No other New York City neighborhood or street has been home to more rapid change over the last decade than the Bowery, the old road to Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, or bouwerij—though Hunter’s Point, Queens, with its new collection of high rise glass towers, has been challenging it. The Bowery existed in pre-colonial times as a Native American trail and once was a part of the post road to Boston (it remains, along with Broadway itself, one of the few roads left over from before the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 gridironed Manhattan Island). In the days immediately following Pegleg Pete’s era, it was lined with stately mansions and fashionable shops, then gave way to cheap entertainments, peep shows, and hot corn girls. After they were shrouded by an El, the entertainments moved uptown, and the destitute, the desperate, and the down-and-out moved in. “Bowery bums” remained even after the Third Avenue El was razed in 1955, and remnants of this past remain even during the Bowery’s newest incarnation as Luxury Row, along with Bowery’s sub-genre as the home of wholesale kitchen equipment, commercial lighting, and cash registers.
I could not help but feel a tinge of melancholy when on a recent afternoon I ended up at the Bowery, facing the spot where CBGB used to be. That very week I viewed a clip of Television performing “Little Johnny Jewel” in Central Park a few years ago.
When Vin Scelsa first played it on WNEW-FM in 1975 I recognized it as a game-changer; this was an era when “Love Will Keep Us Together” and “Kashmir” ruled pop and rock radio, respectively. Forest Hills’ Ramones quickly followed Television into Hilly Kristal’s country, bluegrass, and blues club, and thousands of bands after them. I was a little sad to see, as I moved through this new Bowery, that the world inhabited by these bands of yore is utterly gone.
In one photo from that era Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy, and Joey Ramone are standing alongside a wrecked car in a garbage-strewn alley; a truck emblazoned with the CBGB logo can be seen in the rear. This is Extra Place, a dead-end on East 1st Street a little east of the Bowery. CBGB’s back door opened onto the alley.
The story of Extra Place begins around 1800, when landowner Philip Minthorne divided his 110-acre farm among his four sons and five daughters. A tiny parcel was left over, which became “Extra” Street when the grid pattern was cut through. It remained a Street (as the 1891 map here shows) until around the turn of the 20th century, when it became a Place. It led a sleepy existence for decades as a front for metalworking shops, garages, and in Prohibition days, speakeasies.
By the late 1970s, NYC had been in recession for years and large swaths of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the East Village were in desperate condition. My friend Bob Mulero’s 1978 photo of Extra Place shows our alley in total disarray. Yet even here there are vital signs. The hand-lettered sign once marked a busy parking garage, and the alley shows through to a three-story freestanding house on East 2nd Street. CBGB was in full swing in 1978 and one of the doors on the left was its back door.
In 2006, the buildings to the right of Extra Place have been torn down, and cranes are in position laying the foundation for luxury residences. Avalon Bay Communities purchased properties along the Bowery from East Houston Street to East 2nd, and commenced to knock down longstanding properties along each of the streets, including the notorious McGurk’s Suicide Hall. Run by saloonkeeper John McGurk, it attained its moniker from the prostitutes that ended it all by gulping carbolic acid on the premises. In 2007, Avalon set about building gleaming towers and ridding all trace of whatever color was still echoing through the decades. In 2006, Extra Place was still a dirt road, but the old garage was being spiffed and buffed for its new job of providing housing. The freestanding house on East 1st has given way to a residential tower.
By 2009, the transformation is complete. Extra Place has been paved and the Department of Transportation has installed street and dead end signs; previously, Extra Place was identified by word of mouth. Avalon has acquired the dead end and plans to bring in retail establishments. You cannot, with a clear head, say the new Extra Place is not vastly improved over the 1978 model, strewn with garbage, detritus, and vomit. If the new Extra Place, lined with boutiques and boites, is a big success, the East Village will be better for it. But in the back of my head, I wonder what Sid Vicious would think.