A lively portrait of New York’s “other street,” once a byword for urban degradation and now just another site of gentrification.
It was in the cards a long time ago that the Bowery, Manhattan’s roughest, toughest street, would one day be cleaned up. After all, observes journalist Alexiou (The Flatiron: The New York Landmark and the Incomparable City that Arose with It, 2010, etc.), “the Dutch founded New Amsterdam not as a religious refuge but as a place to do business, and this remains Manhattan’s ethos to this day.” Now, says Bowery resident and advocate Adam Woodward, “every fifty years, the city tears down, and rebuilds.” That cycle seems about right. In the late 1960s, the Bowery, that stretch of road that begins at Houston Street and descends south into what used to be tenements full of Irish and then Chinese newcomers to the city, was just on the brink of becoming a cultural icon of a different type, courtesy of Hilly Kristal and his raw-boned nightclub CBGB, which helped launch “four kids from Queens who sported spiky haircuts and black leather jackets.” Alexiou’s cast of characters includes Patti Smith and Lou Reed, to be sure, but also figures from the past who shaped the city in various ways, from theatrical entrepreneur Henry Astor, the bane of his richer brother John Jacob, to Tammany politician and proud Bowery patois speaker Timothy Daniel Sullivan. In 1957, the area was the setting for the semidocumentary On the Bowery, another cultural milestone that “endured among the art house crowd” and influenced the filmmaking styles of Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes. Now such a film would be impossible, given an ever growing number of high-rise luxury apartments, tony restaurants, expensive boutiques, and other signs of hipsterism.
New York buffs, especially those nostalgic for a grittier time, will find this a learned pleasure.