No street epitomizes New York’s disparities of class nor its capacity for reinvention more than the Bowery — and never more than now. Go there today and you will see luxury residential towers alongside charitable missions next to night clubs and restaurants, up the street from…a bunch of Chinese lamp stores? In its centuries-old history it has been an Indian footpath, a thoroughfare leading OUT of the city (which used to end at Wall Street ) and past the nearby farmland, an entertainment district having much in common with Times Square and Coney Island, and, finally, for many years, America’s most famous Skid Row. And now today.
Nobody knows more about this area than Eric Ferrara, a local boy who went on to start the Lower East Side History Project, and whose earlier book is A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdoes. Like that earlier effort, his new book The Bowery: A History of Grit, Graft and Grandeur is an uneasy cross between a guide book and a history. It’s laid out and organized by address, taking you South to North, telling the interesting stories of each piece of real estate along the way. One might be tempted to tote the book around and take a self-guided walking tour, only there’s too much reading to do. By the same token, one would like to lie in bed and read the book, only then one would be frustrated by not being on site. The book will therefore work best for people who already intimately know the strip, and can picture the addresses as they sit and read. Or –and this is what I’ll probably end up doing — make a couple of trips to the Bowery, and reread the book a few times until both experiences are thoroughly blended in the Cuisinart of your mind.
The effort will be a pleasure for me personally. Ferrara covers so much that is relevant to my work, including many institutions I mentioned in No Applause, e.g.: Miner’s Bowery Theatre, Bunnell’s New American Museum, The Bowery Theatre (different from Miner’s), Tony Pastor’s Opera House, Worth’s Museum, and many others. Plus the Atlantic Beer Gardens, Steve Brodie’s saloon, McGurk’s Suicide Hall — it seems like every inch of the Bowery is legendary, and Ferrara has left no stone unturned in covering his beat. Rest assured my copy of this book will be dog-eared, heavily marked up, and probably stained with beer. I recommend you do the same.