The Bowery

Bowery,_New_York_City,_ca._1898The Bowery is a street that runs in a northeasterly direction through the lower east side. It starts at the Brooklyn Bridge, where it is called Park Row, and ends at Cooper Square at Fourth Street in the north. Originally  a part of the old Boston Post Road.

 

<<A particularly fine photograph of the Third Avenue elevated line running along the Bowery ca 1895,  which has been restored and colorized. Click on it for a much larger version on which it’s possible to see fine details. The photo is in the Library of Congress, but came originally from the  Detroit Publishing Company.

 

A SATURDAY NIGHT SCENE IN THE BOWERY NEW YORK
HARPERS WEEKLY
MAY 20, 1871“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.
William Louis Sonntag. The Bowery at Night. 1895
Tony Pastor’s Opera House

 

On the Bowery. ca 1880

 

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.

The Bowery Theater. Opened in 1845 when the Bowery was still a highly regarded residential area.

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 t–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. p. 194

 

Sundays in the Bowery

“Broadway wears a silent and deserted aspect all day long, but towards sunset the Bowery brightens up wonderfully, and after nightfall the street is ablaze with a thousand gaslights. The low class theatres and places of amusement in that thoroughfare are opened towards dark, and then vice reigns triumphant in the Bowery. The Bowery beer-gardens do a good business. The most of them are provided with orchestras or huge orchestrions, and these play music from the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. Until very recently the bar-rooms were closed from midnight on Saturday until midnight on Sunday, and during that period the sale of intoxicating liquors was prohibited. Now all this is changed. The bar-rooms do a good business on Sunday, and especially on Sunday night. The Monday morning papers tell a fearful tale of crimes committed on the holy day. Assaults, fights, murders, robberies, and minor offences are reported in considerable numbers. Drunkenness is very common, and the Monday Police Courts have plenty of work to do.

Source:

McCabe, James. Lights and Shadows of New York Life. 1872.