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Down and Out and ... Up and In on the Bowery

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A walk-in-closet-like space—with latticework ceiling—at the Whitehouse Hotel.  

I’d prepared for the sojourn between these Bowery worlds by wrestling into my Brooks Brothers suit within the tight confines of Room 309. Once through the door of the Bowery Hotel, I was approached by a dapper South African gentleman inquiring if I was “here for the wine tasting?” Since I’d just left the land of winos, this eased the transition.

People say the developing Bowery scene is the new meatpacking district. This seems true enough, especially round midnight, when the new bars fill with state-of-the-art 26-year-old fabulousness, those sleek and randy vibes ricocheting off art-directed walls. The corner of 3rd Street can look like a scene straight out of a way-squarer La Dolce Vita.

While not disputing this general description, Eric Goode, part owner of the Bowery Hotel, isn’t thrilled about it. Goode, a New York nightlife titan, who along with various partners opened such nocturnal standbys as Area, M.K., the Maritime Hotel, and, more recently, with Graydon Carter, the Waverly Inn, says, “If the Bowery becomes something awful like the meatpacking district, it’ll break my heart.”

According to Goode, he and partner Sean MacPherson never intended to open a hotel on the Bowery. “We wanted to do something downtown on eastern Canal Street, around Ludlow Street. The Bowery property fell into our laps. I admit, I had some misgivings. You see, I’ve lived on the Bowery or around the Bowery ever since I first came to New York 30 years ago. It wasn’t like I was a bum—we were hanging out with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Warhol—but it wasn’t like I was rich. I’d come out in the morning to find that some derelict had taken a shit on the windshield of my car. These guys used to walk right into our apartment. I’d try to be friendly, but once they were in there, we never got rid of the bedbugs. But it was fun. You felt like you were somewhere.

“When we opened the B Bar”—Goode’s Bowery Bar on East 4th Street in many ways set the stage for the current scene—“we built that wall around the place because of the neighborhood. There was this bunker mentality. Things were so different in 1992. Now no place is off-limits.

“This kills me because we’ve always looked for the unexpected. The frontier. The margin. When I first came here, there were so many places you felt like a pioneer. There was adventure to it. Where can you get that now? If I was a young person coming to New York now, it would be depressing. Where’s the edge, that place where you fall off into the abyss?

“Throw enough money into a situation and the whole ecosystem turns ugly, paved over. You don’t want a city that reminds you of the Beverly Center, one big entertainment mall. I’d jump off a bridge before I start putting my name on buildings like Trump.”

Asked if this dispiriting trend might be enough to make him stop developing new properties, Goode says, “No. It’s a reason to do something decent.” This is especially true on the Bowery, Goode contends, since the area has been victimized by a number of “hideous” structures, most visibly that lurch of swimming-pool-colored glass looming over Astor Place—probably the city’s most spectacularly misplaced effusion of architectural arrogance. This was the challenge, “the responsibility,” Goode said, when you put up a $550-a-night hotel across the street from the Salvation Army and next door to a drug-treatment center. You don’t want to be “obnoxious.”

Certainly, you’d never confuse the low-key swank of the Bowery Hotel’s ground-floor sitting room with a Fortunoff jewelry display. Rather, what you get is a serene, clubby Pan-Colonialism, with the dark Spanish-style furniture, stuffed big-game heads, bookshelves full of Kipling and Conrad (were those multiple copies of Heart of Darkness some kind of joke?). The brace of brooding murals of Old New York—our waitress called them “morbid”—add to the understated tone. “We struggled with that,” Goode says. “Whether to go modern or historical. Eventually, we went historical.”

Not that there aren’t ghosts in the machine. One such specter appears on every cocktail napkin and piece of hotel stationery: the hotel’s ubiquitous logo, a drawing of a long-haired, mustachioed man in a stovepipe hat, knee-high boots, flared black trousers, and double-breasted bright-red shirt leaning on a rapier-thin cane. At first I mistook this image for a lawn jockey but was set straight by a desk clerk, who said, “Oh, no, that’s the Bowery Boy.”

This wasn’t a Leo Gorcey/Little Rascal Bowery Boy. Back in the coal-fired soot and TB squalor of mid-nineteenth-century New York, a Bowery Boy was akin to a Dead Rabbit, a Plug Ugly, or a Swamp Angel, i.e., a Five Points street gang as vicious as any Blood or Crip. Epitomized by Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, these B b’hoys were prime muscle for the “nativist” movement then claiming to speak for New York’s “true Americans,” i.e., white Protestants. Decked out in their Stendhalian thugwear, aligned with the racist Know-Nothing movement, the Boyz used their walking sticks to bash in the heads of Catholics and every other immigrant they could find. They also took part in the 1863 Draft Riots, during which blacks were lynched from street lamps. Somehow the hotel’s crack “historical” department missed, or ignored, this factoid.


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