Oct 10, 2011 / 38 notes

Staving Off Change to the Grit of the Bowery

It is the original boulevard of broken dreams, a street where a flophouse or two still lingers from its days as Skid Row, and where every day hungry men jostle through the doors of a remaining Christian mission for a hot meal.

The area is being transformed by luxury hotels, art galleries and high-rises.

A Christian mission for the homeless remains on the Bowery, once known as Skid Row.

It is easy to forget, looking at such scenes and at the sooty, weathered buildings, that the Bowery was once an avenue where banks put up palatial headquarters, where Al Jolson and W. C. Fields regaled vaudeville crowds, where Allen Ginsberg howled his poems and Roy Lichtenstein popped art.

“The Bowery! The Bowery! They say such things and they do strange things,” went an 1891 song. But generic glass-and-steel towers, trendy hotels, art galleries and chains like Whole Foods have been chipping away at the street’s character, threatening to make some blocks resemble the sleeker stretches of Avenue of the Americas or Third Avenue in Midtown. A bare-bones room at the Grand Hotel at 143 Bowery — named for the cross-street, not its opulence — can still be had for $12 a night, but more typical is a room at the five-year-old Bowery Hotel, a pastiche of the Victorian and the bohemian where rooms can cost $750 a night.

The Bowery’s rapid transformation is behind a crusade to preserve what is left of its timeworn, low-rise landscape and something of its personality, the grit as well as the glitter. Two groups, the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, have been pressing to have the avenue — which stretches from Chatham Square in Chinatown to Cooper Square in the East Village — placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

That designation, which is expected to receive state support this month, would encourage the Bowery’s preservation by offering state and federal tax credits for rehabilitation that sustains a building’s character, even if its spaces are occupied by high-end boutiques and condos.

It would, however, fall a good deal short of offering the permanent protection of landmark status. So preservationists have identified two pristine blocks and have asked the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to label them historic districts, a request the commission is considering. Such a designation would mean that proposed alterations to the streetscape could be slowed or halted by official reviews. Both moves, preservationists hope, will put pressure on city officials.

“People who dismiss the Bowery as shabby and run-down are missing the point,” said Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian who compiled the book-thick application for a historic district. “Everything that happened on the Bowery parallels New York history. It would be sad if it were gone.”

The Bowery, she said, is the city’s oldest thoroughfare, with buildings from every decade since the American Revolution. Of the 241 buildings that she has counted, 10 percent are of relatively new construction.

“Buildings have started disappearing or are slated to disappear at an alarming rate,” said Ms. Culhane, 40, who put together the successful nomination in 2010 for Chinatown and Little Italy as a national historic district.

Many New Yorkers, however, believe that the street is fated to change with the increasing demands for conveniently located Manhattan apartments, shops and offices, particularly in a neighborhood where hipsters and young professionals outnumber vagrants.

“Not all in this neighborhood are looking to preserve the past,” said Arun Bhati, a developer who owns a vacant lot at 35 Cooper Square, where an 1825 Federal house built by a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant was torn down this year, despite protests from preservationists. “Cities need to grow and make some changes to be relevant.”

Preservationists lost another recent battle when a nearly 200-year-old Federal building at 135 Bowery — a three-story brick structure with twin gabled dormers — was rejected for landmark status by the City Council though the landmarks commission had declared it worthy three months before. A developer wants to build an office building on the site and received the backing of Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who had originally supported landmark designation.

Ms. Chin explained her switch by saying the Chinatown neighborhood “needs affordable office space.”

David Mulkins, chairman of the Bowery Alliance, said the rejection was “a stunning deathblow.”

The Bowery, which winds through Chinatown, Little Italy, NoLIta, SoHo and the East Village, got its name from the Dutch word for farm, because it connected the cluster of houses near the tip of Manhattan to farms uptown. Its path through the streets of Chinatown includes the three-story Edward Mooney House, at 18 Bowery, which may be the city’s oldest row house, having in its time accommodated a butcher, a saloon, a brothel and now Summit Mortgage Bankers.

There are elegant bank buildings, like the domed and arched Citizen Savings Bank at 58 Bowery, a Beaux-Arts structure dating from 1924 that is now an HSBC branch, and the Bowery Savings Bank at 130 Bowery, which was designed by Stanford White’s firm as an ancient Roman temple and is now a catering hall. Both banks have been declared landmarks.

North of Hester Street, the avenue becomes the city’s restaurant equipment mart, with sidewalks jammed with kitchen sinks, bins of cheap flatware and voluminous pots and pans. North of Grand Street is the city’s lighting fixture district, which is shrinking as a result of rising rents. Though the vaudeville houses are gone, there are buildings redolent of the Bowery as an entertainment rialto, including the shuttered Amato Opera and the defunct Bouwerie Lane Theater and punk-rock club CBGB.

Most of the new development is on the east side of the Bowery, because much of the street’s west side is already protected within other landmark districts, like Little Italy. The newer buildings have brought enhancements to a street where panhandlers once warmed themselves over fires in oil drums.

But Norman Isaacs, owner of Norman Sound and Vision, a record store on Cooper Square, said too many new buildings like the Cooper Square Hotel were out of character with the street. The resulting high rents, he said, are pushing out the small, singular shops. “Why would people come to New York if it becomes the Mall of America?” he said.

Edward H. Morgan, president of the Bowery Mission, which has been serving the down-and-out since 1879, houses 80 people a night and feeds hundreds, said he was not against development; the mission has been able to co-exist with nearby condominiums and the futuristic New Museum at 235 Bowery. But he favors preservation as well.

“I believe eclectic neighborhoods with a flavor of the past are the essence of New York,” Mr. Morgan said.

From NYTimes.com

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