October 30, 2007

The Bowery 2007 Walk: Bummer Street Then and Now


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When the Third Avenue El operated along the Bowery from the 1870s to the early 1950s, the tracks plunged the street into shadowy gloom, making it easy for bad things to happen in the dark. The Bowery became for many the home of last resort, a collective magnet for degradation and shame.

From The WPA Guide to New York (1939):

"Thousands of the nation's unemployed drift to this section and may be seen sleeping in all-night restaurants, in doorways, and on loading platforms, furtively begging, or waiting with hopeless faces for some bread line or free lodging house to open."

From the Michelin Green Guide, 7th edition, c. 1984:

"It is best known for its 'bums' – homeless alcoholics, drug addicts, the chronically disturbed and the unemployed. A walk along it is not dangerous but depressing, and may make you feel uneasy. Derelicts lie on the sidewalks or in doorways and wait for handouts. The Bowery is also a great center for buying electrical goods especially lighting apparatus, and all types of restaurant equipment."

When I read the quote above, I had an image of someone stepping over derelicts to go into a store to buy a margarita machine.

Walking Off the Big Apple is not nostalgic for derelicts or streets filled with the unemployed, so I do not mourn the passing of a sad era. But I am uneasy with assumptions that the Bowery is languishing or even that a degree of languishment should be a bad thing. I'd like to see the community boards plan for a street devoted to collective melancholy, a place where all of us could go and find some solace after a really really bad day.

Image at top: The Bowery near Grand St., New York. Created/Published [ca. 1900]. "708-5" on negative. Detroit Publishing Co. no. 012678. Gift; State Historical Society of Colorado; 1949. Library of Congress.

Image below: The Intersection of Bleecker and The Bowery. October 29, 2007. WOTBA

See the complete walk here.

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