Diminishing Squalor of The Bowery of New York City

Diminishing Squalor of The Bowery of New York City

Original Article on The Washington Post

Gus Chuises isn’t wistful for the old Bowery.

“When I first got here, it was just winos and derelicts,” said Chuises, 79, a longtime resident of the Bowery, the wide boulevard in Lower Manhattan long synonymous with Skid Row. “Now, you have all sorts of people.”

Indeed, as the gentrification of Lower Manhattan continues, a much different Bowery is emerging.

This summer, five multimillion-dollar residential buildings, two luxury hotels and a giant Whole Foods Market will open on the thoroughfare that begins in Chinatown and ends 16 blocks later on the eastern edge of Greenwich Village.

Fifty years ago, so-called Bowery bums filled more than 100 grim flophouses. Today, just seven of these single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs, remain.

Chuises, a retired waiter who battled alcoholism for most of his life, has lived on the Bowery for most of the past 40 years in an SRO called The Palace. Now he has a small, clean apartment administered by the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a nonprofit group providing services for the homeless.

Having seen the Bowery become more dangerous in the late 1970s, as homelessness, drugs and street crime soared, Chuises is quite pleased with the avenue’s new wave of fancy condo developments, fashionable bistros and hipster nightclubs.

But, as is often the case when old, distinctive neighborhoods show signs of stark change, these newer, glossier buildings of steel and glass have put many longtime residents and business owners on edge.

“I can’t stand the thought that this neighborhood will turn out looking like any other neighborhood,” said Phil Hartman, creator of the annual Howl! Festival of East Village Arts and owner of the Pioneer Theater, an independent movie house.

Hartman said he fears the upscale developments will destroy the diversity and eccentricity of a neighborhood whose former affordability long attracted a colorful mix of new immigrants, young artists and left-wing activists.

A symbol of the new Bowery can be found at its busy intersection with Houston Street.

There, the Alexandria, Va.-based AvalonBay Communities Inc. has nearly completed a $350 million apartment development that features a block-long, 14-story, glass-paneled building scheduled to open this summer. An 85,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market will occupy the ground floor. AvalonBay also has two additional nine-story residential buildings under construction on the Bowery.

One building AvalonBay is razing for its developments once housed an infamous saloon and brothel known as McGurk’s Suicide Hall, so-called because several women were said to have committed suicide while working there in the 1890s.

At the Bowery’s northern end, a futuristic, 21-story residential tower that calls itself “The Sculpture for Living” features units ranging from $3 million lofts to a $12 million penthouse.

At the street’s opposite end, in Chinatown, 11 stories of luxury lofts are being built atop a five-story brick building dating from about 1830. Prices there start at $825,000; the penthouse is tagged at $4.1 million.

Many of these new structures tower over the Bowery’s primarily low-rise landscape of 19th century tenements, the ground floors of which still house many restaurant suppliers and lighting retailers.

Such juxtapositions of 19th and 21st century architecture on the Bowery do not sit well with Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who called many of the new projects “hugely inappropriate designs for that street.” He said he worries that many of the Bowery’s oldest buildings are not distinguished enough to be granted landmark protection and will eventually meet the wrecking ball.

But Shaun Donovan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, sees the Bowery’s transformation as evidence of the city’s appeal, reflected in record-high housing prices and a 3 percent vacancy rate for residential rental units.

“There is a similar process going on in neighborhoods all around the city,” Donovan said. “Because the city is doing well, and crime rates are down, people want to live here.”

Donovan points out that there is a shortage of luxury housing in Manhattan, one reason that multimillion-dollar condos are being built and purchased in such formerly unlikely spots as the Bowery.

The appearance of high-end housing on the Bowery is the most recent step in a sweeping makeover of Lower Manhattan that began in the 1970s, when bohemian artists were pushed out of their lofts and studios in SoHo, the neighborhood south of Houston Street, and replaced by high-end boutiques, restaurants and art galleries.

But, until now, this gentrification had largely bypassed the Bowery, said Ella Howard, a Boston University historian who is writing a book about homelessness on the Bowery in the second half of the 20th century. Until recently, Howard said, real estate investors skipped the Bowery because it contained many SRO hotels, working-class bars and shuttered storefronts.

“The Bowery’s association with poverty and homelessness kept the development away,” she said.

In the late 1950s, its dirt and disarray prompted Robert Moses, the city’s master builder, to propose that many of the Bowery’s 19th century buildings be razed, but community activists defeated the plan.

When homelessness exploded in the late 1970s, not just single men, but also families uprooted by rising rents and cuts in federally subsidized housing, flocked to the Bowery’s soup kitchens, aid missions and the few homeless shelters established by the city at that time.

“The flophouses were effectively the shelter system,” said Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of the Bowery Residents’ Committee and the acting commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services under then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Since then, New York’s shelter system has grown to 224 facilities dispersed throughout the five boroughs.

As the Bowery development moves ahead, Rosenblatt said the kind of visible homelessness that once defined the street, already far rarer than a decade ago, will largely disappear. Rosenblatt credits an expanded city shelter system for the decrease in the number of people living on the street.

But others such as Patrick Markee, spokesman for the Coalition for the Homeless, counter that the city has underestimated the number of street homeless, and that by moving its central intake center from Manhattan to the Bronx it merely moved the problem to poorer neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, some are trying to preserve a bit of the Bowery’s counterculture past. Bob Holman, a writer who arrived on the Lower East Side in the late 1960s, said the neighborhood’s gentrification prompted him to open the Bowery Poetry Club three years ago. Holman said his nightclub aims to feature the kind of poetry and music performed during the Beat years of the 1950s and 1960s.

“Change is an inevitable essence of New York,” said Holman, outfitted in a colorful fez and loose-fitting black sports coat. “At the same time,” he said, “to forget what the Bowery was would be a crime.”

The bank building at the Bowery and Grand Street in New York reflects faded grandeur, but the area’s seediness is being reversed by upscale redevelopment.Bob Holman, owner of the Bowery Poetry Club and Cafe, says that “to forget what the Bowery was would be a crime.”Gus Chuises, 79, has witnessed the transformation of the Bowery.