With news this week that the famous Salvation Army—a haven for the homeless on the Bowery—would be replaced with an Ace hotel—a haven for hipsters—some would say it's the end of an era. But they'd be wrong. That era ended a long time ago.
It's a little too perfect, though. A high-priced hotel drops $30 million for a piece of prime real estate and makes a whole population of homeless people even more homeless. The Salvation Army will relocate to Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the former flophouse on the Bowery will soon be home to an iconic establishment that charges $239 a night for a room with bunk beds. About five years ago, a room in one of the Bowery's famous single occupancy hotels cost just $6. WNYC covered the news when it broke on Wednesday with the unapologetic headline: "On the Bowery, Homeless to Hipsters Almost Overnight."
It's gentrification at its swiftest. That's what's happening down on the Bowery. But it's been happening for years, of course; some might even say for a century or more. The Bowery, a street that's older than Broadway, has lived several lives since the days when it led the way to Peter Stuyvesant's farm. Now it leads the way to overpriced farm-fresh produce at a Whole Foods encased in glass. And you know what? It's the hipsters' fault.
A Spotty, Sometimes Bloody History
Bowery's not just older than Broadway. It's the oldest thoroughfare on the island of Manhattan, one that saw the island's first residents arrive in the mid-17th century. Its modern name, Bowery, actually comes from bouwerij, an old Dutch word for "farm." The area remained farmland until the early 19th century, when craftsmen and artisans—a bit of foreshadowing!—started moving in.
Then things got ugly. As the natives dug in, a wave of immigrants began to arrive in the mid-1800s, and they were sent to the Bowery; at the time, it was mostly swampland where nobody else wanted to live. The natives and the immigrants clashed in a years-long feud that culminated in the Five Points Riot of July 4, 1857, when the Irish Dead Rabbits Gang faced off against the nativist Bowery Boys. If this sounds familiar, it's because Martin Scorsese made a movie about this period based off of the book Gangs of New York.
Violence aside, the Bowery also earned its reputation as a working class entertainment district around this time. By the turn of the century, the area was home to countless theaters, saloons, and brothels. The construction of the Third Avenue El—"el" for elevated train—in 1878 also meant that the streets stayed dark even during the day, encouraging misbehavior.
The Bowery earned quite the reputation over the next few decades. "It is filled with employment agencies, cheap clothing and knickknack stores, cheap moving-picture shows, cheap lodging-houses, cheap eating-houses, cheap saloons," The Century Magazine wrote in 1919. "Here, too, by the thousands come sailors on shore leave,—notice the 'studios' of the tattoo artists,—and here most in evidence are the 'down and outs.'"
Tattoos, huh? The hipster era is nigh.
The Bowery Bums Take Over
The infamous Bowery that you've probably heard of, though, didn't really start to crystallize until after the Great Depression. Starting around the 1940s, the Bowery became widely acknowledged as the world's most famous Skid Row. The street was lined with homeless drunkards who became known as the Bowery Bums. The neighborhood calmed down a little, too. The brothels and saloons shut down, and a bunch of lighting and restaurant supply stores opened up.
Squalid as it sounds, this is actually the time when the Bowery started to turn around. But just barely. It was almost leveled completely.
In the 1950s, the city demolished the Third Avenue El, bathing the Bowery in sunlight for the first time in nearly a century. That's also around the time that Robert Moses set his sights on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that stretched from the Bowery to the East River, and included Cooper Square to the north. Long story short, he wanted to raze the whole area and put in a(nother) apocalyptic housing project like Stuyvesant Town. Moses sure did have an interesting definition of urban renewal.
But the neighborhood wouldn't let it happen. Although it took years, the so-called Cooper Square Committee became the first community-based organization to defeat a slum clearance plan like this. Lower East Siders made their own plan for staged development with the goal that no residents would be displaced, and they managed to save hundreds of buildings.
What they might not have anticipated, however, is the fact that this also saved lots of inventory for developers to drool over, once gentrification started to take hold of Lower Manhattan.
And Then Came the Hippies
While all this was going on, the hippies arrived in hoards. Attracted to cheap rents and avoiding the suburbs, this mostly white middle class counterculture carved out a new neighborhood in the Lower East Side that they called the East Village. The Bowery was the western border.
