Its name is synonymous with bars, bums, punk rock, and general dissolution. Now it’s the subject of a new biography: Devil’s Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery by Alice Sparberg Alexiou, who’s also a contributing editor at Lilith and author of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. The book is a rigorously researched yet very entertaining spin through New York City history. Here are a few of the most delightful tidbits.
1. The trashy Bowery and shiny Broadway started the same way: as Lenape footpaths at Manhattan’s southern shoreline.
2. We associate Yiddish theater with Second Avenue, but it actually began on the Bowery. Back when the Lower East Side was the most densely populated place on earth, at the turn of the century, 300,000 Jews lived cheek by jowl in an area of about a square mile. (Other sources put the population even higher: over 500,000.) One of the first Yiddish theaters, at 43 Bowery, was the Windsor, which was destroyed when McKim, Mead & White built the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. The Windsor was where Joseph Adler played the Yiddish King Lear. In the Yiddish version, Lear doesn’t die. Cordelia saves him and restores his sight, because she’s not only a good daughter but, nu, a doctor. “In America,” Alexiou notes, “anything was possible.”
3. Sure, Adler was talented, but his rival Boris Thomashefsky was hot. “He exuded so much sex appeal that he was accused of corrupting the morals of Jewish women,” Alexiou writes. “One woman was overheard describing her fantasy: She would walk out of the theater and be run over by a streetcar. Then Thomashefsky would rush over to her, pick her up, and she would die in his arms.”
4. The Bowery was considered skanky before the Jews arrived (Irish working-class “b’hoys” roamed it first), but the Jewish arrivals made the upper crust sniff even harder. “It is perfectly obvious that the privacy which is essential to decent living are unknown in these Hebrew homes,” wrote Frank Moss, a prominent reformer, in 1897. “The ignorance and the dirtiness of New Israel are not its only dark features. It is a distinct center of crime. It is infested with petty thieves and housebreakers, many of them desperate, and the criminal instincts that are so often found naturally in the Russian and Polish Jews come to the surface here in such ways as to warrant the opinion that these people are the worse element in the entire makeup of New York life.”
5. Jewish brothels thrived. Pimps hired locally and also imported girls from Eastern Europe. During a 1900 anti-prostitution campaign, one young woman testified in Yiddish: “The girls give the money that they get from the man to the madam, and the girls get a check for each 50-cent man … the pimp comes around, once a week, to collect the money. A girl must turn in 32 checks before her board charges are covered. … I know of the following pimps: Joe Taljener, who one time struck me in the face; Sholom at 149 Allen Street; and a hunchback who gives out the checks at 149 and who boasts he is not afraid of anybody and can be found there every night.”
6. Yiddish “concert saloons,” where vice and music came together, dotted the Bowery. The Eldorado had a sign in Yiddish in the window: “Extra, Extra! Tonight we will present ‘The Unlucky Girl,’ best Roumanian peppers, Hungarian meat patties, liver; a large glass of beer, five cents, admission free!” Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Sophie Tucker all performed at such places, but Abe Cahan, the editor of the Forverts, was horrified. “A scandal!” he wrote in 1902. “It has to be stopped …Every music hall is a house of assignation.”
7. One unsavory turn-of-the-century bigwig was Mochs (aka Max) Hochstim, “a big-bellied dandy,” in Alexiou’s words, who became the rare Jewish power player in Tammany Hall. An Austrian immigrant, he ran various rackets on the Lower East Side and was always accompanied by his pet bulldog, Jip. When he assaulted a German newspaper reporter who wrote something negative about him, he served just two months in The Tombs and got the nickname Mochsie the Invincible. But when he got shipped to Sing Sing in 1901 for three years for violating election laws, his power trickled away. He wound up working at Second Avenue’s Orpheum Theatre (now the home of Stomp) “until he died in 1921, debt-ridden and in obscurity.”
8. As long ago as 1902, people were lamenting that the Bowery had changed. “People felt so nostalgic about the good old Satan’s Highway that in 1902 a replica Bowery was constructed on Coney Island as part of the Dreamland amusement park,” Alexiou writes.
9. The Bowery was the original Diamond District. From the 1920s until after WWII, rents were low as Prohibition quieted the neighborhood, so merchants moved in. Not everyone loved the changes. “No loungers on the street corners, no sad, dejected figures, shuffling through the gloom, no drunkards sagging homeward from the dirty bars. All that made the color and the terror of this dark and wondrous street gone into forgetfulness!” a reporter wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1922.
10. During Prohibition, speakeasies on the Bowery weren’t very sneaky. You didn’t have to know a guy or be in possession of a password. Alexiou reports that the 1930 census listed 77 speakeasies on the avenue; drinks cost four times as much as they did before Prohibition. Al Hirschfeld sketched one called O’Leary’s in 1932, calling it “not for the squeamish, in stomach and nostril, for the sight and smell of a score of sodden derelicts is none too pleasant.”
11. If you couldn’t afford booze in those days, you could buy “smoke,” a mix of water and wood alcohol or denatured alcohol. It cost a nickel. When the water was poured into the alcohol, smoke wafted up the neck of the bottle: hence the name. Let us say that it was not a healthy beverage.
12. Sammy Fuchs—“a big, muscular guy (he worked out regularly at a boxing gym) who had a face like the map of Israel”—worked as a lookout for bootleggers during Prohibition. When the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, Fuchs opened his own bar at 267 Bowery. He became known as a kind saloon keeper, making sure bums were fed, getting them doctors when necessary, paying for funerals. He eventually expanded next door, got a cabaret license, and hired down-and-out old vaudevillians. Sammy’s Bowery Follies became a fave of locals, tourists, and sailors headed to the Bowery to get tattoos. Weegee called Sammy’s “a lulu of a floor show.”
13. As the West Village began to gentrify in the 1950s and ’60s, creative types began moving to the much cheaper Bowery, renting lofts in former flophouses. William S. Burroughs lived at 222 Bowery. Feminist author Kate Millett lived at 295 Bowery, once the home of the dive of dives, McGurk’s Suicide Hall. The lovely, quirky little Amato Opera (a fave of my mom, who came all the way down from Barnard College in the early 1960s to see shows there) is today, like so much of the neighborhood, fancy condos.
14. Soon punk rock arrived. Alexiou reports that the New York Dolls made their debut on the Bowery in 1971 at a Christmas show for the homeless. Before long, Lou Reed, the Dolls, the Modern Lovers, and Suicide were all playing the Mercer Arts Center in the shambling University Hotel at Broadway and Bleecker nearby. (The University Hotel had a pretty colorful pre-punk history, too: Robber baron James Fisk was shot to death on the hotel’s sweeping stairway; Diamond Jim Brady partied in the lobby; and a Russian immigrant writer named Lev Davidovich Bronstein changed his name as tribute to his favorite hangout there, Trotsky’s Kosher Restaurant.) The Mercer’s punk heyday was tragically short: By 1973, the old walls were cracking. One day, the building started literally groaning. Bricks began to fall. It collapsed, killing four people inside. Today, it’s the site of NYU graduate student housing.
15. Hilly Kristal opened CBGB a few months later in 1973. Television played its first set there. The book offers a whiplash-quick tour through the club’s history, full of Hells Angels, Ramones, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, audience members Warhol and Ginsberg. All very interesting, but ask me about the time a guy picked me up at the bar in 1994 by watching me blot my sweaty forehead with a lace hankie and telling me, “You sweat just like David Dinkins!”
16. Gentrification began on the Bowery in the 1990s, “caused in part by a spillover from Chinatown, to where capital was flowing from Hong Kong in anticipation of the British departure in 1997,” Alexiou writes. Hong Kong Chinese investors began buying up rundown old Jewish and Italian restaurant-supply businesses; other speculators took notice. Dive bars and men’s shelters gave way to gleaming condos, hotels, fancy boîtes. “So things are gone, places are gone,” Hilly Kristal shrugged. “You want old stuff? Go to Europe. This is New York.” CBGB is now a John Varvatos store.
17. Alexiou tells the story of an urban explorer and neighborhood resident named Adam Woodward, who in the early 2000s watched the excavation of a former parking lot for the erection of the New Museum. Woodward saw human bones come out of the earth. The backhoe operator freaked out. Woodward informed the city, which initially blew him off, but after he took photos of bones and tombstones, the city admitted that the area had once been a burial ground for St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, the city’s first black Episcopal church. (“The city should have known this before it issued the excavation permit,” Alexiou notes, “because a survey performed just one year earlier in connection with a proposed Second Avenue subway line specifically dealt with the presence of St. Philip’s along the proposed route and the probability of finding human remains there.”)
If all this sounds enticing to you, check out the book’s breakneck stories about peg-legged Jew-hating governors, Irish mobsters, Weegee, Mazie Phillips, real-estate profiteers, and many other colorful figures. But read quickly. Because before long, everything on the Bowery will be something else.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.