This is historical reference material from the public domain book “Lights and Shadows of New York Life” by James McCabe. This post focuses specifically on information about the history of Bleecker street in New York City. If you enjoy the information below please feel free to download the Ebook completely for FREE by going to the bottom of this post.
Perhaps very few people out of the great city know Bleecker Street at all; perhaps they have passed it a dozen times or more without noticing it, or if they have marked it at all have regarded it only as a passably good-looking street going to decay. But he who does not know Bleecker street does not know New York. It is of all the localities of the metropolis one of the best worth studying.
It was once the abode of wealth and fashion, as its fine old time mansions testify. Then Broadway north of it was the very center of the aristocracy of the island, and Bond street was a primitive Fifth avenue. Going west from the Bowery, nearly to Sixth avenue, you will find rows of stately mansions on either hand, which speak eloquently of greatness gone, and as eloquently of hard times present. They have a strange aspect too, and one may read their story at a glance. Twenty-five years ago they were homes of wealth and refinement. The most sumptuous hospitality was dispensed here, and the stately drawing rooms often welcomed brilliant assemblages. Now a profusion of signs announce that hospitality is to be had at a stated price, and the old mansions are put to the viler uses of third-rate boarding houses and restaurants.
In many respects Bleecker street is more characteristic of Paris than of New York. It reminds one strongly of the Latin Quarter, and one instinctively turns to look for the Closerie des Lilas. It is the headquarters of Bohemianism, and Mrs. Grundy now shivers with holy horror when she thinks it was once her home. The street has not entirely lost its reputation. No one is prepared to say it is a vile neighborhood; no one would care to class it with Houston, Mercer, Greene, or Water streets; but people shake their heads, look mysterious, and sigh ominously when you ask them about it. It is a suspicious neighborhood, to say the least, and he who frequents it must be prepared for the gossip and surmises of his friends. No one but its denizens, whose discretion can be absolutely trusted, knows anything with certainty about its doings or mode of life, but every one has his own opinion. Walk down it at almost any hour of the day or night, and you will see many things that are new to you. Strange characters meet you at every step; even the shops have a Bohemian aspect, for trade is nowhere so much the victim of chance as here. You see no breach of the public peace, no indecorous act offends you; but the people you meet have a certain air of independence, of scorn, of conventionality, a certain carelessness which mark them as very different from the throng you have just left on Broadway. They puzzle you, and set you to conjecturing who they are and what they are, and you find yourself weaving a romance about nearly every man or woman you meet.
That long-haired, queerly dressed young man, with a parcel under his arm, who passed you just then, is an artist, and his home is in the attic of that tall house from which you saw him pass out. It is a cheerless place, indeed, and hardly the home for a devotee of the Muse; but the artist is a philosopher, and he flatters himself that if the world has not given him a share of its good things, it has at least freed him from its restraints, and so long as he has the necessaries of life and a lot of jolly good fellows to smoke and drink and chat with him in that lofty dwelling place of his, he is content to take life as he finds it.
If you look up to the second floor, you may see a pretty, but not over fresh looking young woman, gazing down into the street. She meets your glance with composure, and with an expression which is a half invitation to “come up.” She is used to looking at men, and to having them look at her, and she is not averse to their admiration. Her dress is a little flashy, and the traces of rouge are rather too strong on her face, but it is not a bad face. You may see her to-night at the — Theatre, where she is the favorite. Not much of an actress, really, but very clever at winning over the dramatic critics of the great dailies who are but men, and not proof against feminine arts. This is her home, and an honest home, too. To be sure it would be better had she a mother or a brother, or husband—some recognized protector, who could save her from the “misfortune of living alone;” but this is Bleecker street, and she may live here according to her own fancy, “and no questions asked.”
On the floor above her dwells Betty Mulligan, a pretty little butterfly well known to the lovers of the ballet as Mademoiselle Alexandrine. No one pretends to know her history. She pays her room rent, has hosts of friends, but beyond this no one knows anything. Surmises there are by the score, and people wonder how mademoiselle can live so well on her little salary; but no charges are made. People shrug their shoulders, and hint that ballet girls have resources unknown to the uninitiated. The rule here is that every one must look after himself, and it requires such an effort to do this that there is no time left to watch a neighbor’s shortcomings.
In the same house is a fine-looking woman, not young, but not old. Her “husband” has taken lodgings here for her, but he comes to see her only at intervals, and he is not counted in the landlady’s bill. Business keeps him away, and he comes when he can. Bleecker street never asks madame for her marriage certificate, nor does it seek to know why her numerous friends are all gentlemen, or why they come only when the “husband” is away.
Honest, hard-working men come here with their families. Their earnings are regular, but small, and they prefer the life of this street to the misery of the tenement house. Others there are who live in the street, and occupy whole dwellings with their families, who stay here from force of habit. They are “slow” people, dull of comprehension, and to them the mysteries of their neighborhood are a sealed book. Yet all are regarded as persons whose characters are “not proven,” by the dwellers outside the street.
Money is a power in Bleecker street. It will purchase anything. Much is spent by those who do not dwell here, but come here to hide their secrets. Women come here to meet other men besides their husbands, and men bring women here who are not their wives. Bleecker street asks no questions, but it has come to suspect the men and women who are seen in it.
Indeed, so long as its tenants do not violate the written law of the land to an extent sufficient to warrant the interference of the police, they may do as they please. Thus it has come to pass that the various personages who are a law unto themselves have gradually drifted into Bleecker street, unless they can afford better quarters, and even then the freedom of the locality has for them a fascination hard to be resisted. No one loses caste here for any irregularity. You may dress as you please, live as you please, do as you please in all things, and no comments will be made. There is no “society” here to worry your life with its claims and laws. You are a law unto yourself. Your acts are exclusively your own business. No complaints will be made against you. You are absolutely your own master or mistress here. Life here is based on principles which differ from those which prevail in other parts of the city.
Yet, as I have said, no one dare call the street “bad.” Let us say it is “irregular,” “free,” “above scandal,” or “superior to criticism;” but let us not venture to term it “bad,” as its neighbors Greene and Mercer are “bad.” I cannot say it would be shocked by such a charge, for Bleecker street is never shocked at anything. It would, no doubt, laugh in our faces, and scornfully ask for our proofs of its badness, and proofs of this sort are hard to bring to light in this thoroughfare.
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