With the Bowery Hotel now open, Gothamist thought it was worth taking one final look at the Bowery of the 1970s and '80s through the lens of Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York.
Sante told Gothamist – via email – some details of life on the Bowery before the presence of Eric Goode, Ian Schrager, Whole Foods, Seth Greenberg, Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, “Nolita Place,” the Cooper Square Hotel (image above), AvalonBay and Scarano. And, no, this isn't an Elegy for the Bowery.
* Bari Pizza Oven (image left) loomed large on the Bowery: “It was a broad boulevard with nothing much on it, and not even much car traffic for all that it's the obvious conduit to the Manhattan Bridge. It seemed to be the lighting-fixture district (back then the old wholesale trade divisions of Manhattan were still very much apparent--the novelty district running down Broadway from the Flatiron Building, for example, or the cap and hat district centered at Eighth Street and Broadway). There were maybe half a dozen remaining skid-row bars, at least as many fleabag hotels, and a slew of missions of which the Bowery Mission was the most prominent (and the most redoubtable feature of the neighborhood was the infamous Men's Shelter, further up on Third Street). And there was Bari Pizza Oven, which it soon became clear was far and away the major landowner in the area.”
* The Bowery had spacious lofts (with coats required in winter): “There were loft buildings where my friends lived, for the most part in minimally converted spaces, the walls of which were lined with insulation panels and where you tended to keep your coat on when visiting in the winter. Not all buildings were so primitive, of course. For example there was the famous Bunker, the former YMCA, where the writer William Burroughs lived in what had been the locker rooms. His place was comfortably appointed, and it no doubt gave him considerable pleasure that his bathroom featured a long row of urinals. The architecture was divided between loft buildings--which included present-day and former hotels (at least one such I still visit has the name of the hotel printed on each of the risers of the staircase up to the first floor)--and two- or three-story houses, with pitched roofs, that dated back to the 1830s or so (and which generally had also at some point been converted into storage spaces). In between were parking lots, a great many of them, which I eventually discovered marked the places where the theaters had been (a few of them survived as late as the 1960s).”
* The Bowery was not murder-ridden: “The Bowery was quiet to the point of somnolence, pretty much day and night. The bums would sometimes panhandle, but not aggressively, and in the winter some of them would gather around fires built in oil drums, often on the corner of Bowery and Houston, site of the last surviving bum bar. My friends who moved into a loft just north of Rivington Street in 1978 were disconcerted to witness a murder outside their window the very first night they were there, but it was an exceptional occurrence, never to be repeated, and to all appearances it represented a settling of scores from points east; the blocks south of Houston and east of Allen Street, especially, were not quiet. In the early '80s, when heroin reached its peak, there were one or two junk concessions right around the corner on Rivington, but they were always less known and therefore less volatile than the traffic centers around 3rd and B or 12th and C, for example.”
* The Bowery may have been the place where the egg cream was invented: “There were no bodegas along the Bowery, let alone groceries, not even any place where you could buy a pack of cigarettes. We all first visited the Bowery to go to CBGB, of course, and in the early '80s there was another youth-culture outlet, the International Buskers Club, in a basement just south of Houston (the ground floor, I later found out, had been the site of the internationally famous Sammy's Bowery Follies, which was founded around 1940 and somehow held on until the early '70s, though I can scarcely imagine how). Those were the only non-bum retail commercial establishments on the upper Bowery. Below Delancey Street, besides the slow rise of Chinese shops and restaurants up from Canal Street (and the Chinese movie theater--the Rosemary?), there was, most notably, Moishe's, a greasy-spoon soda-counter cigar-store establishment of the old school, with signs all over the interior claiming it to have been the place where the egg cream was invented (I'm pretty sure they were wrong).”
* Bowery bums danced: “One night around 1979, one of my friends who lived there, who was used to passing the same bum bars every day and seeing the same unmoving backs hunched over short beers, was astonished to look into one of them and see the bums dancing wildly! The jukebox (yes, they had jukeboxes) was playing "Charlie Brown," by the Coasters: "Why's everybody always picking on me?"
Photos by Jill Priluck