New York City – The Bowery

Everyone knows that New York is now a collection of cities, and not merely an aggregation of sky-scrapers on the island of Manhattan. Some years ago the parent city expanded legally, took in its neighbors and its suburbs, and called itself Greater New York. The places that were caught in the net were Brooklyn, Long Island City, Staten Island, Coney Island, and a baker’s dozen of villages. The area of the consolidated city is something quite startling; but as yet the consolidation is more on the map than in the mind of the average citizen. The insular in thought — and they are still a majority — keep harking back to the compact squares lying between the Battery and the Harlem, keep thinking of that as New York, with Brooklyn and beyond, as formerly, a part of the suburbs.

The Manhattan part of the city is, again, a collection of towns, if we divide by settlements and races. Every New Yorker is more or less familiar with such localities as Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Hungary; with such quarters as the. French, the Scandinavians, or the Syrians occupy; or with the ghettos that seem to spring up and multiply everywhere throughout the poorer portions of the city. Whenever a nationality gathers in a certain place, a reputation and a name attach, neither of them perhaps very savory. Unfortunately the foreign elements that come to the city in such numbers belong to the impecunious strata of humanity, and from necessity seek lodgings each with its own kind. When once located in their particular district, race and language continue to hold them there. Naturally these birds of a feather give a distinct character to their section of the city — a character that writers and painters are continually seeking to exploit under the name of “local color.”

But there is a broader ethnological division of Manhattan that may be made, and perhaps a more inclusive one. The backbone of the island running north and south is along Broadway, up Fifth Avenue, through the Central Park. This is the elevated portion of the island, where the cleanly, comfortable, well-to-do New Yorkers live — this is Upper New York. On both sides of this central ridge, sloping away toward the rivers, are depressed districts where people of an entirely different kind are brought together. These are the East and the West Sides where the tenement-houses spread over many blocks, where the foreign elements congregate, where the vicious and the unfortunate, the honest and the dishonest, the decent and the indecent, the law-abiding and the criminal, are all brought together by the gravity of circumstance — this is Nether New York.

The division line between the Upper and the Nether city is rather sharply drawn. A step down from the ridge, a block or so away from Broadway, and you are in what used to be called “the slums.” Here is the violent contrast once more, a contrast not merely between fine business blocks and ramshackle tenements, or between the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken; but between a house and a haunt, between cleanliness and dirt, between healthful quarters and the disease-breeding sweat-shops. The distinction is so positive, the difference so wide, that it can hardly be exaggerated. The opposite poles of humanity are likewise represented. The gap between the highest intelligence and social rank and the lowest animal existence seems reduced to a matter of a few streets. Over the edge of what the cosmopolitan enthusiast regards as little less than heaven, comes up the reek and the roar of that other place which the settlement workers regard as little better than a place of torment.

However, it is safe to say that many of the dwellers on the East Side do not consider their quarters so infernal as the Upper New Yorkers think them. They are not in continuous torment, otherwise they would not stay there. True enough, they have not the comforts that go with life on Fifth Avenue, but then people do not miss what they know nothing about. Besides, they have a Fifth Avenue of their own in which they are, perhaps, just as happy.

The Fifth Avenue of the East Side is the Bowery. Everyone knows the Bowery, because for years the magazine writers and illustrators have been making copy out of it. It has been regarded by some as the freak street of the town, — the place where one goes to laugh at the absurd and the queer, or to get sociological statistics in exaggerated form. Society used to go there, and to its tributary streets, some years ago on slumming expeditions. It does so still, and comes back to its up-town home better satisfied, perhaps, with its own quarters. Settlement workers and Charity Organization people go there, too; and some of them stay there to help better the social conditions. Besides these there are scores of the morbidly curious who visit the street seeking they know not what, and gaining only a dismal impression. All told, there are many different impressions brought up from the Bowery and its runways by different people.

Perhaps the most prevalent feeling among the visitors is pity for those who move along the wide thoroughfare — pity that they are so circumstanced, that they can know no better or higher life. Yet it is an open question if those who live on the Bowery or its tributaries, are really to be pitied, are really so badly off. They do not look so very doleful as one meets them on the street.

Beyond a doubt there are misery and misfortune, crime and vagrancy, through the haunts of the East Side; but they are not very apparent on the Bowery. Still the street is not so wildly gay nor its habitues so violently lively as they have been painted. There are gray faces there, faces that look Iost or homeless or out-of-work. It is the thoroughfare of many thoughtlessly mirthful or genuinely happy working people, but it is also the beat of the weary, the friendless, the outcast, the dissipated, the submerged.

