2002-06-15 / Community

A Tale Of Two Boweries

A Tale Of Two Boweries

Gerald T. McLaughlin is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The author wishes to thank long-time Neponsit resident Mark Berger for suggesting this article.

For thirty years, I spent my summers on the Rockaway Peninsula - first at Rockaway Park (Beach 109th Street just off the Boulevard) and later at Breezy Point (Jamaica Walk). Although I now live in Los Angeles, I still think back fondly to those wonderful summer vacations at the Rockaways.

Recently, while browsing in a "collectibles" store, I picked up an old postcard captioned "Bowery Rockaway, N.Y." Although I didn’t remember anything called the Bowery during my years in the Rockaways, I thought nothing more of the card – at least not until about a month later. Again rummaging through a pile of postal memorabilia in a dingy antique mall, I came across a second postcard. This time the card was captioned - "Bowery Coney Island". Now I was intrigued.

I decided to find out something about these two beach resort boweries. First, I started my research with the Oxford English Dictionary. Understanding the etymology of a word is often 90% of the game. The word "bowery" comes from the Dutch word "bouwerij" which means "farm" or "plantation". In the 1650s when Peter Stuyvesant was the Governor of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, the road that led to his farm was called the Bowery. After the English gained control of New York in 1664, many of the rich and famous of the City built weekend retreats in the rural area of the Bowery. (The English word "bower" shares the same etymology as the word "bowery".)

In time, however, as New York City expanded, wealthy New Yorkers left the Bowery area in lower Manhattan and moved farther north to Fifth Avenue and Washington Heights. With the exodus of the wealthy, the character of the Bowery gradually began to change. The original leafy "plantation" area was torn up for new construction. By the 1850s and 1860s, the Bowery had become a place where New Yorkers went for fun. Theaters and dance halls sprouted along the street. There were follies and vaudeville acts – one of which – Sammy’s Bowery Follies – remained open into the 1950s. The closeness of "Kleindeutschland" (Little Germany) immediately to the east of the Bowery brought a German flavor to the area. Many large beer "gartens" (such as the famous Atlantic Garden) opened, catering primarily to the new German emigrants.

In the 1870s, with the construction of the "elevated road" (the "el"), the Bowery became more accessible to uptown Mahattanites. This new accessibility dramatically increased the Bowery’s popularity. Every night crowds of theater-goers and revelers emptied out of the el. Vintage pictures of the Bowery during these years show elevated trains running along both sides of the street with bustling crowds passing beneath. Technology, however, brings the good with the bad. Along with the crowds of the fun-loving came a rougher crowd – pickpockets and thieves. The poor and the destitute also began to beg and panhandle on the street. In time the Bowery began to be viewed as New York’s skid-row.

As with the Bowery, New York City’s expanding railway system was a key factor in the growth of Coney Island. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, Coney Island was nothing more than a small seaside community that could only be reached by a long ferry-ride from Manhattan. But all that changed during the 1870s and 1880s. In 1869, the first railroad across Brooklyn opened. 1883 saw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Now with the coming of the railway and the construction of the "Great Bridge", Coney Island became easily accessible to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Slowly a lavish entertainment mecca sprung up along the beach. Bathing houses opened for those who wished to cool off in the surf. After a swim, the visitor to Coney Island could choose among a wide range of entertainment options. There were the dance halls where you could flirt with eligible members of the opposite sex. If this did not meet your fancy, there were the vaudeville theaters where young entertainers such as Jimmy Durante would make you laugh. If you still were dissatisfied with the entertainment options, you could always go for a ride on a carousel (replete with brass rings) or try your skill on one of the many games that lined the narrow streets and alleyways of the resort. The 1890s saw the construction of the great amusement parks (Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park) with their notorious "roller coasters" that became the worldwide emblems of Coney Island. At the end of the day, tired and relaxed, you could choose your favorite beer parlor for some food and drink before the ride back to the City.

The name "Bowery" migrated from lower Manhattan to Rockaway’s Playland for many of the same reasons as it had migrated to Coney Island. Vintage pictures depicting Playland’s Bowery show a narrow street lined with food stalls, games and amusements. As with Coney Island, the carnival-like atmosphere of the street is reminiscent of the original Bowery on the lower east side of Manhattan. Although Playland closed in 1985, it seems particularly appropriate that this Dutch word became part of its lore and legend. In 1640, the Mohawk tribe had sold the Rockaway Peninsula to Dutch settlers.

Although I am old enough to remember the dance halls on Beach 103rd Street in the Rockaway’s, try as I might, I have no recollection of the Bowery at Playland. As I grow older, however, I often think back to those years spent on the Peninsula. I can still see the Wednesday night fireworks off the Boardwalk in front of St. Malachy’s, the men fishing along the bay-wall on Beach Channel Drive, the crowds exiting the A train on Beach 116th Street. If I’m lucky, some night when all is quiet on the Los Angeles freeways, some night when there are no storms howling through the Rockies – maybe, just maybe I will be able to hear faint echoes of this bygone Bowery in the Rockways. At least I hope so.

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