Devil’s Mile: A spirited survey of the Bowery’s history that wages war with the boutique hotels

Looking at a map of official New York historical districts and landmarks, one notices a disturbing phenomenon — almost nothing along the Bowery is protected. Historic districts to its east and west step back from the Bowery like it’s cursed. There are several Bowery structures north of Houston on the east side that enjoy the protections of the NoHo Historic District but the rest fends for itself.

A historic district recognizes a neighborhood’s personality and seeks to preserve it. There is no street in Manhattan that has more personality than the Bowery, a famously bawdy, gritty place that has satisfied New York’s most wanton urges and sheltered the city’s rejects. If gentrification wasn’t seriously threatening the nature of this ubiquitous place, one could almost say that riskily going without a designation was an almost punk thing to do.

The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery
Alice Sparberg Alexiou
St. Martin’s Press

A new history book about the Bowery by Alice Sparberg Alexiou (who’s previously written books on the Flatiron Building and Jane Jacobs) feels almost like a biography. In Devil’s Mile, the Bowery grows from a ‘farm road’ to an embodiment of urban vice and decay, with occasional lurches into presentability.

What began as a rural pathway to Peter Stuyvesant‘s land holdings was transformed in the early 19th century by speculators, in particular John Jacob Astor and his brother Henry. “The Astor brothers’ credo was to buy land when prices were low,” writes Alexiou, “hold on to it, and wait for their holdings to appreciate.”

Their brotherly rivalry plays out at opposite ends of the street — wealthier John Jacob with his Astor Opera House and resentful Henry with the Bowery Theatre. Where the opera house held pretenses of class, the Bowery Theater eventually hosted minstrels and loose versions of Shakespeare for rowdy, drunken crowds.

Poor immigrant classes flocked to the Bowery, turning the street into a ragged escape from the realities of tenement life. “The Bowery … took care of them like some poverty-stricken, foul-mouthed, tough, self-sacrificing mother.”

Below: Music venues like CBGB kept the Bowery’s unique personality alive. 

Courtesy GODLIS

Devil’s Mile keeps one foot in the present, presenting history in the context of the Bowery’s modern ’boutique hotel’ livelihood, its sleek cleanliness seeming farcical next to Alexiou’s descriptions of grimy abandon.

Even the attentions of the designer set is a throwback to the past. “It became the number one destination for the age-old pastime, slum tourism. People went to the Bowery for fun spiked with danger, because, along with the tired and the poor, the Bowery embraced just about anything connected with vice, the number one business of New York in the Gilded Age.”

The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council submitted the proposal for a Bowery Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places several years ago but it is not yet an officially protected area. Devil’s Mile should provide new motivation for this ongoing battle to protect the past.

At top: The Bowery, 1900, William Louis Sonntag Jr, courtesy Museum of the City of New York