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The Street Where ‘They Do Strange Things’

DEVIL’S MILE
The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery
By Alice Sparberg Alexiou
Illustrated. 290 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $28.99.

The Bowery is a street that has lost its character and been reincarnated — again and again.

While today it sprouts luminous towers with multimillion-dollar condos, it would not take an archaeologist to find traces of its time as the definitive boulevard of broken dreams, lined with flophouses and evangelizing missions that catered to boozed-up “Bowery bums.” There are also remnants of the 19th century, when the street was the city’s raffish entertainment hub that, for better or worse, produced early blackface minstrel shows, vaudeville variety acts and the sometimes schmaltzy offerings of the first Yiddish theaters. Cognoscenti might even uncover vestiges of its time as a pastoral lane, one of New Amsterdam’s main roads, lined with farms — “bouwerie” is Dutch for farm — including an estate belonging to Peter Stuyvesant, who is buried in the graveyard of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery.

While until the last decade or two the Bowery was a street you surely didn’t want to end up on, there were periods when it represented the height of gentility and the peak of showbiz stardom, and in “Devil’s Mile” Alice Sparberg Alexiou guides us through this checkered history with gusto. I particularly admire the book’s shrewd narrative approach: The street is used to recount much of the history of New York, a strategy that could be adapted to Broadway and positively to 4th Street. The writer, though, sometimes overplays this hand, with the history of the city meandering for pages beyond any relevance to the street.

Alexiou, the author of books on Jane Jacobs and the Flatiron Building, fills her story with colorful sketches of Bowery luminaries, from the Calvinist martinet Stuyvesant, with his disdain for other faiths, to Thomas “Daddy” Rice, the white song-and-dance man whose “Jump Jim Crow” act became a synonym for brutal racism, to the punk diva Debbie Harry, a mainstay of the lamented nightclub CBGB, a Bowery fixture from 1973 to 2006.

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Stephen Foster composed “Beautiful Dreamer” while drinking himself to delirium in a Bowery boardinghouse. The body of the fiery abolitionist John Brown, hanged for the deadly Harpers Ferry raid, was prepared for burial at a Bowery funeral home. With his opening of a Bowery saloon, Steve Brodie capitalized on the 15 minutes of fame he earned in 1886 by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge on a $200 bet. As a state senator, Big Tim Sullivan, a graft-taking Tammany Hall stalwart whose largess to supporters made him the “King of the Bowery,” wrote one of the nation’s strictest gun laws — the Sullivan Law.

Youngsters of the 1940s and ’50s who chortled to Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall in the Bowery Boys comedy-adventure films will be charmed to learn that the gang’s moniker dates back to the early 19th century, when “Bowery b’hoys” — a pronunciation that reflected their Irish roots — were roguish volunteer firefighters who defended their turf against rival fire brigades and left us such earthy phrases as “going on a bender.”

Before Europeans settled America, the Bowery was a Lenape Indian footpath. That geographical DNA, like another footpath that became Broadway, gave it pride of place. So wealthy merchants laid out estates.

But as Manhattan expanded northward, the chic moved uptown. The Bowery was ceded to poor immigrants — Irish, then Jewish, then Chinese — and eventually the down-and-out. Alexiou informs us that it was the shuttering of saloons during Prohibition that turned the street into a symbol for seedy ruin. Those watering holes would let inebriated patrons sleep in their back rooms, but once gone, the drunkards stretched out on Bowery sidewalks, visible to a scornful public.

The bleak trajectory seems to have ended. Artists moved in when SoHo, TriBeCa and Greenwich Village became too expensive — among them the poet LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, and the writer William Burroughs. Where the creative settle, bankers and lawyers soon follow, and today two-bedroom condos are going for $3 million.

As the song says: “They do strange things, on the Bow’ry, the Bow’ry.”

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