The Battle For The Bowery
The Bowery was once terrorized by a gang known as the "Bowery Boys." Today, it's terrors come in the form of highrises and cloud couches.
By Hope Donovan
Ghost Stories is a monthly column featuring investigations into the haunted history behind New York's iconic purlieus and up-and-coming hotspots.
The Bowery’s commercial development gives corporate success buzzwords like rising, growing, climbing, building, a sinister new meaning as the wealthy have literally built themselves up over the less fortunate below. From cloud couches in glass high rises, wealthy residents of the Bowery float just out of reach—yet not out of sight— above the street they’ve declared home. The street below is a living relic of New York’s poverty line, as architectural remnants of its industrial past backdrop a dire homelessness crisis.
The Bowery, however, is no stranger to this kind of class tension. Starting with Dutch settlement and throughout New York’s early history, the Bowery was an unwaveringly rural locale occupied by wealthy colonists, politicians, and businessmen. After the War of 1812, the development of industrial technologies produced attractive labor wages, which drew a swarm of working-class young men to lower Manhattan in a financially-motivated migration one could only describe as City Boys getting their bag. To the Bowery’s bordering east emerged the Five Points, a neighborhood occupied by immigrants, predominantly Irish, that was widely considered to be the most dangerous, destitute, and disease-ridden slum in the world. Its proximity to the then-prosperous Bowery led to rampant gang violence and political unrest over control of lower Manhattan.
At the forefront of this conflict was the aptly named Bowery Boys, a notorious gang and potent political force of the 19th century. Composed exclusively of born-and-raised New Yorkers, the Bowery Boys took immense pride in being original city boys— in other words, they were fervent (and violent) anti-Catholic, anti-Irish nativists. The political legacy of the Bowery Boys, however, lies most tangibly within their hatred for the rich. Under the leadership of Mike Walsh, whose political career extended all the way to Congress, the gang became ferocious advocates for the working man. Walsh led with such incendiary ardor against America’s elite that many feared a European-esque class revolution would emerge out of his infamously bellicose Bowery Boys. While it is almost nauseatingly ironic to fear a coup d'État from a gang of anti-European nativists, this, of course, did not happen. In fact, the exact opposite happened: over time, the Bowery fell deeper and deeper into destitution and, consequently, into the hands of real estate developers.
One of the first and most striking examples of the thoroughfare’s vertical stratification is the Bowery Hotel. Hedged next to a Salvation Army shelter and across from a former methadone clinic, the chic celebrity hotspot opened its doors in 2007 as an indubitable augury of gentrification. Visually, it’s easy to forget that the Bowery Hotel hasn’t been there forever. The atmospheric urban islet became a staple of the rapidly developing neighborhood, retaining an industrial flair (albeit faux) with dark wood paneling and lush antiques throughout that attract the avant-garde and A-lister alike. In comparison to more blinding displays of Manhattan’s gentrification, such as everything in Hudson Yards, the hotel’s somewhat unassuming brick facade presents itself as stately yet approachable, offering what I loathe to call “quiet luxury” for a minimum of $400 per night. There is, however, one way to stay at the Bowery Hotel without paying $400 or actually any money at all: be dead.
In what can only be described as an other-worldly commitment to the bit, the Bowery’s ghosts reportedly possess the elevators every night at 1:00 AM and force a temporary stoppage so that they, obviously, can rise above street level and enjoy the hotel. Over the years, guests have reported a number of paranormal encounters, such as having a drink knocked out their hands while alone, finding a shadowy woman waiting in their room upon check-in, and chatting with other hotel guests who then disappear into thin air mid-conversation. Some believe that these specters come from the Marble Cemetery, which sits directly behind the hotel on 3rd Street. Marble Cemetery is the city’s first nonsectarian public cemetery and the final resting place of some of the wealthiest New Yorkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, whose final wish was to be at peace in the city’s last then-rural stronghold. Given the cemetery’s proximity to the hotel, I suppose it’s somewhat reasonable to conclude that the hotel’s ghosts come from just next door.
Personally, I don’t buy it: why would dead rich people dedicate so much of their eternal rest to spooking other rich people? Proximity, dear reader, is but one piece of the ghosthunting puzzle; to operate on geography alone is a faux pas of dire consequence in the r/GhostHunting community. What lurks beneath the surface is far more complicated than what the living have laid to rest, and it would be foolish to think that centuries of class conflict could be buried beneath a two-story Whole Foods without consequence.
Remember the Bowery Boys? If I were part of their ranks— well, first of all, I wouldn’t be anti-immigrant, because I’m not, to be clear. But if I were (a super woke) part of their ranks, I would be livid to see Vanity Fair call a swanky celebrity spot in my working-class neighborhood “Luxurious, Oh-So-Cool, and Quirky, Like Old New York”. Whatever ‘Old New York’ this publication I’ve never heard of is talking about, I would think to myself, smoking my signature cigar, is certainly not mine nor the Bowery’s. Glossy images of stately fireplaces and lofty leather armchairs atop Persian rugs demand comparison to Victorian-era interiors occupied by the elites of the British Empire, which would make me, a Bowery Boy, even more pissed off about this encroachment of my territory.
See where I’m going with this? Motive? Check. Proximity? Duh, it’s in the name. Witty yet disruptive commentary about ‘burying’ socioeconomic disparity? I mean, the 1:00 AM elevator routine is a stroke of genius. Based on this evidence, it’s abundantly clear, dear reader, that the Bowery Hotel is haunted by the still-aptly named Bowery Boys. As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks— especially if that dog died over a century ago. The Boys have evidently given their eternal struggle new life from the afterlife, showing the wealthy patrons of the Bowery Hotel— the newest living form of their eternal adversary— who’s boss.
The vertical stratification of the Bowery is not sidewalk-deep— and it never was.