Accept a basic truth: cities change, for that is their nature. So while you may love or hate the fact that CBGB is now a multivenue corporate music festival (which is certainly an upgrade from its stretch as a shitty photo gallery/perfumery), you can’t deny it no less accurately fits the times than it did during its grimy heyday. The Bowery itself—the street and the neighborhood—is among the oldest and most important geographical features of Manhattan. Originally a Lenape footpath that spanned the island north to south, the Dutch built their farms (“Bouwerij”) around it. As the colony grew, was taken over by the British, and then became America proper, the Bowery boasted stately homes, which in turn gave way to music halls, beer gardens, and whorehouses in the early- to mid-1800s. This bustling hotspot was frequented by single, middle class men—dubbed the Bowery Boys, or simply B’hoys—who dressed as dandies but were (arguably) kind of punk for being into unwholesome entertainments. The top-hatted B’hoy was a regular comic figure in plays across the country in the 1840s, though in the 1850s the real-life, pugilistic version—the gang cum political machine called The Bowery Boys—came into power, brawling with the Five Points’ Dead Rabbits.
This “ghoul gang”-riddled milieu is where most film depictions of the Bowery begin. Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration, one of the first feature-length gangster films, sketches the life of Owen (Rockliffe Fellowes), an Irish-American gang leader who is moved to renounce his life of crime after meeting a beautiful upper-class reformer. Fellowes, who looks like an off-model Marlon Brando, is shown at one point sipping a beer while watching a vaudeville performance, which is then superimposed with an image of himself as a child greedily licking an ice cream cone. This quite literal assertion that the men of the Bowery really aren’t men at all echoes throughout many of the films in Anthology’s series From Mae West to Punk: The Bowery on Film (May 16-19), be it in the childish, brazenly racist antics of Chuck Connors in The Bowery, Mae West’s pathological search for someone to pleasure her in She Done Him Wrong, or the patronizing voiceovers about alcoholics in The Street of Forgotten Men and The Naked City episode “Goodbye My Lady Love.”
Though the Bowery’s status as “the saddest and the maddest street in the world” persisted through most of the 20th century, Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking On the Bowery sought to humanize its residents—and, in turn, revolutionize cinema. Half-documentary, half-improvised fiction with actual (semi) homeless men and women, Rogosin’s film shows their rhythms, conversations, varying morals, and faces, a work that’s unburdened by didacticism or a three-act structure. While many pining for the New York of the past feel that an essential component was vice and human misery (as does Scott Elliot’s Slumming It: Myth and Culture on the Bowery), another, more reasonable perspective on our current state of hyper-gentrification comes from Jen Senko and Fiore DeRosa’s The Vanishing City, which clearly lays out the tax loopholes and leadership that seek to luxury brand out the poor and middle class. Though all the films in this series are engaging and historically relevant, The Vanishing City, screening May 18, should be seen by all New York residents before it’s too late.