Q&A: The Bowery Boys Dish on the Secret Side of New York History

by  Christina Garofalo | Jul 22, 2016
The Bowery Boys
The Bowery Boys

There’s a reason New York City hosted 58.3 million tourists last year alone. From Wall Street to Stonewall, waves of immigration and innovation, and a skyline that’s framed countless films, New York City inspires a certain historical fanfare.

In the nearly 400 years since the city was founded, millions of stories have played out on its iconic streets. Some of the most interesting ones, however, lie just out of frame -- hidden beyond the places that populate most guidebooks -- and yet have everything to do with how the city was developed.

That’s where Greg Young and Tom Meyers come in. The Bowery Boys, as the duo is known on their eponymous podcast, released their first book dedicated to, what they call, “An unconventional exploration of New York history.”

“This city has innumerable secrets and surprises,” says Young. “You can think you know it frontwards and backwards, but every day, if you break out of your standard path, you’ll always find something new.”

From hidden cemeteries to old stagecoach stops, Adventures in Old New York takes you neighborhood by neighborhood through a Manhattan you’ll be hard-pressed to hear about elsewhere. We talk to the Bowery Boys about the coolest (and weirdest) discoveries on their NYC history hunt, and where you can see them for yourself.

ShermansTravel: First off, what made you decide to turn your podcast into a book?

Tom Meyers: It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, but it developed kind of organically. We realized a lot of people were listening to [the podcast] in the streets and choosing episodes based on their location, so we thought making it a historical travel guide would be more interesting and useful for us and for the reader.

ST: What was the most surprising discovery you made during your research?

TM: There are a ton of hidden cemeteries. The city used to bury people outside of its borders, but as it continued to grow, people kept moving up the island, and these cemeteries were just developed over. In many of the parks we know today, like Washington Square Park, there are still bones buried underneath.

Greg Young: There are a lot of owl statues in Herald Square -- owls with red eyes. You’ve probably passed them a million times and never noticed. Herald Square was named after the New York Herald newspaper -- their office used to be on north side of what is now the park. The paper was operated by James Gordon Bennett Jr., who was quite the eccentric. He was completely and utterly obsessed with owls, to the point that the original design for his mausoleum was a 20-foot-tall owl that he would be buried in. This legacy of his obsession with owls is still all over the park.

ST: In which Manhattan neighborhood can you see the most history?

GY: Well, you can take that two ways. The area of land that has literally recalled what it used to look like 200 years ago is Inwood/Washington Heights. Inwood Hill Park is the last remaining natural forest in New York City, and there are elements of that part of Manhattan that are exactly as they were when Henry Hudson sailed into New York harbor in 1609.

TM: I’m going to say the Lower East Side, because you can see distinct eras of New York history there. First, it was the farm of a wealthy family (the Delancy’s) -- Orchard Street was literally the path that led to their orchard. This neighborhood saw a huge influx of immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s, and the quintessential New York story picked up speed with them. And then there’s the transition of the neighborhood into what it is today: people a couple of generations later moving back to the place that their grandparents worked so hard to get out of.

ST: Is there a side of New York history that no one talks about?

TM: New Yorkers like to think of their city as incredibly tolerant and multicultural. What’s often hidden is that during the Civil War, New York had a lot of Southern sympathizers. There were many people with money who benefitted from slavery, and there were immigrants arriving from Ireland who were not happy that freed slaves were competing with them for jobs. So there was a lot of tension, like the draft riots -- where there was terrible violence in the streets and people killed in their homes. The city doesn’t really like to tell that story.

GY: As they say, history is written by the winners. The stories you hear most are often so blatantly not really what happened, but it’s sort of all you have to go off of.

TM: As with our episode on the Lenape Indians of New York... there’s some duty to try to even out inaccuracies and folklore from this popular fiction in the city’s history.

ST: Is there any area that really surprised you?

TM: The area around Penn Station, west of Herald Square -- the old tenderloin district. It was the entertainment area for awhile, then it became the work-a-day garment district, the flower district -- those blocks are soaked in history and a lot of people just push through and never look around because they’re not really pretty…

GY: It was a neighborhood of extreme vices -- gambling, people getting shot -- so those are first on the list to get cleared away when there’s a big civic project.

TM: Right. A lot [of that history] got eliminated during the construction of the Lincoln tunnel.

GY: But there are little survivors… The Bell Laboratory (near the Jane Hotel) was one of biggest [research and science] labs in United States at the start of the 20th century, and the building is still there. It’s now subsidized studio space for artists.

TM: Also Chelsea Piers used to stretch all the way down to 14th Street, and it was from here that people would embark on grand voyages across the sea. So many personal histories began here -- people leaving New York for good, or arriving for the first time for good. It was a center of activity that really doesn’t exist anymore.

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