When I would take the train into the city as a teenager, my mother gave me several rules to follow for safety: Don’t make eye contact. Don’t take your wallet out on the street. When in doubt, walk fast. And if you start to see streets without numbers, or avenues named for letters, turn around immediately.
The New York of 2017 is very different from my mother’s New York of the 1970s and 1980s, and even different from the city of my youth in the ’90s, but the transformation of the Bowery still manages to bewilder me. It makes total sense given the location, but of all the streets in New York, the Bowery was the worst of the worst. People in various states of drunk, high, or withdrawal lived on the street, and shootings weren’t uncommon. It was cleaned up a bit in the Giuliani city of my youth, but I still remember it feeling dangerous and smelling awful.
These days, the Bowery is still a combination of high end (John Varvatos), utilitarian (restaurant supply shops), and gritty (the Mission, people still living on the street). One of its most striking and mysterious buildings is this 1899 bank at 190 Bowery. Until recently it was the home of photographer Jay Maisel, who had at one point sublet a floor of it to Roy Lichtenstein, but for decades, everyone assumed it was condemned and vacant. Fresh graffiti covered it every day, people slept on the steps, and even jaded New Yorkers tried to peer through its opaque windows. Since it sold for $55 million, work on the exterior has been underway, and someday, this former giant mysterious riddle will house retail and commercial space.
What happened on these steps over the past century? Jazz Age stock brokers hustling past busking musicians, drag queens taking a smoke break, deals being made, songs being sung, artists and celebrities coming and going… and sure enough, this history will soon be erased, like so much else lost in this town.
Read the full story of 190 Bowery here, and be sure to check out the slide show.