Bowery History Celebrated With Large Scale Signage Project

Images:  Harvard Theatre Collection, D. Mulkins, Bob Gruen
Images: Harvard Theatre Collection, D. Mulkins, Bob Gruen

Beginning on July 5, a series of 64 large scale placards will be installed at important addresses along the Bowery, celebrating the unique history of New York City’s oldest thoroughfare. The project, “Windows on the Bowery,” is sponsored by the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors (BAN), a community organization founded in 2007 with a mission to preserve and protect the history of the legendary street.

Spearheaded by the group’s president, David Mulkins, 18 different writers, historians and researchers worked on each piece over a two-year time period. Hundreds of images, each with a back story, have been selected from vintage articles and photographs, reflecting important people, events, achievements and architecture associated with particular addresses. Graphic design students at Cooper Union collaborated with the group to bring all the elements together for each of the placards.

“We are hoping that people will want to walk the Bowery and explore what is New York City’s oldest street,” Mulkins said in an interview.

Images:  D. Mulkins,Michael Mitchell, NYPL, Adam Woodward, Sally Young
103 BOWERY Sign Post — Images: D. Mulkins,Michael Mitchell, NYPL, Adam Woodward, Sally Young

“The Bowery has reinvented itself several times. It’s got a lot of colorful historical things attached to it and we feel like — given its seminal connection to tap dance, minstrelsy, vaudeville, Yiddish Theater… abstract expressionism, beat literature, improvisational jazz, punk rock, and so much more,” he said, “it’s just, historically and culturally, almost unbelievable that so much happened on one small street.”

Famous names that have been associated with the Bowery include songwriter Stephen Foster, composer Irving Berlin, magician Harry Houdini and comedian Eddie Cantor, to name a few. George Washington and his troops famously stopped at Bull’s Head Tavern, as the British were evacuating, to rest and raise their glasses in celebration of the liberation of the city.

Images: New-York Historical Society, NYPL, Adam Woodward Collection, Library of Congress
50 BOWERY Sign Post — Images: New-York Historical Society, NYPL, Adam Woodward Collection, Library of Congress

The alliance has been pushing against the city’s commercial zoning on the east side of the Bowery for years. When the 22-story Cooper Square Hotel (now The Standard – East Village) went up next to a three and four story building in 2007, it caught everyone’s attention. Organizers quickly learned that the west side of the Bowery has height restrictions built into the zoning, but strangely, the east side of the street does not.

BAN tried to get the city to rezone the east side of the Bowery. They undertook an intensive campaign, lobbying city officials with hundreds of high profile letters of support — but to no avail.  “Under Bloomberg we got nowhere,” Mulkins said, “it was a tremendous effort on our part that failed.”

In 2013, BAN joined forces with the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and led a successful campaign to add all 1.25 miles of the Bowery to the National Register of Historic Places. It was listed on the State Register of Historic Places in 2011.

Although the Bowery is now officially recognized as an historic district, it hasn’t helped when it comes to rezoning. “Buildings are coming down at a ferocious rate,” Mulkins said, “New York City is not making any effort to recognize the importance of that street by preserving and protecting it. The city has really just been sitting on its hands.”

“138 Bowery, 140 and 142 Bowery were destroyed a couple months ago,” he added, “and one of our signage pieces is about 138 Bowery, so that was an absolutely devastating blow.”  The most iconic part of the Bowery, he noted, is the section from Broome Street down to Hester Street, which is where those buildings were located.

“It’s really outside developers and the real estate over-development that seem to be killing the remaining historical resources on the street,” Mulkins said.

In addition to the individual locations along the Bowery, there will be two exhibitions featuring all 64 placards.  Cooper Union’s historic Foundation Building (7 East 7th St.) will display the collection in their western-facing colonnade windows and the landmarked HSBC Bank (formerly Citizen’s Savings Bank) at 58 Bowery will display them in their lobby.

Mulkins said he hopes project will give the historic area greater visibility to the general public. “There’s just so many different things about the street that any ordinary American would be fascinated by and proud of.”

Here’s the brochure with the full list of each placard and the addresses where you will find them: