Remembering Coney Island’s very own bawdy Bowery: A short history in pictures

The Bowery (from the Dutch word bouwerij) in Manhattan was once a farm road that connected the young city, confined in an area below today’s City Hall, to the distant farm estate of Peter Stuyvesant in today’s East Village. But the street developed a raucous and shady reputation in the 19th century thanks to the many saloons and dance halls which called it home. And it is that Bowery that inspired the development of a second Bowery in Brooklyn — in the seaside amusement district of Coney Island.

The Coney Island Bowery was a short street running parallel between Surf Avenue and the beach. One entrance to Steeplechase Park, one of the biggest amusement parks in Coney Island, sat on the western end of the Bowery. George Tilyou, a proprietor of Steeplechase, originally developed the street as a boardwalk, but by the 1890s it had developed a character quite separate from Tilyou’s intentions.  [For a virtual tour of the amusement park, listen to our podcast episode on Coney Island’s landmarks.]

1903, Library of Congress

Let’s just say, one tended to not take their children to the Bowery. While other sectors of Coney Island delighted the crowds with extraordinary wonders — hotels in the shape of elephants, macabre death and destruction rides — the Bowery offered more robust, worldly entertainments. By the late 19th century, the street was lined with dance halls, dive bars, restaurants where the partying rarely stopped.

1903, Library of Congress
1904, New York Public Library

The street became the domain of Brooklyn political boss John McKane who famously encouraged seedier establishments to open on the Bowery as they could afford to pay McKane and his cronies kickbacks and bribes.

From the Brooklyn Eagle, 1897:

Harry Houdini unsurprisingly practiced his magical craft here in 1894 (at Vacca’s West End Casino) and the music halls employed such future star performers as Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor. On a heady Saturday evening, one could drift from hall to hall, hearing the best of ragtime and jazz.

William Herman Rau photographer, Library of Congress

A series of horrible fires between 1899 and 1906 gutted the Bowery, wiping most of the bawdier places from the map. Reformers petitioned to turn the burned zone into an ocean promenade, free from vice. Eventually many establishments did reopen on the Bowery — indeed, the street became an even great draw — but the overall environment was more decidedly family friendly.

Still, it must have been a magically chaotic place.

“Bands, orchestras, pianos at war with gramophones, hand-organs, calliopes; overhead, a roar of wheels in a death lock with shrieks and screams; whistles, gongs, rifles all busy; the smell of candy, popcorn, meats, beer, tobacco, blended with the odor of the crowd redolent now and then of patchouli; A streaming river of people arched over by electric signs — this is the Bowery at Coney Island.” — Elmer Blaney Harris, 1906

1912, Library of Congress

1913, near the Steeplechase entrance

Souvenir Post Card Co/Museum of the City of New York

By the 1960s, most of the hotels and restaurants had closed, and the Bowery became the destination with inexpensive food stands — as it is today.