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.