Although the street has come to have a reputation as New York's skid row, it was once the liveliest and most important street in the city, the Broadway of the 19th century. New York's entertainment, commerce, politics and crime mingled there along the whorehouses, theaters, curiosity museums, hotels and Tammany Hall saloons. Gangs fought over the Bowery, New York's first fortune tellers arranged secret liaisons there, the city's transvestites lifted their skirts for gay patrons there. Back further in the 18th century, it was the city's first free African village. The oldest surviving brick building in New York stands on the Bowery. And even at the nadir of its fortunes in the 1960s when its commercial buildings were all but abandoned, it housed hundreds of artists at home among the marginals and derelicts.
The Bowery is not just the oldest thoroughfare in New York or just an odd and resonant place-name deeply entrenched in our city's collective myth and lore, not just Whitman's haunt and Crane's, Foster's and Burroughs', not just the birthplace of New York's original theater traditions of minstrelsy and Jim Crow, Irish Mose and Yiddish Shmendrick, vaudeville and burlesque. It's not just the turf of the B'hoys and the gangs, shoulder-hitters and Tammany pols who ran New York from their saloons, nor just the skid row of flophouses, whorehouses and dives. Along with its colorful and influential past, the Bowery is also the single most architecturally and historically diverse street in the city, comprising buildings from nearly every decade between 1780 and 2000, residential and commercial: warehouse by flophouse, bank by union hall, theater by tenement and townhouse and whorehouse and saloon. It is an indispensable resource of two centuries of American architectural design as well as a repository of social, economic, political, immigrant, labor, underground, criminal, deviant, marginal, counter-cultural, literary, musical, dramatic and artistic history.
The legacy of the Bowery is long. The pre-1830 town houses at 135, 141, 151 and 173, among the oldest structures in New York, offer a rare glimpse of early post-Revolutionary New York. Klein Deutschland survives in the Germania Fire Insurance building, German meeting halls like Stouben House, and the Germania Bank's several locations. Labor unions met in halls all along the Bowery and labor history was made at 263, the Journeyman Bakers' International Union, which organized in 1869 one of the largest union demonstrations the city had seen.
There were political halls -- Horace Greeley delivered a powerful speech in support of U.S.Grant's candidacy at a 17th Ward Republican meeting at 327 in 1868 – and political saloons: Farley's, at 133, poured ale to Tammany from 1885 until 1915. There were curiosity "museums" (Worth's at 101), burlesque "concert halls" (197) and notorious gangster dives (Geoghegan's, 105), all of which still stand; only the theaters, once the Bowery's hallmark, are gone, some of the greatest only recently demolished.
The turn-of-the-century decline towards skid row, hideaway of the destitute, the criminal and the estranged, is reflected in the missions, Salvation Army and the Bowery Mission still operating, and the flophouses, slowing disappearing. Yet despite its decline, the Bowery still boasts old buildings of dignity, grace and beauty in every American style: Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Neo-Grec, Romanesque, Renaissance Revival, Queen Ann, Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and even rarities unique to the Bowery that defy category.
This rich fabric cannot be replaced or reproduced. Until recently it survived largely through neglect. Renewed interest in the Bowery, far from protecting its treasures and its unique context, threatens to erase them forever, replacing them with a single new, uniformly twenty-first century ahistorical context.