August 23, 1813: “The Bowery” is Born

Junction of Broadway & the Bowery, 1831. Credit: The New York Public Library.

It was August 23 of 1813 when the Common Council of New York City officially put the name “The Bowery” on the books as a city street name. But New Yorkers had already been calling it by that name for centuries, and native residents of the island had been walking its path for even longer. With a history this long, it’s no surprise that the Bowery is Manhattan’s oldest street still in use today.

We can’t know exactly when native people in the area began to use this crooked north-south path up the island of Manhattan, but we do know that in those early days it was called the Wickquasgeck Road because it led to a settlement of people bearing that same name. We also know that in the very early days of colonization, it was the Post Road to Boston. As early as 1625, the Dutch established a set of farms, or bouweries, along the path, just beyond the Collect Pond. At the time, this was quite rural and isolated from the New Amsterdam village at the southern tip of Manhattan. This isolation caused the farms considerable vulnerability, and the Dutch leadership eventually required that the individual bouweries consolidate into something more like a village. This established the Bowery Village, and the road leading to it became known as the Bowery (or Bowry) Lane. It became the main route of the city’s expansion – as New Amsterdam stretched further north, it tended to do so following that longstanding Bowery route. It was the widest road on the island at the time, which made it a natural thoroughfare for manufacturing, industry and other development. By 1813, it was so well established within the growing city that it was made official, and the name “Bowery” was forever marked in the record books.

A postcard showing the Bowery, c. 1903, when it was home to an elevated train line. Credit: GVSHP Historic Image Archive.

Since then, the road has become decidedly less rural. In the 19th century, the Bowery was a haven for inexpensive entertainment and energetic nights on the town. That eventually devolved into a seedier set of activities, when notorious places like McGurk’s Suicide Hall took over and turned the Bowery into a strip synonymous with danger and dereliction. It held that reputation for almost 100 years – for most of the 20th century, the Bowery was famous for flop houses, drug deals, gambling, punk rock, and all other pursuits of the rough and lowbrow.

More recently, of course, the low-rent Bowery has become a hotspot for development. New hotels, swanky restaurants, boutiques – they are slowly taking over this historic road. And they’ve transformed the Bowery into an odd mix of residual grime and modern luxury. Communities groups have sprung up in the wake of these changes, and in 2013 GVSHP awarded the most vocal, the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, with a Village Award.

The Bowery, 1974. Credit: Leland Bobbé. From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

While a considerable amount of the Bowery’s former historic character has disappeared or been buried under glossy new endeavors, it’s pretty amazing that the Bowery’s original footprint itself has survived centuries of city development. Today’s New Yorkers can traverse virtually the same path that Manhattanites have been using since at least the 16th century, and our Native American forebears long before that. It’s significance has earned the Bowery a place on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s also mentioned in the New York City designation report of the Bowery Savings Bank.

Check out those designation reports to learn more about this fascinating historic route, but if you really want to get a feel for the Bowery, channel your ancestors and go for a walk along this well-worn path. The Bowery Alliance’s Windows on the Bowery project has placed over sixty posters along the road, illuminating history of entertainment, innovation, music, and everything in between.

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Chelsea Dowell