David F. Ross


The Low Expectations of the Bowery Bums – By Judithea Montgomery

I have a friend who thinks very differently about life. Both of us occupy the same streets, by and large. Our routines are governed by the same seven-day-week time structure, but we don’t have the same resources. We navigate the same seasonal cycles, the comparative freedom of summer and the restrictive dangers of winter. Thriving or surviving. Sometimes, just. My friend and I are representative of this city’s poor huddled masses; incomers or immigrants drawn towards New York City, magnetized by the temptations of opportunity. We arrived here (separately) with dreams of grid-iron streets, powered by glorious neon and paved with gold.

My friend and I live (again, separately) on the Lower East Side. He pays no rent. Owns nothing other than what covers his body. His navigation of a twenty-four-hour day is unrecognizable from mine. From yours. From Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s. For my friend, it might be argued, the streets are paved with shit and open rivers of piss run out into the East River. Only, he doesn’t think this way. He sees it differently.

My friend is called Hennessey. American Irish, from Queens. He’s got five brothers and sisters, and has no idea where any of them are, or even if anyone of them still is. His pa died in an unregulated boxing match when Hennessey was ten years old. A loser, left for dead among the other carcasses in a meat factory warehouse as the homeboys counted their winnings. A day after his demented mom passed away in hospital, his uncle and cousins beat him close to death for selling some medicinal weed on their turf. That was six years ago. Now he lives on these Bowery streets with the other bums, panhandling and scrambling to get from one day to the next.

Mayor Giuliani, to paraphrase Lou Reed, why don’t you just go down to Alphabet City and club ’em to death? Get it over with. Dump ’em on the boulevards, for the garbage trucks to sweep up and have done with it?

Or why don’t you should spend some time down in the mean streets. If you were to scratch away the grimy surface, there’s artistic gold to be uncovered. If you chose to engage with Hennessey, or Avery, or Ziggy Flatiron, or any number of the neighborhood’s young, destitute characters, you wouldn’t find anyone dreaming of becoming a lawyer or a doctor or an architect. But you would find a supportive environment of poets, writers, sculptors, and people still capable of holding on to a dream in the toughest of circumstances.

It was the British sociologist Ruth Glass who first coined the term “gentrification”. “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district,” Glass wrote, “it goes on until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

The social and cultural character of the Bowery, of the whole Lower East Side, of Manhattan itself, and – as surely as the wreckage follows the ball – the rest of the boroughs, is under threat from City Hall and its cozy relationship with real-estate industry lobbyists. The under-the-radar legislation of the last two years has created several loopholes that gradually remove rent-stabilized status for tenants. The trajectory of this decision will see hundreds of thousands of apartments lost to the lower-waged. A green light will be given to City Planners to rezone swathes of the city, multiplying density in poorer, working-class communities – especially those of color – whilst limiting density in the white, better-off communities. Might I be the first to coin a new term for this: segri-fication.

There are challenges in the inner-city urban areas, of that there is no doubt. On Avenue B, the line between prostitution and desperation is blurred to the point of erasure. Prices are pegged to the drug market, usually to the price of a vial of crack. I’ve seen despairing women live in encampments like Hennessey’s, or worse, in dumpsters, out risking their lives – from assault and AIDS – for a five-buck hustle with a john. Burglary, as you would imagine, is rife. My own building has been robbed three times in the last year. One time, my girlfriend and I were tied up while the invader searched the apartment. He took a kettle and a worthless watch, but he left my camera when I told him it was my living. Desperation, rather than wanton lawlessness, drove him.

Mayor Giuliani’s relentless pursuit of a dirty, mythologized Gotham, populated by crackheads, murderers, and rapists, and heading rapidly towards the abyss of Nether Hell is an easy manifesto gimme. He is suggesting to the already gentrified that their city could be cleaner, safer, sanitized … de-sensitized. It’s a vote-winner, amongst those who vote. A no-lose offer from an insulated, privileged man who hates leaving the Upper East Side for more than a few hours at a time. Who in their neighboring ivory towers, wouldn’t say, “YES! Mr Giuliani, please clampdown hard on the minor offenders, the hot-dog vendors, and the jaywalkers. Hammer the homeless community on our behalf”?

The powerful always pick on easy targets like my friend, Hennessey. This is predicated on an understandable fear. How far are any of us from losing everything we value, having to resort to the street, with pleading words scrawled on cardboard held over a cup? Easier to wash away those to whom it has already happened; easier not to have to look fate in the eye.

