BoHo, Back in the Day
1 RM, AMAZING VU The studio where the author lived three decades ago.
By DOROTHY GALLAGHER
October 1, 2006
New York Observed
A FEW weeks ago, for old timesí sake, I wandered over to the Bowery. It is booming over there. And I noticed that real estate developers are trying to obliterate the very name of the street, referring to their offerings as being in trendy BoHo.
Iím not surprised. The free market has trickled down way below Astor Place, and where the free market takes root, we must be prepared to say goodbye to the past. Still, Iím a little resentful; I feel territorial about the Bowery, just as a native of a small fishing village might feel when the summer folks take it over.
In 1973, I answered an ad for a Bowery loft. It was a sweltering July day, as I remember. The moment I turned downtown from Houston Street, my steps began to drag. It wasnít so much the heat that slowed me as the need to pick my way over and through the men we used to call bums and winos, who littered the sidewalks of the street also known as Skid Row. One man, covered in vomit, stretched his hand out to me, asking not to be given money but to be helped to his feet. If I couldnít bring myself to touch him, how, I wondered, could I possibly live here?
I walked past the Sunshine Hotel and the Bowery Mission, and then I was looking at the building I had come to see, 215 Bowery, on the northeast corner, just where Rivington Street begins. It was five stories, veneered with brownstone on the Bowery side, red brick where it wrapped around Rivington. A postwar building, if you happened to be thinking of the Civil War. I rang the bell. At least there was a bell.
The loft Iíd come to see was on the third floor, with an enticing rent of $199 a month. Apart from that, however, the loft had some problems. Like the fact that one basin served as both kitchen and bathroom sink. There was no bathroom, as I understood that space: A stall resembling an outhouse enclosed a toilet, and a second stall contained a jury-rigged shower. At the east end of the loft was a crude platform rising halfway to the ceiling; you climbed a shaky ladder to a mattress. Frankly, the place looked dismal. The splintery floors were painted black, and black roller shades were pulled down over the windows.
Then I raised the shades. Even through the fogged sheets of plastic that were duct-taped to every window, nothing blocked the sunlight that flooded in through the seven tall south-facing windows, and into the far corners of a space that was almost a thousand square feet. The ceilings were pressed tin and 13 feet high. Yes!
The Bowery seemed as wide as a Paris boulevard. The buildings were low, the light wonderful. On the west side of the street, I could see three tiny Federal houses, dilapidated, yes, and used as storehouses for the kitchen supply business, but with their lovely lines still intact. Directly south, I looked out at One Mile House, a bar and flophouse, true, but a historic building, constructed at the site of the old stone One Mile marker from City Hall.
Farther downtown, I could see the towers of the newly finished World Trade Center. I didnít like them. I never knew anybody who did. But I got used to them. Everybody did.
I moved in during that summer of 1973. With help from friends, I painted the floors and walls white, built a counter for the kitchen, installed a larger sink and bought a new mattress, of course. Best of all, when winter came and I complained about freezing, my landlord Dale gave me a wood-burning stove.
I lived in that loft for eight years. I loved it, the light, the space. I liked the fact that the Bowery was a working street, busy, noisy with trucks, with men loading and unloading restaurant supplies, display cases, pizza ovens, lamps. On the ground floor of my building, a cash register and typewriter repair shop opened, and this came in very handy.
EXCEPT for the bedbugs, which must have ridden in on one of the many treasures I picked up at the Canal Street Flea Market, and the rat that galloped below my loft bed all one winter night, nothing bad ever happened to me on the Bowery. No break-ins, no muggings. From time to time, a drunk fell asleep in my doorway; when that happened, getting into and out of the building presented a problem. But, you know, those winos had an old-fashioned gallantry: Women were seldom panhandled, and when those men were momentarily upright, they always made me a little bow as they stepped out of my path.
I shopped for food in Little Italy, and what food could be better than that? I liked all my neighbors: Tom, who lived on the second floor, and brought me wood for my stove; Dale and Jim, my landlords, who lived together on the fourth floor and created a wonderful roof garden, planting flowers and bushes in the wooden barrels they collected late at night from the fish market on South Street.
I wrote my first book in that loft, and started another. I came of age in that loft, not of legal age ó I had reached that long before ó but the time of life when you grow into yourself and finally give up the struggle to become someone else.
I remember everything about that loft: the winters when the nights were so cold that the catís water froze in her bowl; the hot summers when, with my windows wide open, music from the Dominican social club on Rivington Street filled my room. I even remember my phone number: 260-1896.
Everything changes. Dale and Jim split up and decided to sell the building floor by floor. In 1981, they offered to sell me the entire third floor, not just the half I lived in, for $25,000.
I didnít have $25,000. I moved out. And now I see that the second floor at No. 215 is available. For about $2 million, give or take a couple of hundred thousand, you can live in Tomís old loft. Poor Tom. Poor me. BoHo, indeed. Boo hoo is more like it.
Dorothy Gallagherís most recent book is the memoir ďStrangers in the House: Life Stories.Ē
Copyright 2006The New York Times Companycorcoran.com/property/listing for 215 Bowery
Corcoran shows this unit \/ at 215 Bowery listed at 1,995,000: