Bleecker Street: “headquarters of Bohemianism”

“He who does not know Bleecker Street does not know New York,” wrote James D. McCabe in his 1872 guidebook Lights and Shadows of New York Life. “It is of all the localities of the metropolis one of the best worth studying.”

Why did McCabe single out Bleecker? In post–Civil War New York, it was a perfect example of how quickly a thoroughfare can go from fancy to shabby chic.

“It was once the abode of wealth and fashion, as its fine old mansion testify,” states McCabe, referring to the grand detached houses that lined Bleecker from the Bowery to Sixth Avenue.

“Twenty-five years ago they were homes of wealth and refinement . . . the old mansions are [now] put to the viler uses of third-rate boarding houses and restaurants.”

Bleecker’s rep sank thanks to the bordellos that began lining nearby Greene and Mercer Streets. Soon it became the center of Bohemianism—a label that applied into the 1960s, when Bleecker hosted Beat writers, folk musicians, and edgy comedians.

“You may dress as you please, live as you please, do as you please in all things, and no comments will be made. There is no ‘society’ here to worry your life with its claims and laws. Life here is based on principles which differ from those which prevail in other parts of the city.”

[Van Nest mansion drawing: courtesy of the NYPL Digital Collection]

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8 Responses to “Bleecker Street: “headquarters of Bohemianism””

  1. SS Says:

    I recall reading that in the 1870s black transvestites put on drag shows on Bleecker, I think near MacDougal.

    Nothing new under the sun in the Village.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    The Black and Tan Club and the Black Rabbit on Bleecker were very scandalous in the late 19th century. Mixed race clientele, whores, fighting…Bleecker Street was rough and ready.

  3. Lisa Says:

    “… detached houses that lined Bleecker from Grand Street to Sixth Avenue.”

    Since when have Bleecker & Grand intersected?

    • wildnewyork Says:

      That’s a great catch Lisa. They’re five blocks apart on the east and west sides. Either McCabe messed up or perhaps the streets were linked back in 1872?

      • T.J. Connick Says:

        Bleecker’s eastern origin has ever been Bowery. The Grand could have crept in as a mistaken replication of the grand mansions phrase in the same sentence.

        We’re deeply grateful for the thousands of wonderful sketches. Such a puny error is to be expected now and then: nobody bats 1.000. The papers have big staffs, big budgets and they constantly trip up. It’s a credit to your devotion that you can single-handedly do what you do. (Maybe you’ve got a big staff and a big budget that you keep under wraps?) The compact and entertaining narratives disguise the serious work that you must do before sharing with us a bit of our past.

        The physical appearance of Bleecker in the Bowery-6th Ave stretch would have had a bit more variety than contemporary Bond Street, but — particularly in its Bleecker-to-Broadway section, would have attracted the same social set. Bleecker shared Bond’s rise and fall in the eyes of the fashionable, with Bleecker falling further, and a bit sooner than Bond.

        The Van Nest mansion (he was moved here after 1864) was really an aberration. An 1854 atlas shows it as the only home on the block, with the rest of the district fully developed with adjoining buildings. It warrants a full study of its own, but one tribute to its powerful presence will do. The north side of Charles that ran along the former full-block Van Nest property retained its own name as Van Nest Place until the 1930s. Across the street and left and right across intersecting streets of W. 4th and Bleecker, the name was Charles.

      • wildnewyork Says:

        Thank you for your kind words, but the Grand Street error is all mine–probably an accidental rep of the word earlier in the text. I’ve changed it in the copy.

        In a perfect world, I’d have a proofreader, but alas, Ephemeral New York is mostly a solo operation, at least on the editing end.

  4. Defunct city addresses on vintage real estate ads | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] J. Bleecker, a member of the family Bleecker Street was named after, must have been the preeminent auctioneer at the time. I wonder what he sold these […]

  5. trilby1895 Says:

    So fascinating! Bleecker has always been one of my favorite Village streets, even now, simply oozes atmosphere. The Black and Tan used to exist about across from Bleecker Street Cinema, maybe still does.

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