You might rightly ask why I’d pen this lament for a part of the city where Travis Bickle once prayed to God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk, or where – in real life, not celluloid – violent hustlers like Larry Hogue habitually assault car-bound customers to support a drug habit. Well, here’s why. If the bulldozer gets its way, an area loses its character. It will lose its identity. Eventually it will lose its soul. I’d pose this: If only a fraction of the city’s crime problem can be solved through better policing, how much more could be achieved, instead, through social reform? Crimes are not only offenses against society but are the inevitable consequences of its breakdown.

The Lower East Side has been changing for several years. There is nothing unusual about this. Cities are in a perpetual process of regeneration. The pace of reinvention is often imperceptible. People now call it gentrification, but that change isn’t about developing identity and character; it’s about cleansing the population, and it’s been happening for centuries. In 1853, a predominantly Black community called Seneca Village emerged in Manhattan. The community had acquired affordable plots to construct homes, churches, and a school. When Irish and German immigrants moved to the village, it became a rare example of racial harmony in an integrated neighborhood. Through eminent domain rules, the city took control of the land. The Seneca Village community was wiped away to create the first major landscaped park in the United States. Those who benefitted most called it the Central Park. Such clearances always benefit the gentry. The collateral damage is seen as worth it in the long run. Post-rationalized as a necessary eradication of the slums, it’s always been about commercial gain for the few. The modern-day equivalent of Seneca Village is leaving a legacy of anonymous, anodyne steel-and-glass shells that could be anywhere.

Bowery is New York’s oldest street. It is riven with complex contradictions. It has been poor, rich, violent, cultured, upscale, and downtrodden — all at the same time. The Bowery gave birth to one of the most influential music scenes of all. In the mid-seventies, the area was a slum, but it drew artistic, creative people to it because it was cheaper than anywhere else. It also had great bookstores and music stores and cinemas and drugs, and it had Max’s Kansas City and it had CBGB’s. The landlords were absent. Developers didn’t look in this neighborhood’s direction then. The city didn’t care about the Bowery. It was left to the people that lived here. They flourished and their output is our stimulus. The people that lived here then – and live here now – appropriated it for themselves. They treat it as if it belongs to them, and they to it.

If any city street can claim to have borne every facet of New York’s history, it is Bowery. Now, adventurous tourists go downtown on weekend safaris just to browse in the new boutiques and drink overpriced coffee in the omnipresent Starbucks. The ‘freaks’ like my friend Hennessey are just another attraction for uptown visitors to gape at, but they rarely pay for the privilege. Hennessey and his comrades are innocent victims of this perpetual cyclical shift.

In 1991, the New York Times ran an article entitled ‘The Story of a Street Person.’ It was written by Elizabeth Swados, the Broadway theatre director. The piece was a heart-breaking elegy for her brother, Lincoln, another of the legion of Bowery bums. It contained the following paragraph:

“Some people romanticize the plight of the homeless as if each life were the content of a folk song. Others point to Reagan and maintain that he broke the back of the poor in our country. Still others understand enough to see that some people are on the streets because of cutbacks during the Koch Administration and the resulting lack of hospitalization, care, and housing for the mentally ill. But generalizations are worthless. Every person has a different story. Each one of them was brought low by a specific, personal demon. When you think this way, the conditions in the street become unbearable. You are in touch with the individual humanity of homeless people and can’t block out their suffering by blaming a ‘global condition’.”

My friend Hennessey encountered Lincoln Swados in 1989, just before Lincoln died. He was a very difficult man, Hennessey said. Generous, but also dangerous, as often characterizes the untreated schizophrenic. Lincoln wrote achingly beautiful poetry, while living in what most would consider terrible squalor. I anticipate he, like Hennessey, had become so accustomed to the daily routine of his lowered expectations that he couldn’t function outside of them. As Elizabeth wrote of her brother:

“If he moved one block away, the rituals of his life would be shattered.”

An aspect that those who have never experienced homelessness can’t grasp. There may not be heating, or running water, or a front door that can be locked, but street people are part of a living community. They look out for each other, respecting the value of meagre belongings or fortuitous finds. They are as attached to the routines of their environment as those with a roof over their head.

Not everything complicated or difficult should be cleansed, moved on or brushed out of sight just because we lack the will to address our society’s greatest challenges constructively and with empathy and humanity. Hennessey and Avery and Ziggy Flatiron et al don’t want your sympathy. They don’t want your disdain. They simply want to be left alone in the courageous, characterful, complex, creative, mean streets they call home. They are content in their lowered expectations: the personal and the societal.

Mr Mayor, leave their neighborhood intact. Remove your cruel objections

Resist those commercial temptations and leave them on their own.