Dev­il’s Mile: The Rich, Grit­ty His­to­ry of the Bowery

Alice Spar­berg Alexiou
  • Review
By – July 23, 2018

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.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions