A Bowery Reborn

The neighborhood once home to flophouses and the Salvation Army becomes a target for development.

One of my favorite textbooks for the class I teach at the School of Visual Arts is Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City. Originally issued in 1961 by the Museum of Modern Art, this slim volume intrigues me because it captures its author, the incomparable Ada Louise Huxtable, as she’s coming to terms with the Modernist transformation of midtown Manhattan. I send my students on her walking tour of Park Avenue and instruct them to look at Lever House and the Seagram Building through Huxtable’s eyes, as if they were new.

Today there are spots where the ongoing transformation of the city is every bit as dramatic as what Huxtable witnessed in the 1950s and 1960s, when, as she wrote, “business palaces replace private palaces; soap aristocracy supplants social aristocracy.” Take, for example, the Bowery, where the Cooper Union’s newly completed academic building by Morphosis (technically on Cooper Square) and the New Museum’s 2007 building by SANAA, at Prince Street, bookend an astonishing surge of development. In contrast to Park Avenue half a century ago, New York’s current changes privilege private palaces. Though starchitect condos are very much the dominant mode of expression, the Bowery’s redevelopment is more complex.

According to The Encyclopedia of New York City, the Bowery was an elegant, upscale entertainment district in the early 19th century, but after the Civil War it was overtaken by “nickel museums featuring mermaids, snakes, sword swallowers, lions, dwarfs, and women in various states of undress.” The Third Avenue El, which opened in 1878 and wasn’t demolished until 1955, relegated the forgotten avenue to bums and flophouses. Now one of the last remaining flophouses, the Whitehouse Hotel, has restyled itself, according to its Web site, as a “really cool hostel.” Another, the Andrews, has been remodeled into a state-of-the-art, low-cost, short-term residence by the supportive-housing organization Common Ground.

What’s happened on the Bowery is surely gentrification, although the distance from five-buck flops to $500-a-night luxury suites cries out for a stronger term. I see something else: a lesson in urban ecology. The places where it’s possible for new architecture to thrive in Manhattan are generally those districts where the political clout of civic groups is the weakest. In Greenwich Village or on the Upper East Side, the community boards and neighborhood activists rush in like SWAT teams to counter development threats. But on the former skid row, the power to say no to development isn’t as strong. A preservation-oriented downzoning of the East Village, approved late last year, left out the Bowery. Development on the west side of the street is moderated by the low-density zoning of the Noho Historic District and the Little Italy Special District. The east side of the Bowery, where most new development has taken place, was left undefended. While an organization called the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors has tried to have rules put in place to limit buildings on the east side of the Bowery to eight stories, that strip is still approved for what the city’s Zoning Handbook calls “high bulk.” The neighborhood’s past of pure neglect paved the way for its 21st-century incarnation as one of those rare and interesting spots in Manhattan where almost anything can happen.

The flagships of the emerging Bowery are its bookends. To the north, 41 Cooper Square, the Cooper Union’s new academic building, designed by Morphosis, is an imposing, loaf-shaped hunk standing on impossibly angled columns, gift-wrapped in steel mesh. The mesh, part of a sophisticated shading system, cracks open in spots, encouraging the building’s occupants to gaze outward, creating drama for pedestrians. What I like most, though, is that the boldness doesn’t let up when you walk inside. The building’s biggest gesture isn’t its cracked and creased exterior but its internal organizing device, a central stairway that rises through a dizzying white latticework and functions as a conduit—a sort of high-tech birth canal—and a social space. The building is well used by its occupants; students have already appropriated the president’s conference room for their lunches, and taped fliers to every available bit of wall space.

The same is true of the Bowery’s other defining building, the New Museum, by the Japanese firm SANAA. Nearly two years after its completion, I’m still struck by the museum’s casually off-kilter form and the texture of the aluminum-mesh exterior (intended not as a sunshade but as the architects’ coy contextual nod to the city’s diamond-pattern trash cans). But when I go inside, I’m more impressed by the Dan Flavin–meets-Costco simplicity of the gallery spaces and the quirky culture of the museum’s lobby bookstore. Though the New Museum’s presence will surely lead to an increasingly upscale Bowery—a Norman Foster–designed gallery tower is on the drawing board—the building itself is completely disarming.

One time, shortly after the completion of the massive apartment complexes that now face the Bowery on the north and south sides of Houston Street, I emerged from a nearby subway station—something I’d done literally hundreds of times—and had no idea where I was. The new buildings, the hopelessly bland Avalon Bowery Place and Avalon Chrystie Place, developed by a large real estate investment trust, had wiped out my sense of place.

By contrast, the architect Carlos Zapata’s Cooper Square Hotel has emerged as a landmark. But not all landmarks are created equal. The glassy 21-story tower, which borrows its milk-colored glass and swoopy style from Frank Gehry’s much nicer IAC headquarters on the West Side, is wedged so tightly between the neighboring tenements that it appears to be a cartoon illustrating the evils of overdevelopment. I attended a party in the hotel’s penthouse that was a total mob scene, but on the afternoon of a recent walking tour, I found the public spaces ghostly and depopulated. I’ve heard that its East Village neighbors have coined a nickname for the Cooper Square: “Dubai.” And as I sat by myself in the back patio, the building prompted the exact question I found myself asking all the time in Dubai: Who is this place for?

When Huxtable wrote about the new Park Avenue, that question was easy to answer. “The staples of our civilization—soap, whisky and chemicals—have identified themselves with advanced architectural design and their monuments march up the avenue in a proud parade,” she wrote. We don’t build monuments to staples anymore. But when a neighborhood that had dropped off the development map for more than a century is rediscovered, it tends to force the same question: Who is this new place for? One current Bowery flash point is the old Salvation Army men’s shelter at the corner of East Third Street, where the owners of a restaurant called Koi want to establish a mega sushi bar. They’re encountering strong opposition from the local community board, whose fear (not unfounded) is that the reinvention of the Meatpacking District into a nightlife theme park is being repeated on the Bowery.

I’d like to think the two big bookends will define the New Bowery more powerfully than all the hotel rooms and luxury condos in between, that it will become more than another fashionable destination, but that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I still find it hard to believe that one of the Avalon’s main tenants is the Bowery branch of Whole Foods, but I occasionally shop there. And on my walking tour, I opted for lunch at a new Avalon tenant, Daniel Boulud’s designer-beer–and-sausage joint, DBGB. It’s decorated in imitation of the wholesale restaurant-supply houses that will someday be priced out of the neighborhood, and named in homage to the landmark club that first lured my friends and me to the Bowery. As I sat eating merguez and sipping pilsner in one of the restaurant’s precisely scalloped banquettes, I realized that the transformation that’s so glaring today actually began with CBGB more than 30 years ago. The new Bowery has nothing to do with soap, whiskey, or chemicals but instead represents the commercial leveraging of cultural shifts—starting with punk rock—and the ascendance of a new, more fluid, social aristocracy.

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