Posts Tagged ‘the Bowery’

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]

The great New York tradition of slumming it

October 20, 2010

Of course, there’s nothing new about the rich and privileged partying it up in poor sections of the city: It’s been a popular activity since at least 1884.

That’s when The New York Times (arguably in one of its first Styles section–type pieces) wrote about this latest rage.

“Slumming in This Town,” the Times headline read. “A fashionable London mania reaches New-York.”

“‘Slumming,’ the latest fashionable idiosyncrasy in London—i.e. the visiting of the slums of the great city by parties of ladies and gentlemen for sightseeing—is mildly practiced here by our foreign visitors by a tour of the Bowery, winding up with a visit to an opium joint or Harry Hill’s.”

Harry Hill’s, (above sketch from the NYPL digital collection), was a renowned East Houston Street saloon that featured theater and bare-knuckle boxing.

“It is safe to conclude under the circumstances that “slumming” will become a form of fashionable dissapation this winter among our belles, as our foreign cousins will always be ready to lead the way.”

[Above, a photo from Valentine’s City of New York guidebook of the East Side’s “Italian Quarter”]

“Knocking around” Manhattan with O. Henry

March 19, 2010

Short story master (and convicted embezzler) William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry, arrived in New York City in 1902 like so many other writers—to be near the publishing business and really make it big.

And like struggling writers still do, he spent time walking around, laying low in odd corners and quarters of the city.

“When I first came to New York I spent a great deal of time knocking around the streets,” he told The New York Times in 1909.

“I used to walk at all hours of the day and night along the river fronts, through Hell’s Kitchen, down the Bowery, dropping into all manner of places, and talking to anyone who would hold converse with me.”

And though he’s most closely associated with Pete’s Tavern, the 146-year-old bar on Irving Place down the street from his apartment at the time, he credits his “knocking around” with providing great story material:

“If you have the right kind of eye—the kind that can disregard high hats, cutaway coats, and trolley cars—you can see all the characters in Arabian Nights parading up and down Broadway at midday,” he said.

Yes, the awning on the side of Pete’s Tavern, above, really does say “The Tavern O. Henry Made Famous.”

Sammy’s Bowery Follies: “an alcoholic haven”

March 1, 2010

That’s how this legendary fleabag, Gay ’90s–style saloon was described in a 1944 Life magazine article (with photos, below, by Alfred Eisenstaedt).

“From 8 in the morning to 4 the next morning Sammy’s is an alcoholic haven for the derelicts whose presence has made the Bowery a universal symbol of poverty and futility,” the article stated.

“It is also a popular stopping point for prosperous people from uptown who like to see how the other half staggers.”

That mix of patrons was key to Sammy’s success. Opened in 1934 at 267 Bowery between Houston and Stanton Streets, the dive attracted old-school bums as well as tourists, politicians, actors, and others slumming it for the night.

Ex-Vaudeville performers sang and danced for the crowds on sawdust-sprinkled floors. The party went on until 1970, a year after owner Sammy Fuchs died.

Fuchs was known as the “mayor of the Bowery.” Besides operating the kind of bar that pretty much no longer exists in Manhattan, he did lots of good deeds in the neighborhood, like establishing a dental clinic for poor kids.

He also ran a “bum of the month” club, helping to feed, clothe, and sober up some of his most downtrodden customers, reports a 1970 New York Times piece.

How city kids used to cool off in the summer

May 25, 2009

This Life magazine photo captures a long-lost summer moment in Lower Manhattan in 1953. The street looks like Houston, judging from the median and the ad referencing the Bowery.

Firehydrantsummer

Do kids in any part of New York open up fire hydrants and cool off in the spray? It’s hard to imagine city kids even being allowed to play on their own, much less mess with hydrants.

The evolution of the Bowery Boy

October 3, 2008

In the early 1800s, when the Bowery became the theater and entertainment district of New York, the Bowery Boy of the time was more of a stylish young city guy than outright thug. A New York Times article entitled “Passing of the Old Bowery,” published in 1905, describes him as such:

“The Bowery Boy of those days was more or less of a dandy, so far as oiled hair, grandiloquent manners, and showy clothes go to make a dandy. He was aggressive, and always ready for a spree, regardless of consequences.”

By the 1860s, as the Bowery grew rougher and New York was rocked by the draft riots, the Bowery Boy had became an anti-Catholic, nativist gang member. Incredible New York, published in 1951, explains:

“He had already become a dubious hero of American folklore when the draft riots made him a civic menace, and respectable New York determined to do away with him. The Bowery Boy was not an adolescent. He was a mature tough of bellicose nature, with a taste for easily concealed lethal weapons: brass knuckles, a razor-sharp knife, a short length of iron pipe, a gun.

“In his leisure hours, on parade, he looked like a fancy-dan. He wore a tall beaver hat, an inordinately long black frock coat, loud, checked bell-bottomed pants, a vivid, floppy kerchief knotted under his collar. . . . The Bowery Boy was a plug-ugly always ready for a row, and he resented nothing more than the intrusion of outsiders into his favorite haunts.”

By the end of the century, the Bowery Boys had disappeared . . . only to be revived in the 1940s and 1950s as a streetwise yet loveable group of ruffians in the Bowery Boys movies.

The other Bowery of New York City

August 20, 2008

Just like its namesake in lower Manhattan, the Bowery at Coney Island was once a long stretch of dance halls, bars, cheap hotels, and bawdy theaters. Built in the 1880s, it spanned West 10th Street to West 16th and was considered the slummiest part of Coney Island.

But hey, that’s where the fun probably was.

“The Bowery at Night”

June 25, 2008

Painter William Louis Sonntag, Jr. depicted the Bowery in 1895, as it was transitioning from New York’s prime theater district to the 20th century’s fabled boulevard of skid row bars and bummy hotels. This rich, stunning painting is part of the Museum of the City of New York’s collection. Note the Third Avenue El on the left.