Where can you buy a cut-price cafe table, an industrial-size meat grinder, a sequined miniskirt, $42 steak frites, pop art and zany chandeliers, all on one street? Where will you see hipsters lining up to ponder contemporary art next to drifters waiting for a bed in a shelter... near a corner named after Joey Ramone?
Downtown New York’s Bowery, of course. Running just a mile from deep within Chinatown up to Fourth Street, the Bowery is short in length but long in legend.
I gleaned its modern essence by brunching at the Bowery Diner. The diner seemed old-school – ketchup on the table in my narrow booth; milkshakes on the menu; cheap chili; friendly, fuss-free service. But it opened only two years ago, replacing the Sunshine Hotel – “hotel” being a loose term, because it was a flophouse.
Close to the New Museum, a contemporary art highlight, the diner on this day was populated by said hipsters, wearing woolly beanie hats indoors, as they like to do. Sitting in the next booth was a man with a shock of white hair in a black sweater who I realized was Jim Jarmusch. But the iconic independent filmmaker wasn't taking a break while shooting a gritty movie; he was eating with his family.
That's the Bowery now, no longer Skid Row or even very edgy – but definitely still quirky and cool, although going upmarket fast. The owner of the Bowery Diner, rising New York chef Mathieu Palombino, has closed it and is in the process of turning it into a pop-up French bistro, Chez Jef.
Getting a little fancy might not prevent a perennial neighborhood issue, however. Staff at the diner and other local eateries have learned to deal diplomatically with, on the one hand, kids as high as kites rolling in from the clubs and, on the other, guys from the mission to use the bathroom or to cadge a bite.
The mission refers to the Bowery Mission, a few doors down, offering beds to homeless men in New York since 1879. Even in 1999 there were still 200 shelters and flophouses on the Bowery, where down-and-outs lived in dormitories or grubby cubicles with chicken wire for a ceiling.
The mission is the most visible holdout from those days, its red brick and stained-glass window contrasting with the tall, frosted glass box of the museum and a new art gallery nearby.
“I moved here from SoHo 18 months ago because it feels more real, less Prada,” said Carolina Sandretto, a commercial photographer who emerged from the apartment building.
Broadway and the Bowery are the oldest thoroughfares in Manhattan. The Bowery, named by Dutch settlers in the 17th century when it connected agricultural land to the heart of the nascent city at the tip of the island, derives from the Dutch word for farm.
The city grew northward, and the Bowery briefly thrived. But as the eastern boundary of the violent Five Points slum, it had a fleeting hold on prosperity. From the 1850s, flophouses and brothels were its calling card. The past 15 to 20 years of change now means a patchwork.
The southern third of the Bowery, below Grand Street, is classic Chinatown. The middle third is dotted with hip post-industrial spots that include the New Museum, galleries selling modern art and the General, the trendy Asian fusion restaurant and jazz venue.
Outside the bargain boutique Sohotel, on Bowery and Broome, Chloe Sevigny drifted by, dreamily. No heads turned. Downtown, normal. These touches notwithstanding, the street here is dominated by old-fashioned restaurant supply and lighting stores, one after the other in a profusion I found both amusing and comforting.
Continuing to Houston Street and farther north, I became more conflicted. There’s a Whole Foods and a 7-Eleven. Keith McNally's failed posh pizzeria Pulino’s will reopen this spring as Cherche Midi.
Then I reached "Joey Ramone Place," a slice of street named to honor the vocalist of the band synonymous with the club that for three-decades-plus was synonymous with the Bowery, CBGB. It's hard to believe that this cradle of punk and art rock is now a John Varvatos clothier selling $1,200 suit jackets.
The store kept the old stage and fragments of music posters on the wall preserved under glass. To some that's cool, snap a selfie, but to me it felt like a cultural slap in the face.
Then there's Daniel Boulud's chichi place on the corner. Here you'll find the steak frites, or two sausages for $25, and a liberal and not impecunious crowd — probably the future of the Bowery. In a similar spirit, developers have filed plans to renovate an old Salvation Army shelter adjacent to the Mission to be operated by the Ace Hotel group as a “faux hostel,” which real-estate watchers define as an overpriced, basic-service hotel.
To cheer myself up again, I skipped across the street to Patricia Field’s boutique. The “Sex and the City” costume designer has been a downtown style icon since the 1960s. Pink wigs, sparkly garments, neon, sexy leather jeans and accessories paying tribute to mourned local art rebel Keith Haring abound. Prices $5 and way up.
Twenty-somethings — check out the Bowery Electric club. I preferred to watch the city’s own revivalist funk-soul masters Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings bring down the house at the warmly shabby Bowery Ballroom.