At the end of 2010, at the invitation of David Mulkins, I had the privilege to be part of an wonderful evening at Dixon Place hosted by the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. The lineup included, among others, poet Bob Holman, historians Eric Ferrara and Kerri Culhane, performer Poor Baby Bree, and urbanologist Tony Tung. It was a night full of fun, passion. and wisdom. Several people have asked me for a copy of the brief remarks that represented my small contribution to the event. Instead of sending out separate emails (or snail mails), I decided (as usual) to seek the laziest, least labor-intensive way of response, so I’m posting them as a blog. (Is this in violation of blog protocol? Do I care? Yo, I grew up in the Bronx. Sue me.) Here they are:
This evening is appropriately titled “Bowery History: A Celebration.” I won’t mar the festivities with a useless and predictable lecture on the Bowery as the real heart of America, which is heartless to some and to others so big hearted, no single place can’t claim it. And I won’t go on about the Bowery as the soul of America, which to some is soulless and to others carnival-rich with soul.
For me the Bowery is essential to everything we are as a city, a nation, a people, our carotid artery, deep-seated, medial margin, conveyer of oxygen, blood, integral since Stuyvesant and his Dutchmen dispossessed and displaced the innocent Lenape who were robbed of their lands, and saw their footpaths and trails turned into thoroughfares, streets and alleyways, and the road made clear for the El and the paddy wagons and Dutch Schultz and The Ramones.
In the beginning was the Bowery. As much here as Jamestown or Plymouth Rock. Immigrants of all shades settled here, freedom-less Africans, landless Irish, luckless Jews, women-less Chinese, a plentitude of penniless Italians.
Here Stephen Foster shifted in his unbeautiful dreams, and he and Dreiser’s Hurstwood slept in single beds, waking hung-over in the lonely, unholy dark to ask, “What’s the use?”
America was forged here, as much here as in Valley Forge, or Constitution Hall. Fun was invented here, freedom practiced, the free lunch pioneered.
Those women who died in the Shirtwaist fire–they played here…danced perhaps a last dance to Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
The unwashed and unfettered, those who despaired of the American Dream, or reveled in it, or were defeated by it, they howled with Ginsberg here, “walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open full of steamheat and opium…ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of the Bowery …”
The Bowery Boys–the boyo’s–swaggered here, the progenitors of urban attitude, they turned the street into a stage, strutted as much as walked, half-dance, half-defiance, a mix of musicality and menace they bequeathed to Jimmy Cagney and gangsta rap.
Here strayed our gray, gay, great poet…“Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, a kosmos/ Disorderly fleshy and sensual… eating drinking and breeding…” a friend to shoeless newsies, footloose floozies…all the same to Walt.
Skid Row skidded to delirious conclusion here. Souls were lost here and souls were saved here. Sunset Boulevard and Route 66 began here. Las Vegas was here before it was in Las Vegas. Minstrelsy. The Variety Show.
They say such things and they do strange things, on the Bow’ry! The Bow’ry!
Born here were the kinetic, boogie-woogie ambitions which, try as they might, puritans, prohibitionists and moralizers have never been able to undo.And I started here, too, in a fashion…
by commodius vicus of recirculation…
when Margaret Manning, a seamstress, the daughter of parents who fled the Irish famine, went with her girlfriends to a dance run by Tammany honcho Big Tim Sullivan–he, too, a child of famine immigrants–and was spotted across a crowded room by Patrick Quinn, a laborer in the East River shipyards, who asked her to trip the light fantastic and married her in St. Brigid’s, in the last year of the nineteenth century, which made it possible for me to be here tonight.
The Bowery is who I am, and who you are, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans. After all this time, we can’t allow it to be pasteurized, homogenized, and high-rised in the gilded playground of the over-privileged; bled white, embalmed and entombed as yet another unmovable feast to be served up for the members-only enjoyment of the uber-rich.
If we lose the Bowery, we lose the future as well as the past.
If the National Register of Historic Places has no place for the Bowery then it has no right to be called the National Register of Historic Places.
The Bowery helped make it possible for us to be who we are.
Now, in turn, we must see to it that the Bowery remains a place for all of us, whoever we are.