“Vice offers every inducement to its votaries, and the devil’s work is done nighty upon a grand scale in the Bowery.” This 1882 quote, a description of the strip of land once nicknamed “Satan’s Highway” appears in Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s new book Devil’s Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery. The book encompasses the social history of the Bowery dating back to the Lenape Indians and the 1625 Dutch settlement in Lower Manhattan, and continuing through today.
The Bowery has gone through many different phases, all of which are colorfully covered in Alexiou’s fascinating, well-researched writing. Chapter topics include the Tammany Hall period, the Civil War, the Bowery’s notorious skidrow period, and its key role in the development of punk rock music.
One of the most fascinating chapters is titled “The Jews.” In this chapter, Alexiou vividly recounts Jewish life in the Bowery, from the 1880s onward. Contrary to popular belief, Yiddish theater started on the Bowery, where there were four Yiddish theaters. Alexiou writes that everyone from mothers with their babies to sweatshop workers and socialists would spend their hard-earned twenty-five cents on the cheapest seats to see their “adored” actors and playwrights, Jacob Adler and Boris Thomashefsky. She writes, it was “on the Bowery [that] Yiddish theater took root, bloomed, and leapt into American culture: to Broadway and then all the way to Hollywood.” In fact, Stella Adler, the daughter of Yiddish theater star Jacob Adler, developed an iconic acting studio where many American movie and theater stars trained, including Marlon Brando. Theater, however, wasn’t the only form of entertainment Jews engaged in on the Bowery; they also frequented the many Jewish-owned saloons and brothels filled with Jewish prostitutes.
Devil’s Mile is a delightful read, and a rollicking journey into the early days of Yiddish theater and Jewish life on the Bowery.