Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bowery

Currently I have the pleasure of spending more time in the Village, West and East. It's a good way to fall half in love with this part of the city, especially while it's still intact.

After a play at Dixon Place last night, I wound up at the Bowery Diner (the first idea was Pizza Junkie), and began thinking about the word Bowery. I didn't think about it while sipping gazpacho from an espresso cup or before starting on the macaroni and cheese. It was while drinking the lovage soda that the word began to sink in, and then it popped up again somewhere in the middle of the sour cherry pie.

I suppose most people who know the city know that bowery is simply an early Dutch word for farm that went on to develop a Manhattan-centric meaning. As explained in a plate description for The Manatus Map, in:


This wonderful document, which can be definitely assigned to the year 1639, is the starting-point in a study of the topography of New York City, taking us back to the days of its infancy. There is, perhaps, no other city in the world, having equal claims to antiquity, that can boast such a record of the early years of its existence. On it can be seen the farms occupied by the first settlers on the site where now New York proudly rises, and the very names of the occupants of each are given. The survey was evidently intended, primarily, to show the large concessions or bouweries, as it contains no indication of the little settlement clustering about the Fort, which we know from Michaƫlius, Wassenaer, and other contemporary sources, had by this time begun to assume the aspect of a quite respectable village. The farms or homesteads were built after the Dutch fashion, and were mostly simple houses, called on the map "plantages." Even among those of a better class, called "bouwerij," there is only one on Manhattan Island that boasts the usual appendages of a Dutch farm of the period, although there are others of this type on the opposite bank of the Hudson and on Long Island. These farmsteads consisted of a house, used in common by the settler's family and the cattle, and an outbuilding, or open-sided cover, for the hay, called "hooischelf," or "berg" (hay-rick or mound), just the same combination as is still encountered in many parts of Holland. . . .

Granted, the Iconography was published in 1916. Still, I returned a couple of times to the sentence "There is, perhaps, no other city in the world, having equal claims to antiquity, that can boast such a record of the early years of its existence."

It reminded me of a man who delivered testimony at a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing a few years ago. He said that historic buildings are historic documents.

So if we wouldn't burn, let's say, the earliest maps of Manhattan, why would we tear down X, Y, and Z?

Walking to the subway, I thought a little about all those real estate developers. Maybe it's about time they and city officials began thinking about historic buildings as valuables and (to mix) part of the city's biodiversity, rather than parking spot holders for the next towering insta-achievement.

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