A literal window into the past, the exhibit has placed poster-sized placards in street windows all along the former main drag from Chatham Square to Cooper Square. In total there are 64 panels all containing local histories written by 18 eminent historians and researchers. (Irish musician and anthropologist Mick Moloney has contributed one of the many Irish chapters, as has The New York Times' Dan Barry).
The Bowery, as anyone who watched "Gangs of New York" will recall, was located at the eastern border of the Five Points slum, once the main turf of one of America's earliest street gangs including the nativist Bowery Boys and the irish Dead Rabbits, whose bloody two-day battle--which left 8 dead--started outside 40 Bowery on July 4, 1857.
Unlike the country they had left behind, the Bowery was the only major thoroughfare in New York never to have had a single church built upon it. No wonder. Not many of the people who lived and died there had their minds set on higher things.
Moloney sees the street as the key entry point to the United States, the place where the Irish began the complex transition into life in the new world.
It’s a transition that Irish immigrants had in common with the Jews who came to the U.S. in the 1890s he argues, and one that inspired a period of enormous creativity and collaboration during the heyday of Tin Pan Alley (the bawdy theater tradition) right through the start of the Great Depression.
“If you were a fiddle player, a singer or a dancer, you could become a vaudevillian,” Moloney told the press. “One thing the Jews had in common with us was that they had nowhere to go back to, so for a brief period of that transition, there were some wonderful collaborations and great songs.”
David Mulkins, president of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors agrees, adding that the impulse to acknowledge and celebrate those kind of alliances as well as the larger storied history of the Bowery itself, was at the root of the project.
“Despite the Bowery’s recent designations to the prestigious state and national registers of historic places, the city itself has done virtually nothing to preserve and protect its oldest thoroughfare,” Mulkins tells the Irish Voice.
“So Windows on the Bowery was undertaken to raise awareness of the street’s seminal connection to tap dance, vaudeville, Yiddish theater, our first two great songwriters the Irish Stephen Foster and the Jewish Irving Berlin, Harry Houdini, modern tattooing, abstract expressionism, beat literature, improvisational jazz and punk rock.”
Most of the major American art forms and many of the country's most important social reform moments got their start there, in other words. Abraham Lincoln made his famous anti-slavery speech at Cooper Union, one of the country’s most prestigious universities, and the abolitionist martyr John Brown’s body was prepared for burial nearby.
“The Bowery was the first social hub for Irish gangs, gays, the working class, and the immigrant Irish, Italians, Chinese, Jews and Germans. Its impact on the city, state, nation and world is extraordinary for a street that is merely 1.25 miles long,” says Mulkins.
The story of the Bowery, how it rose and fell and rose again isn't widely familiar to New York and the U.S., yet it's the quintessential American story.
“It is that, though even during its supposed late 1900s decline, it became an important jewelry, lighting and restaurant supply district as well as an influential community of cutting edge writers and artists including Mark Rothko, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Roy Lichtenstein, William Burroughs, Kate Millet, Amiri Baraka and Maya Lin,” says Mulkins.
Right now the Bowery is being colonized by CVS-es and Duane Reades and the bland glass and steel towers for financial industry bros, driving out immigrant communities and artists. Is this part of an endless cycle or something more permanent?
“Sensible cities like Paris and Prague do not allow out-of-scale towers or chain stores to obliterate the character of their oldest and most important neighborhoods,” says Mulkins.
“In 2013 historian Mike Wallace said that it would be a pity if the Bowery got bulldozed out of existence, but that is just what is happening under the current ferocious wave of real estate speculation.”
We are living in an age when immigrants are being targeted and menaced again much in the way the Irish were in the 19th century. Does Mulkins hear echoes in that?
“Your point about the Bowery’s story being the quintessential American story is especially true and sobering when one considers that all of the immigrant groups of the Bowery, like the Irish, were spat upon and resented, despite their enormous contributions to America’s culture and economy,” he says.
While prejudice was rampant back then – just as it is now – there was a certain anything goes openness in the Bowery community which allowed groups to interact and even cross-pollinate culturally, as was the case between the Irish and African Americans, who once lived side by side (and often forged interracial relationships) until their dance traditions fused in the creation of tap dance.
Comparing it to the more genteel Broadway, the poet Walt Whitman found the Bowery “more democratic, with a broader, jauntier swing.” The poet Stephen Crane found it “the most interesting place in New York.” So how do you present all of that glory in an exhibition?
“Well, you make good use of thousands of fascinating images and ephemera, texts by 18 writers and the creative graphic design work by Cooper Union, in a three-year project that's a dynamic act of rediscovery and rehabilitation, uncovering the layers of historical and cultural significance that have made the Bowery one of the world’s most famous streets,” says Mulkins.
But its 64 historic signage posters only scratch the surface of this remarkable story, he adds.
“It’s fun and fascinating material that we hope will raise awareness about this important but endangered historic streetscape.”
A full exhibition of all the posters will show on the western windows of the Cooper Union building, 30 Cooper Square, and also at the HSBC bank branch at 58 Bowery.