There's a bit of a pervading stereotype that this blog, EV Grieve, Jeremiah Moss' Vanishing New York, Bowery Boogie and a few others all partake in fetishizing New York City's grittier past. There's certainly a bit of truth to that, personally speaking, but I don't think any of us attempt to glorify or gloss over the uglier aspects of NYC's so-called "bad old days." Collectively, I think we all lament the gentrification that has rendered certain parts of town virtually indistinguishable from their previous incarnations (some of us more bitterly than others, admittedly). This isn't to say we miss the crime, prostitution, poverty and drug trade, but we feel that during the "quality of life" crusade and the tireless campaign of real estate development of the past couple of decades, a large swathe of the city's once-storied character, diversity, heritage and culture have been forever lost. And I, for one, will make no apologies about decrying that. New York City has become a more exclusive, less affordable and crushingly less interesting place to live as a result. That's not an opinion either, that's a fact.
In any case, let me get down off my soap box and explain the photograph above. Some readers may remember a picture-post I put up back in 2011 of Gem Spa on St. Mark's Place. It was a great picture, but I didn't know anything about its true provenance, so to speak. Well, this morning, I stumbled upon another remarkable cache of vintage NYC photographs, and that photo was among them. It was taken circa 1978 by one Manel Armengo, and his collection of other photographs from the era are equally captivating. The above is another example of Armengo's work.
Speaking, as I was, about neighborhoods that are no longer recognizable, one is hard pressed to name a strip that has changed more in the last fifteen-or-so years than the Bowery. When I was growing up, the Bowery was pretty much a no-go zone (the type of area, if you were driving through it, might prompt your father to bark "roll'em up, kids!' ala Clark Griswald). By the time I was exploring downtown in the 80's, it was still a fairly rough and tumble place. Hell, it was still pretty rough well into the 90's and into the beginning stages of the new millennium. Nowadays, of course, it's an entirely different story.
This fleeting slice of the Bowery in 1978, though, amply sums up the sense of desolation and desperation that used to hold sway on that bit of real estate. If you don't recognize the specific patch in the photograph, it is just steps to the south of Houston Street. See that Restaurant Equipment outlet on the left hand side? Today, that's a chic eatery called Pulino's (although, not for much longer). Back then, the gentleman in the boots in the foreground would be facing a vacant lot filled with weeds and rotting vehicles. Today, if he was standing in that same spot, he'd be facing a sprawling Whole Foods Market. And back behind him is the wall that now plays host to a variety of celebrated street artists (whose work, in turn, is summarily derided and tagged up).
Here's roughly the same shot as snapped by Google Maps circa 2011.