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The Bowery under the Third Avenue Elevated: Capturing the soot and shadow of Old New York

It’s a vivid image (for some bleak, other romantic) that most New Yorkers cannot imagine. But a few people still living today remember it quite well — the Bowery underneath an elevated train line.

Lee Sievan

The Third Avenue Elevated was constructed in 1878, connecting South Ferry with Harlem via a sturdy, darkening railroad track, hoisted over the street. The entire length of the Bowery was covered with it, from its south end (in what would soon become Chinatown) to its northern section, merging with Third Avenue at Cooper Square.

At right: Bowery and Mott Street, 1946

Our perceptions of the Bowery have greatly shifted over the past decade and it can be hard to find traces of its extraordinary history anymore.

The former farm road of Peter Stuyvesant had once been a fashionable destination for New York elite in the 1830s, but the arrival of immigrant communities drove the old wealth away. The culture of the mid-19th century Bowery included bawdy theatricals, minstrel shows, dime museums and even circus troupes, mixing with saloons and beer halls.

The elevated railroad hastened the Bowery’s fall into a purely disreputable district. Even with the beer dens, dance halls and brothels swept from the street by the early 20th century, its reputation remained dire, becoming New York’s Skid Row. The decades of soot which covered the buildings and sidewalks only helped paint the Bowery as an avenue of depression and woe.

Below are a selection of images from these years — from the 1880s until 1955 — courtesy the Library of Congress and the Museum of the City of New York — showing the Bowery tangled and contained by the steel latticework of the Third Avenue El.

Next time you walk the Bowery, imagine it with trains in the sky.

And after viewing these — check out these images of the 1955 deconstruction of the lower Manhattan sections of the Third Avenue El by Sid Kaplan, from a show last year at the Transit Museum.

For more information, please listen to Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast Episode #107 on the history of New York’s elevated railroads. 

The Bowery at Canal Street, 1880

Museum of the City of New York

The Bowery, 1886, specific location unknown

Museum of the City of New York/Adolph Witteman

144 Bowery to the left, 1895

Library of Congress/Strohmeyer & Wyman

70-72 Bowery to the left, 1897

Library of Congress/Keystone View Company
Museum of the City of New York/Robert Bracklow

The Bowery and Grand Street, 1900

Library of Congress

Outside the Bowery Savings Bank (designed by Stanford White), 128-130 Bowery, 1905

Library of Congress

Outside the Bowery Mission, 55 Bowery, 1910

Library of Congress

293 Bowery, between 1910-15

Library of Congress

The Bowery 1900, exact location unknown (any clues?)

In the Bowery’s former Diamond District, February 1912

Lewis Hine, Library of Congress

115-117 Bowery, an early restaurant supply store, 1932

Museum of the City of New York/ Charles Von Urban

103 Bowery, 1935

Berenice Abbott/NYPL

264 Bowery, 1935

Berenice Abbott/NYPL

The Bowery and Division Street, 1935

Berenice Abbott/NYPL

The Bowery, Chatham Square Station, 1940

Arnold Eagle

The Bowery at 4th Street, 1942

Library of Congress/Marjory Collins

The Bowery at Cooper Union, 1942

Library of Congrss, Marjory Collins

The Bowery and St. Mark’s Place, 1942

Library of Congress, Marjory Collins

The Bowery, location and photographer unknown, 1945

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

An apothecary at 6 Bowery, 1947

Museum of the City of New York/Don Morgan

The Bowery at Cooper Square, 1955

Museum of the City of New York/Calvin S. Hathaway

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