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An engraving of three boys on a street corner entitled "Specimen Bowery Boys." The Bowery Boys were a nativist gang that operated in lower Manhattan in the early and mid 19th century. Bettman/Getty Images
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The Third Avenue Elevated blankets a stretch of the Bowery. The rail system was completed in 1878.
Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images
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The Bowery, circa 1884. By 1915, the Third Avenue El would add two more tracks down the middle of the street, completely blocking most sunlight from reaching below.Bildagentur-Online/UIG via Getty Images
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Steve Brodie's Bar and Tavern on Bowery between Hester and Grand Streets, circa 1887. Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
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New York's "Short Tail Gang," one of the infamous Five Point gangs, photographed beneath a pier on the Lower East Side, 1887.Jacob Riis/Public Domain
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"Bandit's Roost," a labyrinth of alleyways and shanty homes that Jacob Riis called "the vilest and worst to be found anywhere," 1888.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons
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A dive bar on Broome Street, circa 1888-1889.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons
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Workers in a sweatshop in a tenement on Ludlow Street, circa 1889. Jacob Riis/Library of Congress
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A man walks down the streets of Five Points, New York's most dangerous slum, 1890.New York Public Library
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A man prepares to celebrate the Sabbath on Ludlow Street, circa 1890. Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons
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An Italian immigrant smokes a pipe beneath the Rivington Street Dump, circa 1890.Jacob Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images
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Women at the Elizabeth Street police station, circa 1893. Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons
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Empty lots on Delancey Street, looking east towards the Williamsburg Bridge from between Bowery and Chrystie Street, circa 1895. Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images
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The bustle of the Bowery, circa 1900. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Men wait for free coffee at a mission in the Bowery, circa 1908. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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A Bowery five cent restaurant, circa 1910. Bain Collection/Interim Archives/Getty Images
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Unemployed men wait in a line for jobs on Water Street in the Bowery, circa 1910. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
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A man selling food on New York's Lower East Side, 1917.Bain News Service/Library of Congress
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The body of New York gangster Louis Riggiona, found dead in the gutter of Mulberry Street, circa 1930-1931.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Homeless men apply for housing at the Bowery YMCA during the Great Depression, 1930. Archive Photos/Getty Images
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Unhoused men march in the Bowery wearing winter underwear and barrels to petition for clothes, or at least $1.00 a week so they can buy some, circa 1934.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Volunteers of America pass out Thanksgiving dinner to the unhoused at the Bowery Tabernacle, circa 1935.Archive Photos/Getty Images
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Unemployed men smoke cigarettes at a shantytown in lower Manhattan, 1935.Berenice Abbott/New York Public Library
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Unemployed men crowd outside the Bowery Mission, circa 1935. Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images
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McSorley's Old Ale House opened its doors in 1854. Pictured here in 1937, it's one of the city's oldest pubs today.Berenice Abbott/New York Public Library
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A man sleeps on the streets of the Bowery in the 1940s.Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
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Mildred Hull, New York City's first female tattoo artist, at her tattoo parlour "Tattoo Emporium" in the Bowery, circa 1940. Archive Photos/Getty Images
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A would-be robber named Andrew Izzo lies dead after an undercover police officer walked in on him and three others trying to rob the Bowery Pool Room on Broome Street, 1942.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Sammy's Bowery Follies, described as "the city's most un-exclusive night club," circa 1943. PhotoQuest/Getty Images
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Men asleep on a sidewalk in the Bowery, circa 1950s. Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
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Two men drinking under the Third Avenue El in 1955, shortly before the city deconstructed the tracks.Archive Photos/Getty Images
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The Bowery neighborhood in 1961.Eckstein/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
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Bowery men eat beneath signs warning of wood-alcohol poisoning in 1963. Scores of homeless men died of wood alcohol poisoning in the 1960s in the Bowery.Arthur Schatz/Getty Images
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A man rests in front of a symbolic sign in New York's Bowery, 1966. Bettman/Getty Images
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A homeless man sits in front of a flop house on the Bowery, 1967.Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
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Two women hang out in the East Village, 1967.Wikimedia Commons
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Young people play in the rain in Tompkins Square Park a few blocks away from the Bowery, 1967. James Jowers/George Eastman Museum/Flickr
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Members of an East Village gang are booked and questioned by police after the fatal burning of a rival gang member, 1969. Frank Russo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
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Homeless men sleep on the streets of the Bowery, circa 1970s.Leland Bobbé/Photographer
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Residents of the Lower East Side chat outside an apartment building, circa 1970s. Camilo José Vergara Photographs
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Two sex workers in the Bowery in the 1970s. In 1976 alone, New York City saw over 2,400 arrests for prostitution. Leland Bobbé/Photographer
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Police raid the Hells Angels headquarters after reports that the motorcycle gang had raped and kidnapped a teenage girl, 1978.Louis Liotta/New York Post Archives/NYP Holdings, Inc via Getty Images
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Two young men in leather jackets stand outside CBGB, the cultural center of New York's punk scene, on Valentine's Day 1983.Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
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A Vietnam War veteran holds a sign in the Bowery, 1984. New York Public Library Digital Collection
44 Gritty Images Of New York’s Bowery, From Street Gangs To Punk Rock
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
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.
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.
"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."
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.