The Bowery is a neighborhood named for Bowery Street in New York City’s Manhattan borough. Until 1807 the street was known as Bowery Lane. Bowery, an anglicized iteration of the antiquated Dutch word bouwerij, meaning ‘farm,’ for the many large farms the area contained into the 17th Century.
While Bowery Street runs from Chatham Square at Park Row, Worth Street, and Mott Street in the south to Cooper Square at 4th Street in the north, the neighborhood’s boundaries are East 4th Street and the East Village in the North, with Canal Street and China Town bordering the South. To the East there’s Allen Street and the Lower East Side with Little Italy shoring it up to the West.
Originally, the southern tip of Manhattan Island was settled in the 17th Century by the Dutch.
The new Dutch settlers called their new colony New Amsterdam for their homeland government in New Netherland, making this area a province of the Dutch Republic in 1624. They formalized the area now known as New York City’s Bowery neighborhood as the province’s capital in 1625. After the British captured the area in 1664 from the Dutch, it was renamed New York after the Duke of York who would become King James II of England. In exchange for giving up New Amsterdam, the British monarchy gave them control of the Spice Islands.
In 1667 the last Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam before the British assumed ownership, Petrus Stuyvesant, loved the area so much that when he retired he stayed in the Bowery. In 1778 his mansion burned down which is now the current site of the Saint Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, an Episcopal church.
The Bowery’s first permanent inhabitants settled in 1654 in Chatham Square area. These ten freed slaves and their wives built cabins and raised and grazed cattle on the land.
Sarah Kemble Knight, whose travel diary documented her travels from Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony to New York City between 1704 to 1705 is one of the few surviving first-hand accounts of those areas and travel conditions during America’s colonial days. Knight wrote of the Bowery as being a preeminent leisure destination for New Yorkers in the winter months. She described the favorite winter activities in this future Manhattan borough as slay riding between friends home and an entertainment venue already then called Bowery.
In 1766 the famed British military engineer and cartographer, John Montresor, made a detailed plan of New York which included what was then called Bowry Lane.
Market Gardens cropped up behind and along the track that now constituted Bowry Lane. One famous shop tender was Lorenzo Da Ponte. Da Ponte was Mozart’s renowned collaborator and librettist for the acclaimed and still revered operas The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1790). Da Ponte sold fruit and vegetables at the market gardens beginning in 1806 when he immigrated to New York City.
Another remarkable footnote in history for the old Bowery lay at the doors of The Bull’s Head Tavern. Opened around 1750, the tavern was noteworthy for being chosen by George Washington as his temporary headquarters in November 1783. Washington’s post at Bull’s Head Tavern was pivotal in forcing the British troops–The Redcoats–out of New York City. It was from this drinking post that Washington watched the Redcoats depart for the last time.
After this success, Washington resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army about a month later in December of 1783 and retired to his home in Mount Vernon. Six years later Washington’s efforts fighting for his nascent country would be rewarded when he was elected the first president of the newly minted United States of America in 1789.
We like to think that perhaps George Washington stopped for one more drink at The Bull’s Head Tavern before he retired to Mount Vernon!
Until the late 1860’s, the Bowery was considered a major thoroughfare rivaling Broadway for pedestrian and commercial traffic. This abundance of street traffic was due to the fact that it lead to the Post Road which, at the time, was the main route to Boston, Massachusetts. At the time, the Bowery was reputed for its cheap trade that, unlike other areas, was not considered to be disreputable. Rather, the Bowery was considered to be “the second principal street” of the burgeoning New York City.
However, as the times changed and New York City expanded, more land was needed. The Bowery began transforming from its eponymous farmland to a trendier area, gaining the respectability and elegance only well-heeled and famous residents could bring by moving there. One such relocator to the broadening boulevard was the industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper. with Cooper’s presence the area began to rival Fifth Avenue as the premier residential address in the city.
After Washington had left The Bull’s Head Tavern, John Jacob Astor purchased the drinking establishment.
