The New Museum means big changes for the Bowery. Get used to it.
By Heather Corcoran
The New Museum of Contemporary Art opens its Bowery location this week, capping the area’s decades-long transformation from slum to mini-Soho.
The $10-a-night flophouses and restaurant-supply stores are dwindling and though boutiques and boutique hotels have been moving in for years, the museum is giving the final stamp of yuppie approval to a micro neighborhood undergoing an extreme makeover.
Some are even hailing the area as Manhattan’s latest cultural corridor. Small galleries are flocking in the wake of the 60,000-square-foot, Sejima+Nishizawa-designed New Museum.
All this activity is leading some to speak of the Bowery Art District, a term that would have seemed laughable a decade ago. The comparisons to early ’90s Chelsea come easily. When the Dia Center set up shop on the Far West Side, galleries followed, packing their bags and all but abandoning Soho.
But is the area over-hyped? With so much money rushing in, some observers predict the Bowery will go the way of other hotspots developed too quickly and drained of personality.
“It’s hard to keep up with the development,” said Harvey Epstein, a member of Community Board 3 – the group that represents the eastern edge of the Bowery – for the past 10 years. “I think it’s developing too quickly for our community to absorb; they’re all just happening as they happen.”
Many others are more optimistic, however, claiming the neighborhood could be a model for future mixed-use development around the city
Real estate analyst Jonathan Miller forsees a neighborhood with the eclectic energy of nearby Nolita, where lofts sit above cafes, boutiques and bodegas.
“Five years from now?” Miller asked rhetorically. “You’re still going to see a lot of contrast between the old and the new.”
Even in a city where overnight change is commonplace, the pace of the Bowery’s transformation is startling.
Restaurants and condos are popping up seemingly overnight. The star-studded Bowery Hotel charges up to $750 a night for rooms that boast 400-thread- count Egyptian cotton linens. Celebrity chef Daniel Boulud, whose uptown tasting menu goes for $96, is preparing to open a burger joint in the storefront of an Avalon condo. And designer John Varvatos announced this month that he would be opening a boutique at 315 Bowery, the former home of rock club CBGB.
The project that launched the new Bowery is the massive, $300 million Avalon Bay condos that bookend Houston Street – the first of which opened in June 2005 – and the Whole Foods supermarket they brought with them. The condos were first considered in 2000 and in the seven years since, real-estate prices in the area have multiplied a hundred fold, catching up with the current Manhattan milestone of $1,200 a square foot. “The Bowery has gone from a no-man’s-zone to become one of the hottest areas in the city,” said Corcoran Group broker Dalia Newman and rent for a two-bedroom apartment skyrocketed accordingly, from less than $1,000 to upwards of $5,000 a month, she said.
“In the last year, literally from September to November , you couldn’t get a cab, you couldn’t get anything,” said Bernie, the raspy one-named mouthpiece of the notoriously modish nightspot 205 Club, a few blocks south of the Avalon development. “This was the most dangerous neighborhood I’ve ever been to – mugging, junkies everywhere, bums.”
One year later, on any given Saturday, eager partiers are dropped off by the cab-full for a chance to pass Bernie’s velvet rope. “It’s funny to me because I ran a restaurant-club called One in the Meatpacking District. It was before the Meatpacking had their revitalization, and that took about a year. We’re seeing the exact same thing down here,” he said this August.
The museum sits dramatically in the center of the changing neighborhood, on a former parking lot at the point where Spring Street collides into the Bowery, abruptly marking where the swanky 10012 and 10013 of the Village and Soho butt into the scrubbed-up 10002 of the Lower East Side.
The museum’s storefront façade blends in as it looms over the Bowery. The building’s aluminum skin echoes the upended sinks and stainless steel stools that sit outside the neighboring restaurant-supply shops. Its stacked layers play off the proportions of the surrounding buildings – mostly lighting, sign, and restaurant-supply shops, plus the odd flophouse hotel – and the dull aluminum facing matches the gray-white exhaust coming off the Manhattan Bridge a few blocks south.
The New Museum – which for 21 years was located at 538 Broadway – has been a part of the downtown cultural scene for three decades, but by building a new venue on the Lower East Side – away from Chelsea’s galleries and the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile – it is leading a migration of galleries and nonprofit institutions to what used to be skid row.
Art has a long history on the Bowery, with jazz pianist Thelonious Monk playing the five spot and singer Patti Smith rocking CBGB. But now the creative scene is rising above ground with galleries rushing to cash in on the Bowery Art District as a mainstream destination.
The new galleries and restaurants are betting on the artistic cachet of the New Museum. A world-class museum opening around the corner promises cultural tourists – the Whitney Museum of American Art, which also showcases contemporary art, welcomes a steady stream of half a million visitors a year.
