Stand here and feel the ghosts of Bowery Village

Stand at Cooper Square looking toward St. Marks Place: this honky-tonk corner in today’s East Village was once the center of a 19th century outpost known as Bowery Village.

Far from the hustle and bustle of the city, Bowery Village sprang up around Petrus Stuyvesant’s estate. (Petrus Stuyvesant was a great-grandson of Peter, the director-general of New Amsterdam in the 17th century.)

It’s hard to imagine the concrete and brick East Village of today as a struggling farming community. The illustration above gives an idea, though it depicts Union Square, where the Bowery (now Fourth Avenue) and Broadway meet.

In the late 1790s, this area was part of a “rugged belt of land, with here and there a garden and a solitary house, to diversify the bareness of the stunted pasture lots with their dilapidated fences,” states an 1864 history of the Bowery Village Methodist Church. This church was a centerpiece of the community and was located at Seventh Street between Second and Third Avenues.

Early on, Bowery Village “consisted chiefly of a long unpaved street of struggling houses . . . dreaming little, as  yet, of the Russ pavement and car track,” the church historical document recalled.

After Stuyvesant laid a street grid—while keeping diagonal Stuyvesant Street, which lead from the Bowery to St. Mark’s Church (above right in the 1820s)—people moved in, driven from the city downtown by heat and disease.

“Throughout the 18th century it remained sparsely settled—a few houses plus blacksmith, wagon shop, general store, and tavern—partly from fear of highwaymen lurking in the Bayard Woods,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

Like other villages across Manhattan, Bowery Village functioned as something of a suburb. “Because Bowery Village lay just outside the city limits, farmers could sell there without paying a market tax,” wrote Burrows and Wallace.

“Wagon stands soon flourished along Sixth and Seventh Streets, along with a weigh scale for Westchester hay merchants. Comfortable residences went up along the upper Bowery, still a country road edged with blackberry bushes. . . . “

“Artisan house-and-shops arrived too; so did groggeries, a brothel, and a post office (in truth an oyster house where the postrider left mail for the village). From 1804 the community even had its own (short-lived) newspaper, the Bowery Republican.”

The enclave also had its own graveyard between First and Second Avenues and Eleventh Street, possibly this one, noted on later 19th century maps.

Not much remains of Bowery Village. The city quickly marched northward and subsumed it by the 1850s, as it did Greenwich Village to the west.

One remnant is St. Mark’s Church itself, still on Second Avenue and Tenth Street. Built on Stuyvesant family land, it was consecrated in 1799.

Another survivor is the Stuyvesant Fish House (above left), a wedding present for Stuyvesant’s daughter and her husband, Nicolas Fish (parents of Hamilton Fish, New York governor and senator), at 21 Stuyvesant Street.

This wide Federal-style house was built in 1804, predating Robert Fulton’s invention of the steamboat.

“Bowery Village’s cohesion appeared to be short-lived,” wrote Kenneth A. Scherzer in The Unbounded Community.

“With the development of the surrounding wards it rapidly broke down, and with the settlement of “newcomers” who replaced the established residents in the late 1830s, Bowery Village ceased to exist in both reality and in name.”

That’s the East Village to this day: a constant push-pull between old timers and newcomers. Find out more about both in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: Ephemeral New York; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Evening Post 1819; fifth image: Edward Lamson Henry; fifth and sixth images: Ephemeral New York]

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6 Responses to “Stand here and feel the ghosts of Bowery Village”

  1. carolegill Says:

    very interesting. The announcement of a ‘Charity Sermon,’ uses the British spelling of ‘favourable’ . perhaps it was before the Revolution?

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Not long afterward. The British influence seems to have stuck around.

  3. Zoe Says:

    And people complain about restaurants they miss & gentrification etc. Imagine if you were very elderly in this village during the time of great change mentioned here & remembered your early days there.

    I would like to know when this first street grid you mentioned was done Ephemeral. Because the tenement I lived in at 31 East First Street at Second Avenue was built in 1920 but the cellar incorporated a *much* older cellar foundation.

    The front (1920) part of the cellar foundation was made of concrete bricks & higher (by about six inches) than the smaller back portion. The back portion was lined w/ jagged fieldstones.

    The older fieldstone portion had been made into a small kitchen in the ‘super apartment’. Which was the whole cellar including a room in the back behind the kitchen (used as a bedroom) – which opened onto a courtyard also lined w/ these jagged fieldstones. The courtyard was also apparently part of the same early cellar foundation. The explanation for it being so sunken; unlike other courtyards in the neighbourhood & City.

    There is a landmarked house on the same East First Street block – a few buildings down. I’ve forgotten who this belonged to (there is a plaque I believe); but the man owned a small farm estate there.

    When I first learned that I thought the old foundation inside #31 must have come from one of his buildings.

    I have also wondered if the foundation was built for a much earlier tenement (or whatever the earliest boarding houses were called). But the type of fieldstone cellar walls I saw were the type I’m familiar w/ from late 18th c. & very early 19th c. houses on the CT Shore outside NYC.

    Recent landlords renovated the cellar/’super apartment’ for use as a very high rent apartment w/ the courtyard; so they probably sheetrocked over the bare rock kitchen outer wall; but the portion that became the courtyard was left bare. It is visible from what was the basketball court adjacent to the building (& may now be a small park – since the Guggenheim Lab art project used it a few years ago). Also the courtyard should still be visible from the apartment building next door on the corner of First St. & Second Ave. (Which was a burnt out building when I lived there but began to be renovated in the late 80s).

    Tragically after this recent renovation (of the cellar/former ‘super apartment’ at #31) a young woman who rented it was killed in a fire that swept through whilst she slept; which was due to overloaded wiring. Sadly this did not surprise me – as the wiring in that building had been almost *zero* originally.

    On a more positive historical note the building of twenty studio apartments (originally without private bathrooms) called ‘The Colony’ (still able to be seen in the 80s in gilt lettering over the glass above the front door) had been a boarding house for Jewish actors in the Second Avenue Yiddish Theatre/’Jewish Broadway’ of that time. When I lived there in the early 80s the front part of the cellar contained two barber chairs bolted into the floor; so I always wondered if actors had their hair & makeup done there.

    There was also a film scene shot on the second floor in the early 70s. I think it was for ‘The Reincarnation of Peter Proud’. My old neighbour said they painted the whole hallway blue.

    If anyone can help get to the bottom of this very old foundation I would love to have an answer to this mystery I’ve wondered about all these years. (Excuse the unintended pun w/ ‘bottom’!).

  4. David H Lippman Says:

    Bordellos and crime on the Bowery? I’m shocked…shocked to my foundation!

  5. trilby1895 Says:

    Once again, thank you, ephemeral, for another fascinating article AND photos concerning one of the most historic and interesting areas of our magnificent city.

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