In 2005, when AvalonBay Communities opened a multi-million dollar apartment building on Houston Street and Bowery, complete with an 85,000 square foot Whole Foods, the proverbial thought of ‘there goes the neighborhood’ must have occurred to some. Phil Hartman, the owner of the independent Pioneer Theater, could not “stand the thought that this neighborhood will turn out looking like any other.” The Bowery, the street stretching from New York City’s Chinatown up to the East Village, has a long history of seedy nightlife, less-than-reputable pursuits, and a disregard for the upper classes.
The Bowery Road was originally so named because it led from New Amsterdam, at the southern tip of Manhattan, up to Peter Stuyvesant’s bowery, an extensive farmland that he amassed while serving as Director-General of the Dutch colony. After Stuyvesant’s death, the bowery remained home to his heirs and the small community of people connected to the farm. In the 18th century, this amounted to not much more than a blacksmith, wagon shop, general store, and tavern. The small village did not grow very much during this century out of fear of the Bowery Road itself; highwaymen would accost travelers in the unpopulated woods between the city and the farmlands. Even early in its history, the road was not inviting to the respectable sort.
By the 19th century, the bowery area attracted more attention by offering an escape from epidemics that would plague the cramped inhabitants of New York City. In addition, it became a popular market destination, as farmers took advantage of selling their wares away from the city and its taxes. In the early 1800s, “comfortable” residences appeared all along the Bowery Road, along with artisan shops, groceries, a brothel and a post office. (Not a proper post office, but an oyster house in which the postman left the neighborhood’s mail.) The Bowery Village, as it came to be called, was a community of laborers, such as apprentices, butchers boys, and chimney sweeps. The particularly rowdy New Years Eve of 1827 resulted in a drunken parade from Bowery Village all the way to Battery Park, where the crowd smashed windows and tried to tear down the park’s fences. In shock, some wealthier citizens attempted to clean up the neighborhood. They began by relocating the Bull’s Head Tavern, the meat market that made the Bowery Road stink of cattle, all the way up to Third Avenue and 24thStreet.
In place of the Bull’s Head at Bowery and Hester Street, the New York Theater was built in an attempt to attract a civilized leisure crowd. This project was perhaps a bit too ambitious, because with hundreds more seats than its competitors, managers were rarely able to fill it with gentrified audiences. In order to keep profits up, the entertainment became more plebian in nature, with horse races, Indian dances, and melodramas. By the mid-1800s the area around the theater had expanded into a full-blown entertainment district, with the city’s highest amounts of various disreputable establishments: “groggeries, flophouses, clip joints, brothels, fire sales, rigged auctions, pawnbrokers, dime museums, shooting galleries, dime-a-dance establishments, fortune-telling salons, lottery agencies, thieves’ markets, and tattoo parlors, as well as theaters of the second, third, fifth and tenth rank.”
This early attempt at gentrification would not repeat itself for another century and a half. In the 20th century, the neighborhood’s affordability attracted an eclectic mix of immigrants, young artists, and radical political activists. It also accumulated a large homeless population, due to a lack of city-run missions and shelters. In the sixties, Bowery was home to over a hundred ‘flophouses,’ or cheap, single-occupancy hotel rooms where the homeless took shelter. In the fifties, city planner Robert Moses had attempted to have many of these buildings razed, but the resulting community backlash managed to halt his attempts. In the sixties, the Bowery hosted influential artists such as Mark Rothko and Robert Frank, and the famous CBGB’s introduced the world to The Ramones and Patti Smith. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, the Bowery began to succumb to the gradual gentrification that was spreading across most of Manhattan. By the 2000s, with the opening of several luxury condominiums and the closure of CBGB’s, this gentrification was nearly complete. Andrew Berman, the director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, worries about the Bowery, citing the fact that none of the individual buildings on their own would be considered important enough to gain the protection of historic landmark status. The author Luc Sante calls streets like the Bowery a necessary urban counterweight to streets like Fifth or Madison Avenues, but it is a feature that, sadly, is becoming increasingly rare in today’s Manhattan.
 Leon Lazaroff, “Curtain Call, Not Curtains, For Bowery,” McClatchy – Tribune Business News, 11 July 2005.
 Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 178, 389.
 Burrows and Wallace, 477, and Lazaroff “Curtain Call,” quoting Luc Sante’s book Low Life.
 Lazaroff, “Curtain Call”.