44 Gritty Images Of New York’s Bowery, From Street Gangs To Punk Rock

Published June 17, 2022
Updated June 20, 2022

Once lined with flophouses, brothels, and gambling dens, New York's Bowery was originally a rural road that has since become a destination for the city's nightlife.

Bowery Boys
Elevated Railway
Bowery Street
Steve Brodie Bar
44 Gritty Images Of New York’s Bowery, From Street Gangs To Punk Rock
View Gallery

New York City is a city of many diverse neighborhoods, from the celebrated to the infamous. And none of them may hold as notorious of a place in the city's history as the Bowery. This stretch of city blocks has acted as a backdrop for everything from New York gangs and horrific poverty to the seeds of the city's punk movement and, today, a bustling luxury district.

Above, see 44 photos of the Bowery that illuminate the neighborhood's shocking, fascinating, and tragic history. And below, read about how the Bowery went from a nexus of tenement housing to one of New York City's can't-miss hotspots.

The Rural Beginnings Of The Bowery

Long before Manhattan became an island of skyscrapers and the Bowery one of its most important downtown arteries, this area of lower Manhattan acted as an important thoroughfare for Indigenous Americans.

Tribes called the trail Wickquasgeck, which, according to Curbed, translates as "path to the wading place" or "birch-bark country." It later became the road that led to Governor Peter Stuyvesant's bouwerie or farm, per Britannica.

Though the Bowery — named in 1807 — was considered an elegant part of town at the end of the 18th century, it soon faced a massive decline. War, gangs, and the construction of the Third Avenue Elevated railway darkened the reputation of this New York City neighborhood for well over a century.

The Bowery's Slow, Steady Decline

Bowery

Lawrence Thornton/Archive Photos/Getty ImagesThe Bowery under the shadow of the Third Avenue El in New York City, circa 1940.

A number of factors led to the Bowery's decline in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though it had once hosted elegant theaters, the make-up of the neighborhood changed after the Civil War. Beginning in 1875, the construction of the Third Avenue Elevated railway cast a literal shadow over the Bowery.

According to NYCity Media, the El made living in the Bowery newly unpleasant. Hot oil dripped down from the tracks, and many fled the pollution that came along with the train. As theatres moved out, pawnshops, brothels, and flophouses moved in.

"I have nothing very flattering to say on the subject," one Bowery shopkeeper said, according to Curbed. "Our goods exposed outside are injured by the discharges of coal gas and steam... Every locomotive that passes up makes its contribution of injury to goods and to paint."

To make matters worse, several New York gangs operated in the vicinity. The southern end of the Bowery ran parallel to the Five Points, a poor swath of the city that was run by gangs like the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits (as depicted in the 2002 film Gangs of New York). There, many poor immigrants also lived in decrepit tenement housing.

"The Bowery is one of the great highways of humanity, a highway of seething life, of varied interest, of fun, of work, of sordid and terrible tragedy," Theodore Roosevelt declared in 1913. Voicing an opinion many shared, he added that "it is haunted by demons as evil as any that stalk through the pages of the 'Inferno.'"

By the 20th century, the Bowery became known as New York City's "Skid Row." Some even called it "Satan's Highway." According to NYCity Media, the word "Bowery" itself came to mean "bum," and curious out-of-towners often visited the neighborhood to see how the out-of-luck lived. They could even take a tour — though not until the police cleared the streets of any poor souls who'd died in the open during the night.

But the Bowery was just down — not out. And the iconic New York City neighborhood would transform again and again in the decades to come, often in surprising ways.

How "Satan's Highway" Went From Punk Rock To The Gap

In the latter half of the 20th century, the Bowery transformed again. According to NYCity Media, its "otherness" attracted artists like William Burroughs and Mark Rothko in the 1960s. And the opening of the iconic CBGB club in 1973 turned the Bowery into a punk rock mecca. Soon, it hosted acts like Patti Smith and The Ramones.

Patti Smith At CBGB

Charlie Steiner - Highway 67/Getty Images.Patti Smith at CBGB in 1977. She later performed at the iconic club when it closed in 2006.

But the Bowery's edgy, alternative reputation didn't last. As the area started to gentrify in the 1980s, Skid Row gradually disappeared. A Gap store opened in 1988, spelling, to some New Yorkers, the end of the Bowery as they knew it. And then in 2006, CBGB closed as neighborhood rents soared.

"Kids, they'll find some other club," Patti Smith, a CBGB regular, predicted when she played a final show at the iconic club. They'll find a place, she said, according to The New York Times, "that nobody wants, and you got one guy who believes in you, and you just do your thing. And anybody can do that, anywhere in the world, any time."

Today, the Bowery is one of the city's sleeker neighborhoods. Packed with trendy hotels, bars, and art galleries, its name is no longer synonymous with grit, gangs, and decline.

But has something been lost in the Bowery's rebirth without the El (deconstructed in 1955), the flophouses, and cheap bars? According to one former homeless alcoholic who once called the Bowery home, yes.

In a Metropolitan Diary feature in The New York Times in 2006, he wrote:

"There is no longer a skid row on the Bowery; it is a changing street with museums and expensive bars and hotels, and I, for one, think the city is poorer for no longer having a place where drunks and bums can go."


After reading about the history of the Bowery, look through these 27 images from when punk ruled New York. Or, enjoy these incredible images of New York City — before it was developed.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a double degree in American History and French.