On the Old Bowery

Posted on: December 4th, 2009 at 6:18 am by

On December 5, 1920, the New York Times published a sprawling period piece on the ever-changing Bowery landscape; a little history is mixed in as well.  Reading the article with the added benefit of hindsight, it’s quite fascinating to note how far the thoroughfare has progressed – for better or worse.  The opening paragraph talks of a merchant who could barely recognize the Bowery.  How “the old street is not what it was” with no familiar faces or interesting things remaining.  Indeed, ruminations that echo today.

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Here are some choice excerpts from the article [pdf]:

On Cooper Union

At the head of the Bowery, facing south, stands, like an educational sentinel, the old building of Cooper Union.

Those who are accustomed to regard the Bowery as a street given over to tramps, gunmen, and sensation seekers, could study with some advantage the current activities of Cooper Union

If only they saw the new spaceship facility across the street.

On Banks

If all the depositors of these three savings banks [Dry Dock Savings Bank, Bowery Savings Bank, Citizens Savings Bank] were to assemble at one time on the Bowery they would so choke the thoroughfare, both highway and sidewalks, that there would not be room for all

The same could be said for the current rash of ATMs

On Barber Schools

The Bowery is the home of the barbers’ schools, institutions little known in other parts of town.

The Bowery furnishes such customers in abundance. The standard of cost is as follows: shave 5 cents; hair cut 10 cents; facial massage 10 cents.

On Local Industry

The Bowery is not, as so many appear to suppose, entirely given over to the tramp, the panhandler, the wastre[?] and the vagrant. Two local industries flourish…the sale of crockery ware for hotels and restaurants and fixtures for stores and offices.

Remnants of these industries still exist.

On Churches

A rare sight on the Bowery is a policeman. A rarer sight is a church.

On Chinatown

Actually “Chinatown” is the two blocks of Mott Street between Chatham Square and Bayard Street, with a wing or cutoff along Pell Street to the Bowery with a sort of appendix, and called Doyers Street. In all there are five blocks.

On Politics

It is one of the oddities of the Bowery that not one of the political leaders, candidates or favorites who profited in popularity by the support of its residents has ever lived upon the thoroughfare.

On the Bowery

The time to see the Bowery at its liveliest and best is about 6 o’clock on a clear evening in the late fall when hundreds of factory workers, men and girls, and hundreds of office employees crowd its sidewalks.

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