Tracing Berenice Abbott’s steps in today’s Bowery

After spending the 1920s as a cutting edge portrait photographer in Paris, Berenice Abbott returned to the United States to find that her documentary-like style of photography was out of fashion.

In New York, Abbott “was unable to secure space at galleries, have her work shown at museums, or continue the working relationships she had forged with a number of magazine publications,” states the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Lucky for Abbott—and for fans of her unromanticized images that speak for themselves—the Federal Art Project came calling. In 1935, it gave her the means to photograph the streets, buildings, and people of New York City. More than 300 resulting images were collected in Changing New York, published in 1939.

Though Abbott aimed her camera all over Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, she was especially drawn to the Lower East Side, specifically the Bowery. At the time, the Bowery was a “Victorian entertainment district turned skid row, which she likened to ‘wandering through hell,'” according to the text of a 1997 edition of the book by the Museum of the City of New York.

Retracing Abbott’s steps through the Bowery, as documented in Changing New York, is possible today because she kept track of the addresses of the three storefronts she captured.

The top photo, at 103 Bowery, might be one of Abbott’s most famous New York images. This “hash house,” as the Blossom Restaurant was known per the MCNY’s Changing New York, occupied the ground floor while Jimmy the Barber worked out of the basement. The two men in the shot have the harsh expressions expected of men who catered to Bowery bums.

Below it is the storefront today. It’s still a food establishment, but the space has been remodeled. The aura of danger and depression are gone.

The striking storefront—and colorful claims designed to lure men of few means—of the Tri-Boro Barber School (“world’s most up-to-date system”) probably appealed to Abbott. The school was at 264 Bowery, which was lined with barber shops at the time, states the MCNY’s updated Changing New York: “Upon completion of a 10-week course, a student was a ‘full-fledged professional barber’ and could find a job at a starting union wage of $22.50 per week.” Below it is 264 Bowery now, with its similar doorway but ghostly, empty space.

This hardware store at 316-318 Bowery has the crammed feel of a dollar store, proving that the tradition of an overload of seasonal merchandise and lots of sale signs lives on in 21st century New York. “Hardware emporiums, catering to tradesmen from all over the city and day laborers who lived nearby, flourished on the Bowery,” states the MCNY’s Changing New York. The storefront today appears to be another COVID casualty.

Would Abbott be as drawn to the Bowery of 2021 as she was to the Bowery of the 1930s (above, under the elevated at Division Street and Bowery)?

Probably not. This storied main drag that had a brief fling as an elite address in the early 19th century before becoming synonymous with tawdry entertainment, flophouses, and cheap bars now resembles many other Manhattan streets of the 21st century—lacking the signs of desperate humanity Abbott was attracted to.

[Top photo: Smithsonian National Museum of American History; third photo: Artnet; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MutualArt]

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10 Responses to “Tracing Berenice Abbott’s steps in today’s Bowery”

  1. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Berenice was a visionary!

  2. chungwong Says:

    Think “103 Broadway” should say 103 Bowery.. Eventually Berenice Abbott had to leave the City after a doctor warned her the air pollution would affect a lung issue she had. So she ended up in Maine.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Fixed…and thanks for the info on Berenice Abbott leaving New York. It struck me as I researched this post that although I’ve been a fan of her photography for years, I know so little about her life.

  3. smbabbitt Says:

    Thanks also to Abbott for making a record of the fine set of vault lights in the first photograph, surely not the only vanished vault light/prism installation to appear in her photographs.

  4. velovixen Says:

    The photos are amazing.

    It’s interesting, to say the least, that her style was deemed out-of-fashion just as Social Realism in painting and other arts was coming into vogue, in part because of the WPA. I can’t help but to think her reception on returning home had more than a little to do with sexisim.

    Anyway, I wonder what she’d think if she were here today.

  5. Diana Says:

    Hi! It’s great to see our photos are useful for this type of articles. I was wondering, however, if it would be possible for you to add a link to the source?

    You could link ‘MutualArt’ to https://www.mutualart.com/Artist/Berenice-Abbott/58E9B7A6AE78B72D, so that your readers can find all her photographs and when and where her artworks will exhibit or be at auction.

    If you have any questions or I can help in any way, please feel free to get in touch. Thanks

  6. Tom B Says:

    The pics remind me of my first trip to the Bowery in 1978. It was on a Gray Line tour bus. The guide warned us of what we might see. For a young man from Ohio, I was shocked that people lived like that. To this day I don’t get why some New York residents pine for those days.
    Thanks for this post about Bernice Abbott and her photos.

  7. Kiwiwriter Says:

    Fantastic photos. I remember Dad driving up the Bowery with us in the car in the early 1970s. I was puzzled by the street’s lampposts (which differed from all the others in Manhattan). That was because they replaced the cast-iron Bishop’s Crooks that stood guard over the street beneath the 3rd Avenue El until may 12, 1955, when the El was closed, and they were replaced.

    I was shocked by the condition of the street’s denizens, and even more so years later, when I read articles about the legendary flophouses and their inhabitants. I have always had nightmares that I would wind up like them.

    Finally, I did meet them, going to cover a press conference on the plight of the homeless at the 3rd Street Men’s Shelter, near the Bowery. It was on the top floor. Needless to say, the elevator had not worked in years. The stench of unbathed bodies en masse was appalling. I climbed the stairs, barely able to breathe. When I got to the top, they told me the PC was cancelled. I ran out of the building in relief.

    As it was then, the Bowery is the center of New York’s retail lighting business, but with rents for broom closets all over Manhattan up to $3,500 and up, even the Bowery is getting a make-over. And all the flophouses are gone. I don’t know where I’ll wind up.

  8. Kiwiwriter Says:

    A song about the Bowery from the 1880s. It was from a musical:

    The Bowery
    (words Charles H. Hoyt, Music Percy Gaunt)

    Oh! The night that I struck New York
    I went out for a quiet walk
    Folks who are “”on to”” the city say
    Better by far that I took Broadway
    But I was out to enjoy the sights
    There was the Bow’ry ablaze with lights
    I had one of the devil’s own nights
    I’ll never go there any more.

    cho: The Bow’ry, the Bow’ry
    They say such things and they do strange things,
    On the Bow’ry! The Bow’ry!
    I’ll never go there any more.

    I had walked but a block or two,
    When up came a fellow and me he knew
    Then a policeman came walking by
    Chased him away and I asked him, “”Why?””
    “”Wasn’t he pulling your leg?”” said he,
    Said I, “”He never laid hands on me!””
    “”Get off the Bow’ry, you fool,”” said he
    I’ll never go there any more.

    Struck a place that they called a “”dive””
    I was in luck to get out alive
    When the policeman heard my woes,
    Saw my black eyes and my battered nose.
    “”You’ve been held up!”” said the “”copper”” fly,
    “”No, sir! But I’ve been knocked down!”” said I
    Then he laughed, tho’ I couldn’t see why
    I’ll never go there any more.

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