Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Walking in the City - The Bowery and Mulberry Street, New York

If I've learned anything from all my walks in Manhattan, it's how big the city actually is. You can walk for several hours and think you've explored a decent sized area, but when you trace it out on a map, you discover you've barely begun to cover it. So it was on Saturday when, inspired by Edward Rutherford's fascinating historical fiction 'New York', my daughter and I decided to explore the area south of East Houston Street which incorporates the Lower East Side, Chinatown and Little Italy.

We started off walking south on Bowery which used to be one of the main thoroughfares on the island of Manhattan. It's almost hard to believe it now but in the 17th century the area was north of what was then classed as the heart of the city and was the location of many large farms, hence its name which derives from the Dutch word for farm (bouwerij).

I'd only heard of the Bowery as a seedy, rundown area so I was surprised to learn that as the area became incorporated into the city in the early 18th century it became a coveted address for the wealthy. By the end of the century however, the area was home to the poor and homeless and rife with prostitution and gangs.

In 1880 the Bowery Mission opened, providing services to the poor and a place for homeless men to sleep. In 1909 it moved into a larger building further down the street and is still there today. Other buildings have been torn down to be replaced by sleek modern structures such as the New Museum  or the Wyndham Hotel,  but in recent years the Bowery has been classified as a Historic District in an effort to restore rather than demolish the old buildings as the area becomes ever more gentrified.

Cafe Standard
German bar 

In the last few years the street has become home to numerous restaurants, bars and cafes.

Judging from this old sign post, it's not just buildings that are being saved !

At Broome Street we headed east to Orchard Street which is considered the heart of the Lower East Side. The street is lined with low-rise buildings which have been home to immigrants since the 1800's.

Some of their stories are retold at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. Unfortunately the museum can only be visited on a guided tour, but there is a different tour per floor - as each apparently represents a different part of the immigrant experience - and each tour requires a separate admission charge of $25. Definitely not aimed at budget travelers - this has to be one of the most expensive museums I've come across.

We decided to make do with a walk along the street before we headed back towards the Bowery and our final destination - the site of Five Points, a once dangerous neighborhood mentioned frequently in 'New York'. It took its name from a crossroads where five streets intersected. Only one of the five streets, Mulberry Street, still exists with the same name and Five Points itself has been merged into what is now Chinatown and Little Italy.

The original intersection appears to have been replaced by Columbus Park, a definite slice of China in New York. The park was bustling with activity when we visited, Chinese dialects far more prevalent than English. At the north end of the park there is a plaza dotted with tables and benches where groups played mahjong and cards under the shade of their umbrellas. Others found shelter from the heat in a pavilion packed with players and onlookers alike.

In the middle of the plaza is a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Father of the Republic of China. According to the inscription, educated in both the east and west, he was inspired by the American Revolution and Independence to overthrow the Ching Dynasty and end 5000 years of Imperial rule in China.

Mulberry Street borders the park to the east. Going north to Canal Street it is in Chinatown, but after that becomes part of Little Italy. 

Maybe it was because it was a Saturday, but the street was closed to traffic and packed with people. Restaurants and bars lined either side, their outdoor seating taking up most of the sidewalk. It was such a pleasant atmosphere that we couldn't resist stopping for lunch.  

Casa Bella - our lunch stop

We rounded our day's excursion off with a visit to the Italian American Museum, a tiny but fascinating museum situated in an old bank building on the corner of Mulberry and Grand Street. Banca Stabile was founded in 1885 and continued in business until the depression acting not only as a bank to newly arrived Italians but almost as a community center. The museum contains not only original handwritten bank records and equipment but also objects such as shipping records and naturalization documents which document the experience of the Italian immigrant in America. Well worth a visit.


  1. Fascinating post, Mel. NYC has so much history (at least for the US :-) ) Will definitely have to schedule a walking tour whenever we get a chance to visit!

    1. Thanks DV. There is a lot of history in New York and it's fascinating how some of the neighborhoods have evolved over the years and continue to change with the current trend of gentrification. And, thankfully, the creation of Historic Districts means that gentrification can take place without erasing all signs of the past otherwise if the developers had their way all we'd be left with is a city of skyscrapers.