New York City’s Historical Bowery Street

Next to Broadway, the most thoroughly characteristic street in the city is the Bowery. Passing out of Printing House Square, through Chatham street, one suddenly emerges from the dark, narrow lane, into a broad square, with streets radiating from it to all parts of the city. It is not over clean, and has an air of sharpness and repulsiveness that at once attracts attention. This is Chatham Square, the great promenade of the old time denizens of the Bowery, and still largely frequented by the class generally known as “the fancy.”

At the upper end of the square begins a broad, flashy-looking street, stretching away to the northward, crowded with pedestrians, street cars, and wheeled vehicles of all kinds. This is The Bowery. It begins at Chatham Square, and extends as far as the Cooper Institute, on Eighth street, where the Third and Fourth avenues—the first on the east, and the other on the west side of the Institute—continue the thoroughfare to the Harlem River.

The Bowery first appears in the history of New York under the following circumstances. About the year 1642 or 1643, it was set apart by the Dutch for the residence of superannuated slaves, who, having served the Government faithfully from the earliest period of the settlement of the island, were at last allowed to devote their labors to the support of their dependent families, and were granted parcels of land embracing from eight to twenty acres each. The Dutch were influenced by other motives than charity in this matter. The district thus granted was well out of the limits of New Amsterdam, and they were anxious to make this negro settlement a sort of breakwater against the attacks of the Indians, who were beginning to be troublesome. At this time the Bowery was covered with a dense forest. A year or two later farms were laid out along its extent. These were called “Boweries,” from which the street derives its present name. They were held by men of mark, in those simple and honest days. To the north of Chatham Square lay the broad lands of the De Lanceys, and above them the fine estates of the Dyckmans, and Brevoorts, all on the west of the present street. On the east side lay the lands of the Rutgers, Bayards, Minthornes, Van Cortlandts and others. Above all these lay the “Bouwerie” and other possessions of the strong-headed and hard-handed Governor Peter Stuyvesant, of whom many traces still exist in the city. His house stood about where St. Mark’s (Episcopal) Church is now located. In 1660, or near about that year, a road or lane was laid off through what are now Chatham street, Chatham Square and the Bowery, from the Highway, as the portion of Broadway beyond the line of Wall street was called, to Governor Stuyvesant’s farm. To this was given the distinctive name of the “Bowery lane.” Some years later this lane was continued up the island under the name of the “Boston Road.” In 1783 the Bowery again came into prominent notice. On the 25th of November of that year, the American army, under General Washington, marched into the Bowery early in the morning, and remained until noon, when the British troops evacuated the city and its defences. This done, the Americans marched down the Bowery, through Chatham and Pearl streets, to the Battery, where they lowered the British flag which had been left flying by the enemy, and hoisted in its place the “stars and stripes” of the new Republic.

After the city began to extend up the island, the Bowery commenced to lose caste. Decent people forsook it, and the poorer and more disreputable classes took possession. Finally, it became notorious. It was known all over the country for its roughs or “Bowery B’hoys,” as they were called, its rowdy firemen, and its doubtful women. In short, it was the paradise of the worst element of New York. On this street the Bowery boy was in his glory. You might see him “strutting along like a king” with his breeches stuck in his boots, his coat on his arm, his flaming red shirt tied at the collar with a cravat such as could be seen nowhere else; with crape on his hat, the hat set deftly on the side of his head, his hair evenly plastered down to his skull, and a cigar in his mouth. If he condescended to adorn his manly breast with any ornament it was generally a large gold or brass figure representing the number of “der mersheen” with which he ran. None so ready as he for a fight, none so quick to resent the intrusion of a respectable man into his haunts. So he had money enough to procure his peculiar garb, a “mersheen” to run with and fight for, a girl to console him, the “Old Bowery Theatre” to beguile him from his ennui, and the Bowery itself to disport his glory in, he was content. Rows were numerous in this quarter, and they afforded him all the other relaxation he desired. If there be any truth in the theories of Spiritualism, let us be sure his ghost still haunts the Bowery.

