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Friday, March 18, 2005

The Bowery and the Changing Face of New York

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Like all great cities, New York is always changing. Of course, being New York, this takes on a more extreme form than elsewhere. Like a snake shedding its skin, every couple of years the city sloughs off its earlier form to reveal a new face to the world. If Rome is the Eternal City, New York is city of 'Today? Yeah. Tomorrow? Probably. The day after that? Probably not.' The spirit may endure but the faces that walk the streets change, and even the streets themselves change. Over the last decade or so, perhaps no single district of the metropolis has embodied this impermanence better than the Lower East Side/East Village. And the heart of this transformation is The Bowery, the great thoroughfare that runs from Astor Place in the East Village down to the bottom edge of the Lower East Side.

Always an iconic roadway, it has lived many lives, and today it is nearing the end of yet another transformation, equivalent to the moment when a plastic surgery patient has the bandages removed and can see all the details of their new face for the first time. It has always been quite an iconic street, running at a diagonal through lower Manhattan and passing through several distinct neighborhoods while never really belonging to any of them. The story of the gentrification of The Bowery is the story of the transformation of much of downtown writ large.

"It's just a construction site now, girders and planks strewn on the floor. Instead of giant picture windows and balconies, there are unfinished walls and a sheer drop. But use your imagination: In a few months, this will be a glorious 16th-floor penthouse, complete with panoramic views, Sub-Zero fridge, and Italian bathroom fixtures. For $4.4 million, you can hover over all of downtown Manhattan like some kind of god, absorbing the sunlight that once flowed west down Spring Street. You can gaze down upon the crumbling tenements far below you, the lamp stores, the scrawny men who shuffle in and out of the flophouse next door. Your address is 195 Bowery and you are part of the transformation of a street once synonymous with bleak failure into a new millionaire's row.

Up and down the northern end of the Bowery, luxury apartment buildings are shooting up over the low-rise thoroughfare like iron weeds, framed by two nearly completed 16-story megaliths: 195 Bowery and Gwathmey Siegel's "Sculpture for Living," a curvaceous glass tower rising above Astor Place, where the asking prices range from almost $3 million to over $12 million. In between is the controversial (and nearly completed) Avalon Chrystie Place at Houston Street, with its giant Whole Foods and YMCA. If you consider all the current and planned activity, there's likely to be at least 600 or 700 pricey new apartments on the street. To keep pace, developers may have to bus in the rich—just as long as they call the buses jitneys. Sure, this instant infusion of wealth sounds like a grotesquely accelerated version of what's happened elsewhere in the city. Except this isn't elsewhere: It's the Bowery, a legendary slum."

What I find really fascinating is how quickly this has happened. When I lived in Britain I generally came back to New York and so I was able to see how the city was changing at pretty regular intervals. First came the general cleansing of the city - the removal of graffiti from the subways, the lifting of the cloud of menace that hung over the city when we left in the early 90's. That was followed by the spectacular economic boom of the late 1990's, where vast quantities of money were going to Manhattan's wealthy; a point I remember my dad making when we were visiting in about '98/'99 when he said something along the lines of "you can almost smell all the money that's being made at the moment in Manhattan."

This combination of factors created an enormous property boom that continues in New York City to this day. Prices in the traditional bourgeoisie stomping grounds of the Upper West and Upper East Sides have shot into the stratosphere, with the side effect of forcing many of those who would ordinarily have lived in those neighborhoods to go look elsewhere. With crime rates having shrunk at a dramatic rate many started moving into the once-Bohemian East Village and then, ultimately, into the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that was for well over a century the emblematic Downtown slum, the site of succeeding waves of immigration, where the Puerto Ricans and Chinese (and white junkie/squatter/rebels) had taken over from the Italians and Jews who had taken from the Germans and the Irish who had taken over from the native-born Anglo-Saxon poor.