A pocket of art spaces has sprung up. Lower rents and less competition mean room for curatorial experimentation and collaboration not seen for years, and that feeling is luring art and the big bucks that it promises.
“The Lower East Side-Bowery area felt a lot like old New York,” said Amy Smith-Stewart, a former P.S.1 curator who chose the neighborhood when she opened her own Stanton Street space earlier this year. So far, the neighborhood’s laid-back vibe has been a counterpoint to the saturation of galleries that turned Chelsea into something of a cultural shopping mall, she said. The hype, though, may mean the same for the Bowery. Already, a gallery has opened on either side of Smith-Stewart’s Lower East Side storefront.
The area’s pre-war architecture adds an element of drama. The storefront gallery spaces are smaller than the pristine white boxes of Chelsea. So far, they’ve favored quirky work by younger artists, but blue-chip galleries are also bringing their multimillion-dollar rosters to the neighborhood. Upper East Side society girl-art dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn has opened a new space called Salon 94 Freemans on the tucked-away Freeman Alley off Rivington Street. And two days before the New Museum opens, Chelsea gallery Lehmann Maupin will open a 5,800-square-foot satellite space around the corner, on Chrystie Street.
If the art types believe the neighborhood has reformed, the Bowery itself is still trying to figure out its own identity. Signs of the area’s gritty past remain. Late this September, two women were raped leaving the Box, Simon Hammerstein’s $15-a-drink club with a guest list that reads like Page Six. It was a pointed reminder that not everything has changed.
Each weekend, a scene repeats itself on Stanton Street. As crowds gather outside of the gallery openings and artfully styled 20-somethings push by, toward Sara Roosevelt Park and to the nightclubs beyond to the west, another group forms outside of the Lower East Side I Infill NYCHA apartments. Young men in white cotton T-shirts proffer business cards printed with “Let’s Have Fun” and the number of a cocaine delivery service.
More tangible reminders of the old Bowery flank the New Museum’s shining new home: the Bowery Mission to the south, and the Sunshine Hotel to the north. A “No Vacancy” sign hangs on the door of the long-term hotel, where $10 gets you a place to sleep. And any time of day, as passersby gawk at the glass lobby of the museum, men amble outside the Mission’s heavy crimson doors. So far, they’re taking the new neighborhood’s look in stride.
“In New York the social services exist next to floor-through condos; that’s what it’s all about,” said Edward Morgan, the president of the Bowery Mission. When it opened in 1909, the Bowery was one of 38 rescue missions between Canal Street and Cooper Union. Today, it’s one of the last. (“The Bowery Mission is on the Bowery to stay,” said Morgan.)
When the museum opens, as tourists and school groups line up to see the latest from the likes of Ugo Rondinone, homeless and hungry men will continue to line up outside the mission for a hot meal or a place in the lottery for a bed. More than 800 plates are filled every day with dishes like shrimp scampi and barbecue, served from a kitchen with a reminder printed above the stove to “serve like you’re serving a king.” Inside, about 30 men (called disciples) participate in the six- to nine-month residential rehabilitation program, where they worship together, take classes in computer literacy and resume prep, while earning GEDs and trade certificates.
James Macklin, the mission’s director of outreach, barely recognizes the neighborhood he first came to nearly 20 years ago. It was the late ’80s and he was homeless and addicted to cocaine. He’d been sleeping on the subway when a woman approached him with a meal card for the Mission. When he got there, all around, men were sleeping in doorways and bars.
Like many of the men who complete the rehabilitation program, he’s stayed on ever since. With the Bowery quickly changing, the staff at the mission is mindful that keeping close ties to the community will be crucial to its survival.
“See, what are you going to do? Continue what you were always doing, being a good neighborhood,” said Macklin. “No matter how beautiful the neighborhood becomes, there are still going to be people who need these services.” So far, the transition has been a good one for the Mission. A partnership with Whole Foods provides fresh food and its increased visibility has meant more donations.
With all eyes on the morphing Bowery biosphere, hopes are high that (some) things will stay the same, but cautious that sometimes cleaning up comes at a price.
“People in New York City, in this kind of neighborhood, they want to come to a place that’s distinctive and not just another suburb,” said Mission Director Tom Basile. “It would be a loss to have another KFC, instead of something that has so much character.”
Photos: (Top) Interior rendering of the New Musuem opening at 235 Bowery on Dec. 1, 2007. Credit: Design + Visualization - Sejima + Nishizawa / SANAA (Middle) A crowd watching the Ramones at CBGBs (Bottom) Sign at the historic The Sunshine Hotel