This is when the area started to earn its reputation as a youthful playground. It's also when developers stopped drooling and started buying. In his book Selling the Lower East Side, Christopher Mele explains the shift in stark terms:
Unlike the beats, whose presence in the neighborhood was hardly perceptible, the hippie counterculture was highly spatialized, transforming both local identities of the Lower East Side and popular representations of it.
For many existing residents, the incursion of hippies onto their turf was not easily accommodated. For the real estate industry, however, the subcultural images, symbols, and rhetoric affiliated with the East Village offered to do away with the area's outdated and unprofitable working-class reputation.
Not long after the hippies retired, the punks took over. CBGB became a mecca for underground rock music, and the area was a haven for artists. Cheap rents for big spaces encouraged the trend—but that didn't last forever.
Quite ironically, the local "war against slumlords" that started in the 1960s made it easy for these developers to buy cheap. After the Moses plan fell through and the slumlords were driven out, the city was left with more real estate than it could handle.
The first rehabilitated city-owned property was sold in the neighborhood in 1980 for $1. That's not for an apartment. That's for a whole building.
And, Finally, the Hipsters Arrived
Some say that gentrification in the area started when The Gap opened its first store on St. Mark's Place in 1988. The Gap paid five times what neighboring tenants paid, and that set a new standard for landlords. Of course, The Gap was just following the customer, they said, with their eye on ever-thickening crowds of proto-hipsters wandering in from out of town, willing—or naive enough—to pay far, far more than the children of immigrants who had already lived there for years.
And so the stage was set for a total takeover by the time Rudy Giuliani took office in 1994.
Giuliani's embrace of the famous "broken windows" theory worked, and, for the first time in a long time, you could walk around the Bowery at night without feeling like you were going to get stabbed. This newfound sense of security, coupled with a pregnant real estate market, spelled the end of edginess for the Bowery. And the end came quickly.
Gentrification sped up steadily until the new millennium, when it hit warp speed. New tax incentives introduced after 9/11 for development in Lower Manhattan encouraged developers not only to build but to build big. In came the glass-covered condo buildings.
One of the more significant projects was delivered by the Avalon Bay Communities, a massive real estate developer from Virginia. Avalon built four luxury buildings in the 2000s that now resemble the crown jewels of gentrification in the Bowery, including the nine-story monstrosity at Bowery and Houston that's became home to the area's first Whole Foods in 2007.
It should be made very clear here that, while iPhone-toting hipsters bought broccoli rabe inside the overpriced grocery store, the area's remaining homeless population still lined up for soup just a couple blocks away.
The same year, the Bowery Hotel opened up and started charging $550 a night for rooms that are a stone's throw away from these homeless shelters. One of the hotel's owners, Eric Goode, explained part of the neighborhood's appeal to New York Magazine that year. He waxed nostalgic over the early 1990s, when he opened B Bar across the street from where the Bowery Hotel now stands, and said he literally "built [a] wall around the place because of the neighborhood."
But it was close to the streets the hippies made famous, and the bar scene was getting better and better. The Bowery's proximity to the Financial District—and to up-and-coming Williamsburg—certainly didn't help. But, as the bankers moved in, the edge started to dull. Goode said:
This kills me because we've always looked for the unexpected. The frontier. The margin. When I first came here, there were so many places you felt like a pioneer. There was adventure to it. Where can you get that now? If I was a young person coming to New York now, it would be depressing. Where's the edge, that place where you fall off into the abyss?
Well, Eric, it's not the Bowery Hotel. It's also not CBGB. The legendary rock club is now home to a John Varvatos store and a fancy restaurant called DBGB. (The "D" stands for Daniel Boulud.) It's certainly not a place where you fall off into the abyss—unless the abyss for you is made of impossible credit card payments.
So where's the edge now? It's also not the Ace Hotel. It's probably somewhere in Brooklyn, and probably not too far from where those rich real estate developers just sent all those homeless people from the Bowery. That said, there's a good chance there's a little edge left in Jay Maisel's 72-room palace on Bowery and Spring Street. Despite the building being worth some $40 million, the photographer says he'll never leave. Hipsters be damned.
Photography by Michael Hession