The speed with which the neighborhood has changed is remarkable. In early 1998, when I was 17, we came back for my dad's cousin Marian's wedding, and on one of the afternoons my sister and I went to Alphabet City because my sister wanted to hit some of the junk stores that were then clustered in the area to get some cheap clothes. Already at that point there were clear shoots of revival, but mostly the area was rundown and pretty grimy, gap-toothed streets with empty lots standing between seedy-looking tenements, and junkies staring into space on street corners. Today, only eight years later, virtually all of that has gone, with the exception of the neighborhood's eastern edge on Avenue D, but even that is conceivably not long for its roughness.

The Bowery itself has experienced a remarkable change. Where, on that same day out, we were hassled by a prostitute and her pimp who were suggesting to me that I pimp my sister out, there is now a fancy bistro-type place. The Bowery, at least north of Houston, now has the same 'open-air young bourgeois theme park' vibe that the rest of the East Village has acquired in recent years. Don't get me wrong, as I'm not one of those people who is nostalgiac for the city's high crime days. The new, safer New York City is a vast improvement. It's just that it's a remarkable change from the down-at-heel vibe of its recent past. Now, unless you are really lucky, you can't find somewhere to live downtown without dropping at least $1000 a month. The bars that charge $6 a beer are full. The modish restaurants are swarmed. On a Saturday evening in nice weather the streets around Tompkins Square Park, once a notorious drug zone, are filled with fresh-faced youths from all over the tri-state area.

Yet this is nothing new for the area when you pull back and look at history. The story of this neighborhood is one of constant change. The community in which Martin Scorcese set his first real classic, Mean Streets, no longer really exists in any meaningful sense. Little Italy is gone, besides a row of restaurants on Mulberry Street that exist solely for tourists and Italian-Americans from the outer boroughs and the suburbs feeling nostalgiac for the neighborhood that, with its mafiosi, its poverty, its tightly-knit community, the pizzerias and bakeries, and its San Gennaro Festival, was always what people thought of when they pondered Italian-America. In contrast, Chinatown has grown at an exponential rate, overtaking most of what was left of Little Italy. As you walk south on The Bowery from Astor Place the change comes slowly, as the restaurants and bars slowly merge into the Chinese-owned restaurant supply stores before, finally, the stores become almost entirely Chinese around the junction of The Bowery, Canal Street, and the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Bowery generally marked the border between the boundaries of Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side, of course, is famous for what it once was: the center of early 20th century Jewish New York, where hundreds of thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe lived cheek-by-jowl in the tenements that overlooked the teeming streets. Then it became infamous for its heroin trade, for its high crime rate, and for the rebellious squatters who colonized much of the abandoned housing stock. Yet the Lower East Side, too, has seen a rapidly spreading gentrification in recent years. What had, for decades, been a fairly notorious neighborhood is now home to an increasing number of stores selling such proletarian goods as antiques, vintage clothes, and microbrewed beers.

The Lower East Side is the last domino to fall within the gentrification of Lower Manhattan. First, those who couldn't afford to live in Greenwich Village as it moved upmarket moved to SoHo. Then, when SoHo prices shot into the stratosphere, the overspill went to the East Village, and when that got to pricey, people started moving to the Lower East Side. The gentrification of the Lower East Side has pushed many young people to move across the river to Brooklyn, primarily to Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which has also seen their own gentrifications beginning. Now, as prices soar in Williamsburg, the art rebel types are slowly moving deeper into Brooklyn, to neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, which were, and still are to some degree, seriously notorious neighborhoods.

I don't tend to have much sympathy for those who complain about such changes ruining the 'flavor' of the city, as if losing the sex stores around Times Square was some sort of unnecesary concession to the dread Middle America (of course, those stores are now coming back). Despite fears that the poor will be priced out of the city, this is still a city of the rich, the poor, and the middle class. As some neighborhoods move upwards, others move downwards, becoming the new homes to the city's newest immigrants, those who have arrived to attempt to make it in New York. New York City is somewhere that is always changing; people are always coming and going, nothing stays still for long. The transformation of The Bowery and the neighborhoods it cuts through means only that the city still lives, and that it continues as before. Only a fool could hope to stop New York doing what it has always done: change.

|| RPH || 5:04 PM || |