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LEONARD QUART: City of flux

One wants to see some of the grit and buildings on the Bowery preserved. The street had a distinctive personality, and an aesthetic of its own.

New York — It’s a cliché that New York is always in flux. But clichés, like stereotypes, always carry more than a bit of truth. In recent years, within a short span of time, many of the city’s streets and neighborhoods have gone through wholesale transformations where they are no longer recognizable. Walking from my daily exercise routine at the NYU gym, I see the preparations for its demolition beginning, and I can conjure in my mind the rise of the much larger, ugly multi-use NYU building that will take years to complete and replace it. That’s the norm, with many different variations, emerging throughout Manhattan — the past disappearing, a glossier, sometimes monstrous, sometimes luminous city taking its place.

Market on Grand Street, off the Bowery.
Market on Grand Street, off the Bowery.

On Lafayette Street nearby, two sleek luxury buildings with high-end stores on the first floor have replaced a shabby ZP Auto Repair Shop and parking lot. It’s one of many new and renovated buildings that fill NoHo’s streets. (Noho is a relatively small landmarked neighborhood tucked between the East Village and the NYU-dominated portion of Greenwich Village.) Though I remember that about twenty years ago, struggling artists, not celebrities and moneyed Wall Street operators, inhabited many of NoHo’s then less populated and much less chic and more affordable night streets. The area also contained a swarm of drug dealers operating from alleys and the shadows of doorways, making the streets ominous at night. It’s hard to be sentimental about those streets, despite the relentless takeover of the area by the very wealthy. I know there must be other options that the city has to squalor and danger than the world of big money and conspicuous consumption.

On another day, on a walk to the Lower East Side, my wife and I discover a plethora of art galleries on Ludlow, Rivington, and Broome that may never turn into an alternative to Chelsea but offer a variety of first-rate exhibits. Broome Street looks raw but somewhat transformed, still not as much as Orchard and Ludlow with their luxury hotels, boutiques and the opening of a new movie theater dedicated to indie films.

Still on Grand Street, off the Bowery, there are Chinese fish and fruit and vegetable stores and a Vietnamese restaurant that remains unchanged since we last ate there with a painter colleague over 15 years ago. It moves us that the restaurant still stands, and that the Chinese immigrant ethos has continued to dominate this block and maintain a strong presence in the area.

The Bowery in the 1970s.
The Bowery in the 1970s.

On the Bowery itself, south of Houston, some of the lighting and restaurant supply stores survive. But a group of investors have paid a total of $45 million to assemble a handful of low-rise buildings to construct a luxury building, one of many that are in the process of going up on the Bowery. There is also a Best Western Hotel and others to follow.

Nostalgia can distort what the past was really like — glorifying the mean and squalid, and making us forget how difficult things once were. However, one wants to see some of the grit and buildings on the Bowery preserved. It’s where countless writers and artists lived and worked (some remain), from William Burroughs to Mark Rothko. The street had a distinctive personality, and an aesthetic of its own. A city would lose its soul if it became one long line of luxury buildings and upscale shops — a veritable island of characterless uniformity.

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