Boom-time bums

Postcard from New York
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A REVIVAL is all very well, a renaissance even better, a rehabilitation ... a little over-zealous, perhaps, but not undesirable for that. But there are few gloomier prospects in the field of urban renewal than the thought of a renaissance of Manhattan's Bowery, the historic strip of flophouses and cheap hooch joints on the Lower East Side where down-and-outs have congregated for the greater part of the last couple of centuries, giving rise to the term "Bowery bum".

To give an example of life on the Bowery in its heyday, Stephen Foster - the juleppy, molasses-smooth balladeer who wrote nostalgic songs about plantation life in the antebellum South like "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races" (refrain: "Doo-dah, doo-dah"), and "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" - lived on the Bowery in the 1860s, in the back of a grocery store. Or rather, he lived there for a few years, before dying there, after accidentally cutting his throat on his chamber pot. So when you want to describe a gradual gussying-up of a place with a grim rep, it is more convenient to think in terms of "'vival", "'naissance" and "habilitation", because what's happening now certainly never happened before. The Bowery is having a bona fide boom.

The last time it had a boom was more than 60 years ago, when the golden- tongued gourmand and humorist AJ Liebling noticed that a number of the Bowery dwellers had briefly struck it rich, when heavy blizzards got them jobs shovelling snow. They blew their windfall on rotgut liquor as soon as they laid down their shovels. "One of the saddest phenomena I ever observed was a boom on the Bowery," Liebling remarked, not unhappily. "A boom on the Bowery would pass for a dull thud almost anywhere else. But habitues can notice it."

You don't have to be a habitue to notice the boom anymore, and the boom is much more than a thud. The B-Bar, a trendy, sprawling, some say soulless, restaurant with a walled-in open-air patio and day-glo lighting opened a few years ago at Bowery and East Fourth Street, and has anchored the land rush. A couple of blocks down, at Bowery and Bleecker, an opulent, decadent dinner club called the Astor Restaurant has opened. Above its awnings, casting an orange glow on the tenements around, aluminum letters in flapper-era capitals encase flaming orange neon that spells out the name.

Across the street, a delectable French pastry shop called Fina caters to the ultra-cool artists, designers and architects who live in huge lofts, which they bought when prices were rock-bottom. Next door to Fina's, in a building where Andy Warhol once had a loft apartment, insolent teenagers rake in more than a million a year with a cutting-edge grunge record shop.

Despite the giddy headrush of this economic shot in the arm, there are still people who shoot up on the Bowery - the new technicolour oases dot a wide, grey strip of roadway that still holds bodegas, boarded-up buildings - former cinemas, burlesque houses and Vaudeville theatres - and abandoned lots. There are still flophouses; one of them, known as the "White House", used only to take in white men, but now takes in men of all kinds for $7 a night. Lately, community groups who want the boom to continue are struggling to keep unimaginative types from carrying on the tradition of opening more homeless shelters. The acronym for one group, called BASTA, roughly translates as "the Bowery has enough shelters, thank you!"

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