I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published April 19th 2010
Long before equally resplendent glass towers and designer fashions flanked the Bowery, it was known as the slum of Manhattan, the last vestige of the destitute. Dime Store museums, saloons, prostitution, and opium dens all had their hay day, as did street gangs such as the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. The ghosts of downtown Manhattan are not the well-known names like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Whitney that gave the city its fine institutions, but the throngs of nameless immigrants who arrived year after year on whom the backbone of the city was built. Those immigrants, like the corrupt Tammany Hall administration of the same era, made their own rules—the rules of the street.
Nineteenth century New York had only two classes: the very wealthy and the very poor. Downtown was essentially a literal melting pot of poverty-stricken newcomers and the violence that governed their neighborhoods and lives. Much of that violence was random—easily brought on by the strife and intolerable and unsanitary living conditions of crowded tenement life. But a lot of the violence was organized by gang activity in Manhattan, the roots of the American Mafia.
In the 14-block walking tour, which meets every Saturday at 2 PM in front of the New Museum on the Bowery, participants visit assorted sites of interest including 57 Jones Street (the Five Points Gang headquarters) and Second Avenue and 12th Street (the site of a famous mob shootout). The homes and hangouts of gang figures like Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Bugsy Siegal, and Meyer Lansky also figure prominently.
Shootouts and assassinations, shady deals, Prohibition-era speakeasies, and all the corruption of the period that lent itself to the evolution of the five top families of the American Mafia are discussed while noting specific points of interest. You'll be shocked. You'll be intrigued. And you'll never look at the Bowery in the same way again.