And the Bowery girl—who shall describe her? She was a “Bowery b’hoy” in petticoats; unlike him in this, however, that she loved the greatest combination of bright colors, while he clung religiously to red and black. Her bonnet was a perfect museum of ribbons and ornaments, and it sat jauntily on the side of her head. Her skirts came to the shoe top and displayed her pretty feet and well-turned ankle, equipped with irreproachable gaiters and the most stunning of stockings. One arm swung loosely to the motion of her body as she passed along with a quick, lithe step, and the other held just over her nose her parasol, which was sometimes swung over the right shoulder. Even the Bowery boy was overcome by her stunning appearance, and he forgot his own glory in his genuine admiration of his girl.

Well! they have passed away. The street cars, the new police, and the rapid advance of trade up the island, have made great changes here, but there are still left those who could tell many a wondrous tale of the old time glories of the Bowery.

The street runs parallel with Broadway, is about double the width of that thoroughfare, and is about one mile in length. It is tolerably well built, and is improving in this respect every year. In connection with Chatham Square it is the great route from the lower end of the island to Harlem Bridge. Nearly all the east side street car lines touch it at some point, and the Third avenue line traverses its entire length. It lies within a stone’s throw of Broadway, but is entirely different from it in every respect. Were Broadway a street in another city the difference could not be greater.

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THE BOWERY

The Bowery is devoted mainly to the cheap trade. The children of Israel abound here. The display of goods in the shops flashy, and not often attractive. Few persons who have the means to buy elsewhere care to purchase an article in the Bowery, as those familiar with it know there are but few reliable dealers in the street. If one were to believe the assertions of the Bowery merchants as set forth in their posters and hand bills, with which they cover the fronts of their shops, they are always on the verge of ruin, and are constantly throwing their goods away for the benefit of their customers. They always sell at a “ruinous sacrifice;” yet snug fortunes are realized here, and many a Fifth avenue family can look back to days passed in the dingy back room of a Bowery shop, while papa “sacrificed” his wares in front. Sharp practice rules in the Bowery, and if beating an unwilling customer into buying what he does not want is the highest art of the merchant, then there are no such salesmen in the great city as those of this street. Strangers from the country, servant girls, and those who, for the want of means, are forced to put up with an inferior article, trade here. As a general rule, the goods sold here are of an inferior, and often worthless quality, and the prices asked are high, though seemingly cheap.

Pawnbrokers’ shops, “Cheap Johns,” third-class hotels, dance houses, fifth-rate lodging houses, low class theatres, and concert saloons, abound in the lower part of the street.

The Sunday law is a dead letter in the Bowery. Here, on the Sabbath, one may see shops of all kinds—the vilest especially—open for trade. Cheap clothing stores, concert saloons, and the most infamous dens of vice are in full blast. The street, and the cars traversing it, are thronged with the lower classes in search of what they call enjoyment. At night all the places of amusement are open, and are crowded to excess. Roughs, thieves, fallen women, and even little children throng them. Indeed it is sad to see how many children are to be found in these places. The price of admission is low, and strange as it may sound, almost any beggar can raise it. People have no idea how much of the charity they lavish on street beggars goes in this way. The amusement afforded at these places ranges from indelicate hints and allusions to the grossest indecency.

Along the line of almost the entire street are shooting galleries, some of which open immediately upon the street. They are decorated in the most fanciful style, and the targets represent nearly every variety of man and beast. Here is a lion, who, if hit in the proper place, will utter a truly royal roar. Here is a trumpeter. Strike his heart with your shot, and he will raise his trumpet to his lips and send forth a blast sufficient to wake every Bowery baby in existence. “Only five cents a shot,” cries the proprietor to the surrounding crowd of barefoot, penniless boys, and half-grown lads, “and a knife to be given to the man that hits the bull’s eye.” Many a penny do these urchins spend here in the vain hope of winning the knife, and many are the seeds of evil sown among them by these “chances.” In another gallery the proprietor offers twenty dollars to any one who will hit a certain bull’s eye three times in succession. Here men contend for the prize, and as a rule the proprietor wins all the money in their pockets before the mark is struck as required.

