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Voices Fall-Winter, 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “On the Bowery” by Steve Zeitlin and Marci Reaven here.
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Volume 29
Fall-Winter
2003
Voices

On the Bowery by Steve Zeitlin and Marci Reaven

DownstateThe Bow’ry, The Bow’ry!
They say such things, and they do strange things on the Bow’ry

—Harry Conor, from the musical A Trip to Chinatown, 1891

Come! Walk with us the length of New York’s famed Bowery, past the statue of Confucius on Chatham Square, the great old Bowery Savings Bank at Grand Street (now home to the glitzy Capitale Restaurant), past Delancey, Rivington, Stanton, Houston, and Great Jones streets up to Cooper Square. The distance is only a mile, twenty minutes at a brisk walk. But our walk is not just an exercise in getting from point A to point B, it’s a journey through urban time and space. Places that resonate have temporal depth, their significance understood if we move not only horizontally across the city, but vertically, through decades and centuries. We feel the weight of time and the texture of experience. Our personal memories, good and bad, are inscribed on the built environment. Depending on our circumstance, they might take us back to the Amato Opera (the world’s smallest opera house) or CBGBs (the birthplace of punk rock), to a free meal at a mission or a hotel room for 99 cents.

The Bowery took its name from bowerij, Dutch for "farm," from the farm of Peter Stuyvesant, who bought the land in 1651. We pass the buildings that housed Chinatown’s first bachelor society; the graves of Sephardic Jewish settlers in colonial America; McGurk’s "Suicide Tavern," where, legend says, prostitutes poisoned themselves with carbolic acid when they reached the end of the line; we walk in the footprints of "Mose the Bowery boy," whose exploits as a volunteer fireman and strongman were celebrated in the city’s nineteenth-century rowdy theater district at places like the old Bowerie Theater (46-48 Bowery, 1826-79), now a Duane Reade; we walk in the shade of an elevated railroad line, then an elevated subway that darkened the street from 1878 to 1955, with reminders of the bars, missions, tattoo parlors, and flophouses of the Depression. Today only a few "flops" remain, along with the Bowery Mission, which has been caring for people on the street for 125 years.

Our walk takes us past the buildings where modern artists Mark Rothko and Roy Lichtenstein lived and worked after the el came down. And it takes us past one of Manhattan’s last industrial markets—"still the place to go," as Kevin Baker writes in the New York Times Magazine (October 5, 2003), "when you want to buy a lamp, or a dough retarder, or maybe a life-size resin based caricature of an Italian waiter." Even the days of the lighting district are dimming on the Bowery, as new condos and office buildings are built or planned for every block, threatening to obscure its history.

"As usual in New York," wrote poet James Merrill, "everything is torn down/Before you have had time to care for it." As we cross Grand Street and head toward Houston, we glimpse the Bowery’s future as well as its past: the lot for the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s $35 million building at 235 Bowery. "The New Museum will be a defining moment," says folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who lives a few doors away on the Bowery, "between the Sunshine Hotel and Daroma Restaurant Equipment!"

Although we cover only eighteen city blocks, the establishments we pass connect us to all parts of the city. The Amato Opera draws its performers from the same pool as the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center; the Sephardic synagogue has ties to its uptown congregation and the Sephardic communities of Brooklyn; the new Bowery Poetry Club is part of a network that includes the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Cornelia Street Café, and St. Mark’s Church; and the restaurant supply shops are frequented by restaurants in all five boroughs. The paths traveled by urban communities intersect on the Bowery, bringing together worlds only dimly aware of the others’ comings and goings. The urban affinities multiply.

In "A Stranger’s Path," J.B. Jackson writes about the streets and boulevards in every city that cater to transients, often stretching from the bus depot and train station to low-cost hotels, pawn shops, and greasy spoons. To ignore them on behalf of "convenience, cleanliness, and safety" and to distrust everything "vulgar and small and poor" are symptomatic of "a very lopsided view of urban culture." Instead, he suggests, we need to tease out their vitality.

Out west, you can stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon or drive the Great Salt Flats in Utah and feel the terrain zooming out away from you for miles up to a sky full of stars. You can sense the magnitude of the landscape, and the layers of its history measured in the geology of rocks and tree rings, as if you were smack at the center of the universe. Walking along the Bowery, with your head down, trying not step on anything, can be a desultory experience. Without guideposts or prior knowledge, none of its history or grandeur registers.

But a great city makes its collective history legible on its building and its streets, so that the urban experience is layered with perceptions, memories, and histories—what might be called place memory. We experience place memory in the faded paint, in the cornice or the art deco façade, reading the historical plaque, in conversation with a tour guide or a shopkeeper. A great city allows the walls to speak. Sense of place is in the details, in the layers of history, lore, perceptions that constitute place memory. The work of folklorists, historians, and preservationists is to find the tools—markers, public programs, preservation of those pieces of the built environment that tell its story—to make the pageant of urban life and the network of urban affinities visible to passersby. In that way, we can experience the layers of history and meaning as we walk the eighteen blocks of the Bowery and traverse an urban universe.


 


Steve Zeitlin serves as the executive director, and Marci Reaven, the managing director, of City Lore: the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture.



Sense of place is in the details, in the layers of history, lore, perceptions that constitute place memory. The work of folklorists, historians, and preservationists is to find the tools—markers, public programs, preservation of those pieces of the built environment that tell its story—to make the pageant of urban life and the network of urban affinities visible to passersby.




This column appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Fall-Winter 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.


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