Bowery Tries To Preserve Whatever's Left Of Its Past

by BILLY GRAY · March 18, 2010

In today's day late, buck short news, preservationists started a campaign to add the Bowery to the National Register of Historic Places (how is it not there already) and limit new development on the seedy-to-fab boulevard.

The last five years have seen a rapid transformation of New York's former skid row (and, before that, theater and red light district). It's funny to think that until recently, Bowery Bar was one of the only upmarket spots on the strip. CBGB is gone, replaced by a spate of shiny new mega-developments: the Avalon apartment complexes, the Bowery Hotel, Whole Foods, the new New Museum, John Varvatos (which tellingly replaced CBGB), DBGB and Pulino's.

From The Villager's great capsule review of the Bowery's past:

"The term “Jim Crow,” meaning black segregation, originated with a character in a Bowery minstrel show...The great 19th-century American actor Edwin Booth performed on the Bowery, and later, so did Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, Al Jolson and Jimmy Durante. Yiddish theater in America was born on the Bowery and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had its opening on the Bowery.

Punk rock and the Ramones rocked at CBGB (closed in October 2006) on the Bowery. The Bowery Mission, which takes its name from the street famed as the city’s Skid Row, has been saving derelict bodies and souls since 1879. In the 1890s there were a dozen gay bars in the Bowery neighborhood. It was where early gangs — associated with political clubs and volunteer fire companies — constituted the underworld. McGurk’s Suicide Hall, a brothel that got its nickname from the prostitutes who decided to end it all there, was at 285 Bowery.

But many historic buildings have been demolished and replaced by high-rise hotels on the east side of the Bowery."

Yup, I'd say it's a history worth saving. So it's good to see local preservationists petition for official landmark status and limit new high-rise construction. It also makes me wonder how much time is left until the glitz that has engulfed the avenue north of Houston (or on it) migrates to its southern fringes.

The Bowery has shaken off its lowdown reputation lately, but we wouldn't want it to soar to too great a height.