Walking East 3rd Street: The Bowery Branch YMCA
Walking East 3rd Street is a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2012 Intro to Public History course. Each pair of students was tasked with researching the cultural history of one particular block of East 3rd Street and sharing with us something fascinating they discovered along the way. All posts in the series are written by students.
The first of six posts in the series, by Elizabeth Ackerson, Shayne Leslie Figuerora and Jennifer Joyce, focuses on East 3rd Street between the Bowery & 2nd Avenue.
East 3rd Street, from Bowery to Second Avenue, serves as home to many commercial and residential buildings. After the newly constructed Bowery Hotel, the largest building on the block is 8 East 3rd Street. This seven-story brick building resembles a school or traditional hospital, but it is neither. Currently home to the Renewal on the Bowery’s Addiction Recovery program, this site has served the impoverished of the neighborhood for over 130 years.
Founded in London in 1844 by George Williams, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) offered spiritual refuge to workers in newly industrialized urban areas. New York City’s Bowery neighborhood, adjacent to the Lower East Side’s sweatshops, consisted of numerous overcrowded streets where gambling, drinking and other very non-Christian vices ran rampant in the mid 19th century. Such a dangerous area proved to be a challenge for the New York City YMCA board, including founding member Morris K. Jesup, who made the creation of a Bowery location his own personal project. In 1872 the Bowery Branch YMCA opened in a building that had once housed a saloon and gambling hall.
Originally, the board intended for this location to resemble other YMCAs in the Northeast, offering a reading room, religious services, and occasional recreational activities. But the recession of 1873 soon forced them to take more direct action in aiding the needy. The Bowery Branch YMCA became a pioneer amongst its fellows, experimenting with free and inexpensive meals for the poor out of a first-floor dining hall. It was the first Y to offer the bed service that would later become synonymous with the organization—both dormitory style beds and more long-term housing.
As part of a feature about tenement life on the Lower East Side, Harper’s Weekly included a cross-section illustration of communal areas and services provided by the Bowery Branch YMCA. By the time E.A. Hungerford profiled the location again in a 1921 Christian Advocate piece, a bulletin board in the lobby proclaimed the following services to be available: “wholesome food, bath, physical examination, clean bed, clean clothes, barber service, social times, employment, credit until pay day, encouragement, dormitory, religious meetings, educational classes, reading room, helpful recreation, new friends, savings account, self-reliance.” The Bowery Branch’s physical structure also changed in the new century. The building at 8 East 3rd Street opened in 1915, after the YMCA received permission from the city to build in 1912, and a decorative cornerstone commemorates the original structure’s 43 years of service to the community.
Historically viewed as a place where “a needy man finds a friend,” by the early 1920s the Bowery Branch had attained almost mythological stature as a positive outpost of reform. Hungerford’s article painted a picture of an institution that returned impoverished, beaten-down young men to prime fighting condition: “when a man is temporarily “down on his luck,” as he is apt to call it… it is easy for him to slip. The anchor he lets down to hold him steady, drags – until it reaches some such place as the Bowery Branch of the New York City Y.M.C.A. Here he gets an overhauling and sufficient repairs made to successfully sail on the high seas of manhood again.” Throughout the Great Depression, the Bowery Branch YMCA continued to provide sustenance and relief for homeless men. In 1931, the branch served over 1.3 million meals in its cafeterias, managed to secure jobs for over 1,000 men and provided overnight lodging in dormitories as well as longer-term shared accommodations for over 100,000 men.
The turnover in the Bowery Branch dormitories and accommodations was very high, but there were hardworking and not-so hardworking men that stayed for extended periods of time. The New York Times cites three semi-notable residents of 8 East 3rd street in the 1930s and 40s. Young Leo Ash plotted a jewelry store heist from his dorm room at the YMCA. In 1943 Maynard Johnson, a cook employed by the Bowery Branch, was arrested for draft-dodging after appearing as the model for a War Bonds Advertisement. And finally, we have Abe Gluck, an elevator operator at the Chrysler building who lived at the YMCA. He brought a co-worker to safety down several flights of stairs after the 1945 crash of a bomber plane into the side of the Chrysler building.
In 1947 the Y.M.C.A divested their interest in the building at 8 East 3rd Street and sold the property to the city of New York. The organization had provided services ranging from bible-study to clothes fumigation for thousands of men over the course of their seventy-five years on East Third Street. After a period of decline from the 1950s – 1980s, the City ceded control of the facility to the current owners, the Project Renewal nonprofit organization. The old Bowery Branch YMCA building at 8 East Third Street still stands in service to the community today.