Posts Tagged ‘Bowery Bums’

The past lives of the “bunker” on the Bowery

May 1, 2017

The first people to hang out at the red brick, Queen Anne–style building that opened in 1885 at 222 Bowery were working-class men.

At the time, the Bowery was a cacophonous circus of vaudeville theaters, beer gardens, pawnbrokers, rowdies, and streetcars all under the screeching rails of the Third Avenue elevated train.

Much of New York loved this, of course, and lots of men flocked there, living in the five-cent hotels or in doorways. Reformer Jacob Riis estimated their numbers at more than nine thousand.

But this was the 1880s, and to keep young men who were “not yet hardened” from getting sucked into sin, the YMCA built their first New York branch at 222 Bowery and called it the Young Men’s Institute.

It was actually a novel idea and an example of Gilded Age uplift. The institute was to promote the “physical, intellectual, and spiritual health of young working men in the densely crowded Bowery,” states Landmarks of New York.

Instead of bars and dance halls, men ages 17 and 35 who joined could attend lectures by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ward Beecher.

They could borrow books from a circulating library (this is before the New York Public Library was established), work out in the gym or pool, or use the bowling alley. Classes in mechanical drawing, architecture, penmanship, and bookkeeping were offered—and Bible reading too, on Sundays.

After the turn of the century though (above, in 1910), as the Bowery’s fortunes fell even further, membership declined.

The Y sold the building in 1932 and it became a residence on the mid-century Bowery, less a raucous zone of fun and vice and now a strip of forgotten men and bars (1930s Bowery at right).

That’s when the artists arrived—like Fernand Leger. After fleeing the Nazis in Normandy, the French surrealist painter landed in Manhattan and lived and worked at 222 Bowery, even after it was sold to a dental manufacturing company.

By the time 222 Bowery was  turned back into a residence in the late 1950s, more artists and writers came, like Mark Rothko, who painted his Seagram murals in the former gymnasium.

Fellow abstract artists James Brooks and Michael Goldberg (his “Bowery Days” painting, at left) moved in too, as did poet John Giorno. Andy Warhol held parties there. Allan Ginsberg and Roy Lichtenstein spent time at 222 as well.

It was William S. Burroughs (right, with Joe Strummer inside 222 Bowery in 1980) who dubbed the building the Bunker.

Burroughs arrived in 1974 and officially stayed until his death in 1997, though he lived his last years in Kansas.

Patti Smith recalled visiting Burroughs there in the 1970s. “It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes,” she wrote in Just Kids.

“You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door.”

Burroughs’ nickname for this gorgeous survivor of the Bowery’s past life remains.

The building, now co-op lofts, “is still affectionately called by that name,” states the 1998 Landmark Preservation Commission report that gave 222 Bowery landmark status.

[Second photo: Alamy/King’s Handbook of NYC 1893; fifth image: Artnet; sixth image: unknown]

A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel

April 24, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself humming “Camptown Races” or “Oh! Susanna,” then you know Stephen Foster.

He’s the genius behind these and other catchy Antebellum-era favorites, many of which supposedly captured life in the Old South — even though Foster was born in Pennsylvania in 1826 and only visited the South when he honeymooned in New Orleans.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the inventor of the pop song: “the bastard stepchild of the parlor song and the minstrel song, of the European and African strains of American music,” as Michael Friedman wrote in The New Yorker in 2014.

And sadly, his tragic life trajectory echos that of many of today’s pop stars.

Growing up, Foster learned to play various instruments. He tried college, then went to work for his brother. But music was his passion, and he began selling songs in the 1840s to sheet music publishers.

“Oh! Susanna,” in 1848, was his breakthrough hit; it sold an astounding 100,000 copies and was performed by the popular New York–based Christy Minstrels.

“The song spread like wild fire with people whistling it in the streets,” states Pittsburgh Music History. “People all over country were singing it.”

Foster was famous now, churning out hits he liked to call “American melodies” (he reportedly disliked the demeaning, racially charged language in many minstrel tunes and tried to make the characters in his songs, both black and white, sympathetic).

He also inked a deal with a New York publisher that paid him 2 cents in royalties for every copy of his music that sold.

But the 1850s weren’t kind to Foster. His wife left him, he was creatively stuck, and pirated copies of his songs took a toll on his finances. He moved to Hoboken for a spell, then returned to Pennsylvania before coming east again.

In debt and alone by 1860, he lived in various Bowery hotels, took on a writing partner, and tried to restart his career.

Living on the Bowery (above, at Chatham Square in 1860) — which was then transforming from a lively theater district to a wilder strip of lowbrow stages and saloons — wasn’t a good move for a man already beset by depression and alcoholism.

“He rented a room in a cheap hotel at the corner of Bayard Street (at right), hoping for inspiration,” wrote Michael Leapman in The Companion Guide to New York, “but instead developed an undetermined fever and a gargantuan taste for drink.”

On January 10, 1864, Foster’s writing partner, George Cooper (below with Foster) found him on the floor of his room, naked and bleeding from the neck. He’d apparently slipped and cut his throat on a porcelain washing basin.

Brought by carriage to Bellevue, he died a few days later, at age 37. In his pocket was 38 cents and a note that read “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts” but nothing else.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in his Bowery hotel room, was published after his death and became arguably his most enduring song, a standard to this day.

[Top photo: Bowery Alliance; second image: Alamy; third photo: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 48.79; fifth image: Pittsburgh Music History]

When New Yorkers tried to rename Third Avenue

March 25, 2013

Thirdavenuesign1956 was a crucial year for seven-mile Third Avenue.

That’s when the last piece of steel from the Third Avenue El was dismantled (below at 34th Street in the 1930s), bringing sunlight and broad views to a thoroughfare long known for its shadows and grime.

And right about when the El was finally removed, some residents and real estate officials called for Third Avenue to be given a more glamorous name.

“[Borough President Hulan E. Jack] said that at least five new names had been suggested,” wrote The New York  Times on February 17, after a ceremony marking the removal of a steel column.

ThirdavenueelAmong them were The Bouwerie, United Nations Avenue, International Boulevard, and Nathan Hale Boulevard (the Revolutionary War hero was reportedly hanged at today’s Third Avenue and 66th Street).

“One atomic-minded New Yorker had offered Fission Avenue,” stated the Times.

Borough President Jack was against a name change, though he did propose renaming the Bowery “Third Avenue South” to get rid of the Bowery’s “connotation of drunken derelicts and broken dreams.”

In the end, of course, Third Avenue remained Third Avenue . . . and the Bowery now connotes boutique hotels.

[Photo: New York City Municipal Archives]

“Tattoo and Haircut” on the Bowery

June 18, 2012

Tattoo parlors, sketchy barber shops, and shady characters hanging around an all-night Bowery mission are all part of painter Reginald Marsh’s “Tattoo and Haircut,” completed in 1932.

Marsh’s paintings typically feature the city’s marginalized Depression-era outcasts.

“What interested Marsh was not the individuals in a crowd, but the crowd itself … In their density and picturesqueness, they recall the crowds in the movies of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra,” wrote Marilyn Cohen in Reginald Marsh’s New York.

The breadline of hungry men in Freeman Alley

February 22, 2011

This narrow little passage off Rivington Street between Chrystie Street and the Bowery now attracts well-heeled, hipster New Yorkers looking for a table at retro Freemans restaurant, at the end of the alley.

But in 1909, there was a different kind of clientele in Freeman Alley craving a meal—desperate men on a breadline.

The breadline stemmed from the Bowery Mission, which had just relocated to nearby 227 Bowery. That building, a former coffin factory, was remodeled so its rear entrance opened to the back of Freeman Alley. Apparently the alley’s end wasn’t closed at the time.

That’s where Bowery Mission planners wanted the breadline to form. So night after night, men queued up in Freeman Alley, hoping for some food.

Freeman Alley is a bit of a mystery. No one is sure if it honors early 19th century surveyor Uzal Freeman, or if the name refers to the Second African Burial Ground, a cemetery for black New Yorkers on the site of Sara Roosevelt Park that was closed in 1853.

[NYPL Digital Gallery photo of the Bowery Mission Breadline]