Astor is the founder of New York’s famous Astor dynasty from which Astor Row and the Waldorf Astoria get their names. By the 1820’s when Lafayette Street was laid to run parallel to the Bowery, and wealthy families had opened the Bowery Theatre on the former site of Bull’s Head Tavern.
When it opened in 1826 the Bowery Theatre became the largest auditorium in North America. To make the Bowery a prime entertainment destination, the Bowery Ampitheatre was built in 1833 to house more populist entertainments, including circuses and equestrian shows. These preeminent theatrical and entertainment options made The Bowery the epicenter of cultural entertainment for New York’s respectable social set.
However, The Bowery would grow into a seedier and more nefarious hub by the 1890’s. It became known as a center for prostitution rivaled only by the Tenderloin. Catering to gay men and lesbians, gay culture was a visible and seemingly integrated way of life for the working-class male culture that thrived in the area.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the area was impoverished and as the decades passed, little changed. Up until the 1970s, The Bowery was known as Manhattan’s Skid Row. Home to flophouses, whiskey joints, and legendary bums its hard to believe the city would now become a celebrity hub lined with multi-million dollar lofts. But at the time it took the city’s effort to disperse the vagrant population beginning in the seventies, as the area was seemingly revived through gentrification.
The nineties saw the Bowery once again begin to thrive as high rise condos, luxury apartments, and even a Whole Foods paved the way for a new generation of residents. Adding culture to the area and bringing with it a flood of Manhattan tourists in 2007, SANAA-designed the new facility for the New Museum of Contemporary Art.
Over the years, The Bowery has been home to many cultural and entertainment establishments. THe Amato Opera, founded in 1948 by Sally & Tony Amato, however it closed in 2009 when Tony retired. The Bowery Savings Bank, chartered in 1834 when the area was still an upscale locale, is now a Bowery landmark. The Bowery Ballroom, built before the Stock Market Crash of 1929, is a well loved music venue. Vacant through World War II, the Ballroom became a retail store before being converted back to a music venue in 1997.
Famously, Joan Baez recorded her live concert in 2004 at the Bowery Ballroom, naming the album Bowery Songs
Now a John Varvatos boutique, the famous club CBGB, long considered to be the birthplace of Punk Rock, saw Patti Smith and the Ramones as house bands during the 1970s. Spawning some of the most recognizable acts of the era, CBGB gave many musicians and bands their start. Among them was Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, and Robert Gordon to name a few. The music was known for being original, raw, loud, and fast appealing to a generation that was rebelling against the establishment. Unfortunately, CBGB closed in 2006 when owner Hilly Kristal failed in his attempt to renew the lease.
CBGB will always live on in music history as one of the most important locations for the punk scene of the 1970s and 1980s.
Besides the Ramones, the Bowery has been name checked by a veritable array of well-known and beloved musicians. From singers like Billy Joel, Regina Spektor, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, and Tom Waits to bands such as The Decembrists, Dire Straits, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, The Clash, and the Lumineers, the Bowery remains a standard reference point for all manner of musicians.
One might say the Bowery is inextricably linked With the music scene–the legacy of the CBGB club lives on through the melodic refrains of these singers and bands mellifluous tunes.
Academy Award winning director Martin Scorses has been heavily influenced by the Bowery’s history. From his movies Mean Street and Gangs of New York, Scorsese is fiercely protective of his geographical muse. Scorsese drew his inspiration for Academy Award Best Picture Nominee Gangs of New York from the bloody Five Points Riot of 1857, which pitted rival gangs of Irish immigrants, the Dead Rabbits, against the nativist Bowery Boys–and would earn him a Golden Globe for Best Director. Writing to New York’s Planning Commission in 2013, Scorsese plead With the commission to be careful not to overdevelop this inspirational neighborhood.
In his plea, Scorsese wrote, “The high-rise apartment buildings and condos only create more chaos, more disruption and ultimately offer the Bowery up to the elements of conformity.” It’s the neighborhood’s unique qualities that he ultimately sought to protect against gentrification and its attenuating race to the middle. Luckily for Scorsese and other preservationists, many of the landmarks in the Bowery have been labeled as protected landmarks and restored
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