All classes are there — tradespeople, clerks, mechanics, truckmen, longshoremen, sailors, janitors, politicians, peddlers, pawnbrokers, old-clothes men, with shop-girls, sewing-women, piece workers, concert-hall singers, chorus girls. And all nationalities. It is one of the most cosmopolitan streets in New York. The Italians come into it from Elizabeth Street, the Chinese from Pell and Doyers streets, the Germans from beyond Houston Street, the Hungarians from Second Avenue, and the Jews from almost everywhere. Every street coming up from the East River may bring in a separate tale. Taken with a liberal sprinkling of Russians, Poles, Rumanians, Armenians, Irish, and native Americans from the west, north, and south, they make a much mixed assemblage. But there is no great variety of hue in it. The prevailing dress is rather somber, as well as frayed or shiny with wear. Occasionally a butterfly from the theater sails by; but the Bowery is not Fifth Avenue, nor even Mott Street, in color-gayety. Sometimes one is disposed to think it a sad street.

What brings these people to the Bowery? Why, the same thing that draws the crowd in Upper New York to Fifth Avenue or Twenty-Third Street or Broadway. They are out shopping, or strolling, or gossiping, or meeting acquaintances, or bent on business. Why not? Humanity is very much the same in all circles and classes. The East Side does not live out of a pushcart exclusively. Occasionally it wants a better quality of food or clothing. Then it goes up to the Bowery and comes face to face with the cheap store. There it usually gets swindled, for the poor quality of the goods makes them dear at any price; but then they are “in style.” And be it remembered that the style of the Bowery is just as invincible and omnipotent to the East Sider as that of Fifth Avenue to the Upper New Yorker. In fashion, as in life, there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. As for the cost, it is the plain penalty of the thinking, wherever you go or buy.

But the Bowery is a great shopping street, nevertheless. Almost everything is purchasable there. Old-clothes men, with pushcarts. in the gutter, sell boots, stockings, shirts, hats; peddlers trail along the curb hung deep with shoestrings and suspenders, or carrying trays of collar buttons and neckties; banana howlers and stale-strawberry venders address the second-story windows with yells; the sidewalk showcase, presenting women’s garments, toilet articles, knick-knacks, and cheap ornaments, has its attendant “puller-in” who will sell you everything in the case “at a bargain”; and the cheap stores are bulging with polite managers who meet one at the door and leave no word unsaid that will induce an exchange of goods for money.

The store on the Bowery is unique in both its quantity and quality. There always seems to be an overstock of shirts, shoes, and trousers. Presumably the clothing that has been rejected from the Upper city because of waning styles, eventually finds its way to the Bowery, and is sold for what it will bring. How otherwise can one account for neckties at five cents and shirts at twenty cents, or trousers and shoes from seventy-five cents up? Everything is “marked down.” The jewelry shops offer things at prices that compel attention. The seaman ashore or the countryman at sea cannot resist the allurement; besides, the “puller-in “usually warrants everything for an indefinite number of years. His next-door neighbor, the pawnbroker, — there are half a dozen on almost every block,—is also a perfectly reliable gentleman who pro-motes trade wholly to his own effacement and merely as a friend of the wandering stranger. Perhaps there is a shade more of affability about his take than his give; but then, of course, he has to live, poor soul.

The pawnshops and the second-hand establishments come as near to the department store as anything the Bowery can offer. Almost anything can be had in them, from revolvers and musical instruments to furniture, crockery, and hardware. The articles have a battered look, but the average East Sider has gotten used to such appearances, having been hustled and elbowed himself most of his life. Yet he and his wife sometimes buy shrewdly enough and beat down the price to the last syllable of allotted patience. Money does not always come and go here with a Fifth Avenue freedom. Eventually it passes, but perhaps grudgingly, reluctantly. In the day’s work quite a volume of business is done. It is not that of Broadway or Twenty-Third Street. There are no huge stores with their enormous sales; but for all that there is in the aggregate a good deal of buying and selling on the Bowery.

And, too, there is the same restless push and rush here as elsewhere in the city. The restaurants on the Bowery are striking epitomes of the New York rush. “Quick Lunch” is advertised almost everywhere, and carried out strictly according to programme. Your order is not infrequently yelled across the dining room, or roared down a dumb-waiter; and when it comes in, it is skidded off a tray and on to the table without preface or apology. Usually it is not a bad lunch. The prices asked make the squeamish visitor entertain notions of stale vegetables, “chuck” steaks, and over-ripe fruits; but the regular habitue of the Bowery has no qualms about them. He eats and comes to no harm thereby. And he drinks Hungarian or Italian wines, or lager beer, and apparently comes to no great harm by them either. The cafes peculiar to the different nationalities are more centrally located in their various districts; but the Bowery is cosmopolitan enough to have all things for all men, from chop suey to goulash, and from stale beer to fine grades of Voslauer Goldeck.

