The Bowery is a street that has lost its character and been reincarnated — again and again ... While today it sprouts luminous towers with multimillion-dollar condos, it would not take an archaeologist to find traces of its time as the definitive boulevard of broken dreams, lined with flophouses and evangelizing missions that catered to boozed-up 'Bowery bums.' There are also remnants of the 19th century, when the street was the city’s raffish entertainment hub that, for better or worse, produced early blackface minstrel shows, vaudeville variety acts and the sometimes schmaltzy offerings of the first Yiddish theaters ... While until the last decade or two the Bowery was a street you surely didn’t want to end up on, there were periods when it represented the height of gentility and the peak of showbiz stardom, and in Devil’s Mile Alice Sparberg Alexiou guides us through this checkered history with gusto.
A musical that opened on Broadway in late 1891 featured a song about a notorious stretch of Manhattan where, as the lyrics went, 'I had one of the devil’s own nights. . . . The Bowery! The Bowery! / They say such things and they do strange things.' The ditty took America by storm, according to Devil’s Mile, an intermittently engaging cultural history of the Bowery by Alice Sparberg Alexiou, the author of a previous book about the Flatiron building. Fans snapped up the sheet music and danced to the song in dives and drawing rooms.
Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s Devil’s Mile functions as the historical-narrative equivalent of time-lapse photography. Limiting her focus to a small but historically significant slice of New York, Alexiou offers a galloping and exhilarating tour, 400 years in 250 pages. She captures the cultural, social and historical ebbings and flowings as the Bowery progressed: from native footpath, to haven for Dutch and then Knickerbocker gentry, to gang-infested slum, to dangerously wicked playground for the Lower East Side, to Purgatory for the city’s bums, to Whole Foods regentrification.
It was in the cards a long time ago that the Bowery, Manhattan’s roughest, toughest street, would one day be cleaned up...Now, says Bowery resident and advocate Adam Woodward, 'every fifty years, the city tears down, and rebuilds.' That cycle seems about right. In the late 1960s, the Bowery, that stretch of road that begins at Houston Street and descends south into what used to be tenements full of Irish and then Chinese newcomers to the city, was just on the brink of becoming a cultural icon of a different type, courtesy of Hilly Kristal and his raw-boned nightclub CBGB, which helped launch 'four kids from Queens who sported spiky haircuts and black leather jackets.' ... New York buffs, especially those nostalgic for a grittier time, will find this a learned pleasure.
This anecdote-laden urban history of New York City’s Bowery by Alexiou makes for addictive reading. Throughout the 20th century, the street in lower Manhattan was once a key thruway in old New Amsterdam, built on an old Lenape Indian footpath north of the colonists’ original settlement, along which rich settlers built their estates. In Alexiou’s hands, the history of the Bowery—from farms to grotty nightlife to bums and back to high-end real estate for the wealthy—is a slice of New York City history ... This is a fascinating micro-take on New York’s cycle of boom and bust.