My first visit to New York City’s Bowery was as a child. My Aunt Gertie took me to a Catholic mission around the corner. It was Christmastime and Gertie was delivering clothing collected from fellow telephone operators for, as she informed me, “the bums.” My memory is of a wintry Walpurgisnacht. Tattered men huddled around barrels of burning scrap wood, or lay in doorways, or staggered out of brightly lit, evil-smelling bars. I was distressed by the destitution, but Gertie, who grew up not far away, seemed unbothered. She brought along a purse full of dimes that she handed to any who asked.
The few times I returned as an adult were on forays to inexpensive lighting stores tucked among missions, gin mills, and flophouses. Yet I detected a faded dignity behind the Bowery’s begrimed façades, not unlike that behind the ruined faces of its inhabitants. As Alice Sparberg Alexiou puts it in Devil’s Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery, “Almost every building and lot has a good story in its history.” No matter the ups and downs, the soulful history of the place “is always present and somebody will always find it.”
Walt Whitman sang of the Bowery as “racy of the East River,” its denizens embodying “a picturesque freedom of looks and manners, with a rude good nature and restless movement.” A century later, his spiritual descendant Allen Ginsberg celebrated those “who ate the lamb stew of the imagination and digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of Bowery.”
Charles Hurstwood, ill-fated lover of Theodore Dreiser’s Caroline Meeber (Sister Carrie), ended as a flophouse suicide, his last words a cri de coeur shared by generations of the down-and-out: “What’s the use?” Real-life Stephen Foster, the progenitor of American popular music, dubbed by Alexiou “the poignant bard of the Bowery,” died cold and alone in the attic of a hotel, his throat slit either by accident or design.
Minstrelsy, “with its edgy and shame-inducing racial content,” grew to a national rage after the Virginia Minstrels’ 1843 debut at the Bowery Theater. Israel Beline (a.k.a. Irving Berlin) remembered his turn-of-the-century “musical education on the Bowery” among “real tough people.” At century’s end, CBGB’s, a cave-like bar on the ground floor of a flophouse, hosted punk pioneers like the Ramones and Patti Smith, and became the hothouse for the re-blossoming of rock ’n’ roll’s rebellious soul.