Examining a few pounds of freeze-dried goji berries in the Bowery neighborhood’s Whole Foods market, it is easy to forget that you might be standing in the exact spot where the Bowery Boys, clad terrifyingly in stovepipe hats and flared trousers, clashed with rival gang, the Dead Rabbits. You snag a smidgeon of organic goat cheese and stroll up the Bowery, completely unaware that in a different time you might have been stepping over Bowery bums stumbling out of McGurk’s Suicide Hall. And passing the New Museum of Contemporary Art with a parasol slung over your shoulder, you can scarcely hear the piercing electric echoes of CBGB, a launching pad for American punk rock and bands like the Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads.
Over the years, the Bowery has gone through a great deal of changes. And more recently, as the gentrification process sweeps across Manhattan like a swiffer mop or a sightly plague, with luxury high-rises in place of locusts, it seems that the Bowery is getting a new face. And new faces too—most of them cleaner.
Oh, Skid Row
The Bowery is probably the “most iconic skid row, not only in New York, but perhaps the nation,” says David Favaloro, research manager for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. But that iconic grittiness is not indicative of the many different transformations of the area.
The name of the area actually comes from the Dutch word for ‘farm,’ and Bowery Lane was the road leading to Peter Stuyvesant’s farm. Stuyvesant, also known as “Old Peg Leg” due to an amputation-inducing injury he received in battle against the Spanish, was the last Dutch Director-General of the colony of New Netherland, and a noted figure in the history of early New York.
Up until the early and mid 19th century, the area surrounding the Bowery and the Lower East Side was farmland. For the most part, the residents around this time were primarily native born craftsman and artisans, who “were occupying single or two-story wood frame dwellings,” says Favaloro. “The purpose-built tenement buildings that are characteristic of the neighborhood today… [were] not built until the middle of the 19th century, and that coincides with the first mass wave of immigration, mostly from Ireland” and Germany.