“Devil’s Mile, The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery”
Alice Sparberg Alexiou
St. Martin’s Press, 290 pages
For much of the twentieth century, the Bowery meant destitution. It was where hobos slept in flophouses, where the homeless dozed on sidewalks, where vagabonds flocked to saloons and immigrants crowded in tenements. Nowadays the destitute don’t even have the Bowery. Where once they shared dormitories with bedbugs for 25 cents a night, now instead loom swanky high-rises. Manhattan, remade in the era of mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, erased its poor, while promoting the interests of real estate moguls like Donald Trump. Who knows where the vagrants went – the outer boroughs, other cities, rusting inner suburbs, a few can doubtless still be spotted drifting like ghosts around their fast-disappearing old haunts. But they won’t be there long. According to Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s “Devil’s Mile, the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery,” the thoroughfare has been remade in typical New York style: developers get rich, as they sweep inconvenient locals away.
Over forty years ago, when the real estate boom first picked up steam, New York landlords targeted middle class and poor families in rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments. The idea then was to drive them out, renovate the property and make millions, selling it as co-ops. Throughout the eighties and nineties, this pattern repeated in almost every Manhattan neighborhood. Why should the Bowery have remained untouched? Even if it was the world-famous destination of the down and out, the Bowery too, inevitably and finally became a magnet for real estate speculation.
New bars and fancy hotels “are the Disneyfied version of the old Bowery saloons, refashioned and glammed up for the young moneyed class that crowd into these places to party and decompress from Manhattan’s ferocious work environment,” Sparberg writes. “This is the demographic that now drives the Bowery economy.” The thoroughfare that added the term “Bowery bum” to the American lexicon, what Sparberg calls “the street synonymous with despair,” is now, like much of Manhattan, the playground of the rich. And the homogenization, the elimination of all classes except the very affluent, continues apace. “Notice all the half-finished towers that are going up, some as high as sixty stories, imperiously dwarfing the old brick walk-ups…that house artists, Chinese families and small businesses.” Those walk-ups are doomed, and not just because the logic of capitalism – unending, ultimately cancerous growth – dictates it. But because the Bowery metamorphosed often in its past, and each change was distinct, discrete and a nearly complete rupture with what came before.
Back when Manhattan was primeval forest, in the 1600s, the Bowery, Sparberg reports, was originally a Lenape footpath. “To the west of the path and surrounded by hills (where now stand the state supreme court and parts of Chinatown) was a huge freshwater pond…Between the hills stretched flat, marshy terrain teeming with aquatic life: redwinged blackbirds, coots, herons, bullfrogs, beavers. Several streams undulated through the flat area…Indians in canoes traversed the island via streams…” Sparberg traces the endeavors of the Dutch in New Amsterdam, then the British, noting a key abattoir on the Bowery, which linked the street in everyone’s mind with the meat business. In the late 1700s, Sparberg writes, the Astors came to the Bowery and, stingy and penny-pinching, amassed their fortune. In the 19th century, theaters crowded the Bowery, drawing a working class audience, including Walt Whitman, while Irish and German gangs, most famously the Bowery Boys, fought nearby.
Sparberg also portrays the civil war’s impact, especially with theatrical productions of the smash-hit, abolitionist tale, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” German beer gardens proliferated along the Bowery; one, according to Sparberg, held 3,000 people. She also sketches the infamous ties between Tammany Hall and the Bowery, how the bums were shipped from one polling place to another, voting repeatedly for the Democratic machine. Indeed it was in this post-civil war era that derelicts first began flocking to the Bowery. Then came Italian and Jewish immigrants, making the Lower East Side “the most densely populated place on earth, at the beginning of the twentieth century.” Prohibition squeezed the Bowery, but once lifted, more alcoholic wrecks than ever thronged the street, especially during the Depression. Lastly, in the 1970s, punk rock and its internationally famous venue, CBGB, flourished on the street Sparberg calls “New York’s dumping ground.”
The Bowery’s ongoing, posh transformation breaks abruptly with the immediate past. But it is in tune with the gentrification that has swept American cities in recent decades, making rents everywhere unaffordable for those working full time at minimum wage. When even the working poor cannot pay for shelter in urban America, is it any surprise that the homeless cannot find a sidewalk to sleep on? With gentrification come laws criminalizing loitering, eating in public, sitting on park benches – things homeless people do. Ejected from city centers, they pitch their tents on the outskirts, as in Seattle, or the slums, as in Los Angeles. They have to go somewhere, but everywhere they turn in gentrified America, the sign says “Keep Out.” Even the Bowery.