And what amusement the Bowery furnishes to its easily amused people! The different races, the street types such as the pushcart man, the hawker, the puller-in, the gay girl, the flashy young man, the sailors in twos and threes, and the countryman in ones, are all amusement to the crowd. When it tires of these, it gathers in front of a dog-and-bird store, and watches with infinite zest puppies in the window quarreling about a bone, or guinea pigs milling about in a little pen, or canary birds, singing them-selves sore in the throat, in a dirty little wooden cage. Anywhere along the Bowery there are superior inducements offered to see all the splendors of the world in a peep show for the reasonable sum of one cent. And many there be who look therein to witness such things as never were on land or sea. The shooting gallery, the museum of anatomy, and the: snake show come higher but are worth more, being in their nature educational. The “barker” on the outside, who announces the wonders to be seen, tells you all about this. He and his twin brother of the vaudeville or concert hall know what to say to attract attention. And they are experts at handling a crowd. They keep talking to the accompaniment of a blaring phonograph or a cheap German band or .an orchestrion — anything to make a noise — and during the confusion tickets are sold, and the people are pushed in at the entrance.

In the theaters the prevailing language corresponds to the supporting constituency. The old Bowery Theater that once housed traditions of the English stage with the elder Booth, Edwin Forrest, and Charlotte Cushman, still stands to-day, but it now belongs more to the He-brew than to the American, and performances are given there in German or Yiddish oftener than in English. At the side of it is the popular Atlantic Gardens, where vaudeville, music, beer, and the German language are largely provided each night. Farther up town is the Irving Place Theater, once more devoted to Germans; and as high up on Madison Avenue as Fifty-Eighth Street there is still another German theater. The language seems to prevail on the East Side. Not but what there are other tongues. The Italians crowd into the Teatro Italiano on the Bowery, as the Chinese into the queer little theater on Doyers Street, or the Irish into Miner’s; but there is always someone at your elbow who speaks German, or some kindred dialect. In other quarters of the city there are colonies where one hears only Syrian, Greek, Russian, Rumanian, Hungarian; but on the Bowery, though all nationalities meet and talk each its own language, there is, aside from English, a preponderance of German and Yiddish.

The babel of tongues makes more of a noise than one would imagine. There are four lines of street cars running up the Bowery, besides the roaring elevated overhead and innumerable vans, trucks, beer wagons, delivery wagons, and pushcarts rattling over pavements and through side streets. If the mob would make itself heard, it must shout above this din of traffic. As a result, almost everyone there speaks explosively, talks much with his hands, and expresses acceptance or dissent with his head. At the Chatham Square end of the Bowery, where the elevated makes a junction with its Second Avenue line, the uproar is increased. The crowd presses closely to hear what the patent-medicine fakir is saying, the policeman bends over with his hand on your shoulder to get your question, the “puller-in” drags you into his store and shuts the door to hear his own voice. The Bowery is a noisy, reverberating street. The roar of tongues and traffic is always rising from it.

Quite different, all this, from two hundred years ago. Then the wide thoroughfare was a country road running out to the farms (bouweries) of the wealthier Dutch settlers of Manhattan; and the Stuyvesants, Beeckmans, and others in square-toed shoes trudged along it, perhaps with guns on their shoulders for protection against Indians. Afterward the road was extended the whole length of the island — the first one of its kind — and in time it became the old post-road leading into New England. With the British occupation of the city, camps were established along it. Several drinking-places sprang up in the neighborhood of the camps, and the evil of them, say the temperance people, has persisted on the street to this day. No doubt the saloon’s line of descent has remained unbroken from those times to these, but the British soldiery should not be unduly blamed for it. There are quite as many saloons on Seventh and Eighth avenues as on the Bowery, and they are all of pure enough American ancestry.

But the saloon is about the only thing on the Bowery that has persisted. Everything else, except the corrupted name, has faded out. The Bowery Boy is now merely a tradition, and yet he came and went in our own time. The old volunteer fire department, of which he was part and parcel, brought him into existence. He ran with his particular engine, and fought with his particular gang — fought other gangs with perhaps more vim than fires. He was in some sort of a row almost daily; if not on the street, then in the gallery of the old Bowery Theater, where his face and his fist were always sufficient passport. He was a picturesque “tough” with an original vocabulary and a variegated costume; and everyone, even Thackeray, found him an amusing study.

The Bowery Boy went out with the trees that used to line the historic roadway, and has been succeeded by the bad young man of more or less foreign extraction, with nothing distinctive about him except his cheapness and his vulgarity. Many of the older types and characters that bartered and sold on the Bowery have passed on, too. They have been driven out, drowned out by the wave of foreigners that has inundated the East Side in the last dozen years. Nothing lasts for any length of time in this new Western Continent. New York is its representative city in this respect, and in it all things — homes, buildings, people, streets, the Bowery as well as Broadway—are swept along in a shifting panorama of change.