The carnival of the Bowery is held on Saturday night. The down-town stores, the factories, and other business places close about five o’clock, and the street is thronged at an early hour. Crowds are going to market, but the majority are bent on pleasure. As soon as the darkness falls over the city the street blazes with light. Away up towards Prince street you may see the flashy sign of Tony Pastor’s Opera House, while from below Canal street the Old Bowery Theatre stands white and glittering in the glare of gas and transparencies. Just over the way are the lights of the great German Stadt Theatre. The Atlantic Garden stands by the side of the older theatre, rivalling it in brilliancy and attractiveness. Scores of restaurants, with tempting bills of fare and prices astonishingly low, greet you at every step. “Lager Bier,” and “Grosses Concert; Eintritt frei,” are the signs which adorn nearly every other house. The lamps of the street venders dot the side-walk at intervals, and the many colored lights of the street cars stretch away as far as the eye can reach. The scene is as interesting and as brilliant as that to be witnessed in Broadway at the same hour; but very different.

As different as the scene, is the crowd thronging this street from that which is rushing along Broadway. Like that, it represents all nationalities, but it is a crowd peculiar to the Bowery. The “rich Irish brogue” is well represented, it is true; but the “sweet German accent” predominates. The Germans are everywhere here. The street signs are more than one-half in German, and one might step fresh from the Fatherland into the Bowery and never know the difference, so far as the prevailing language is concerned. Every tongue is spoken here. You see the piratical looking Spaniard and Portuguese, the gypsy-like Italian, the chattering Frenchman with an irresistible smack of the Commune about him, the brutish looking Mexican, the sad and silent “Heathen Chinee,” men from all quarters of the globe, nearly all retaining their native manner and habits, all very little Americanized. They are all “of the people.” There is no aristocracy in the Bowery. The Latin Quarter itself is not more free from restraint.

Among the many signs which line the street the word “Exchange” is to be seen very often. The “Exchanges” are the lowest class lottery offices, and they are doing a good business to-night, as you may see by the number of people passing in and out. The working people have just been paid off, and many of them are here now to squander their earnings in the swindles of the rascals who preside over the “Exchanges.” These deluded creatures represent but a small part of the working class however. The Savings Banks are open to-night, many of them the best and most respectable buildings on the Bowery, and thousands of dollars in very small sums are left here for safe keeping.

Many of the Bowery people, alas, have no money for either the banks or the lottery offices. You may see them coming and going if you will stand by one of the many doors adorned with the three gilt balls. The pawnbrokers are reaping a fine harvest to-night. The windows of these shops are full of unredeemed pledges, and are a sad commentary on the hope of the poor creature who feels so sure she will soon be able to redeem the treasure she has just pawned for a mere pittance.

Down in the cellars the Concert Saloons are in full blast, and the hot foul air comes rushing up the narrow openings as you pass them, laden with the sound of the fearful revelry that is going on below. Occasionally a dog fight, or a struggle between some half drunken men, draws a crowd on the street and brings the police to the spot. At other times there is a rush of human beings and a wild cry of “stop thief,” and the throng sweeps rapidly down the side-walk overturning street stands, and knocking the unwary passer-by off his feet, in its mad chase after some unseen thief. Beggars line the side-walk, many of them professing the most hopeless blindness, but with eyes keen enough to tell the difference between the coins tossed into their hats. The “Bowery Bands,” as the little street musicians are called, are out in force, and you can hear their discordant strains every few squares.

Until long after midnight the scene is the same, and even all through the night the street preserves its air of unrest. Some hopeful vender of Lager Beer is almost always to be found at his post, seek him at what hour you will; and the cheap lodging houses and hotels seem never to close.

Respectable people avoid the Bowery as far as possible at night. Every species of crime and vice is abroad at this time watching for its victims. Those who do not wish to fall into trouble should keep out of the way.

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