Posts Tagged ‘Bleecker Street 1870s’

Bleecker Street: “headquarters of Bohemianism”

August 3, 2011

“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]