The Story of the Bowery

Last week my wife and I attended an event at the Bowery Hotel to celebrate the naming of the Bowery to the National Register of Historic Places. It was a wonderful time for our neighborhood to recognize its incredible past and dream of a vibrant future. Musicians sang the songs made famous on the Bowery, from 19th century vaudeville to punk rock of the 1970s. Despite the beautiful history of the Bowery, and New York City in general, I see a tension. It is a neighborhood that is already, but not yet.

As mentioned in my previous blog, the vision of Dwell Church is to connect the Mission of God to the Bowery. We define the Mission of God (Missio Dei) as the spiritual and social renewal of every square inch of creation. But what is the Bowery? Although many people aren’t familiar with this two mile-long street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I can’t think of another place that has impacted American culture as much as the Bowery has.

The Bowery is the oldest street in Manhattan, having been a Native American foot trail long before the Dutch arrived. It has a fascinating history even prior to the Civil War: this is where Peter Stuyvesant retired to his farm, George Washington had a beer, James Delancey built a house and the Astors expanded their real estate holdings. It continued to be deeply influential throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in the area of arts and culture.

Over the years, this neighborhood has seen drastic growth and change. In the mid-1850s, the Bowery was a violent place. The south end is one of the five points seen in Scorsese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York.” However, on the heels of the Fulton Street revival in 1857, two Christian organizations began to minister to the spiritually and materially poor on the Bowery: the YMCAand the Bowery Mission.

On an architectural tour of the Bowery two years ago, I was surprised to hear a friend and neighbor praise the work of the Bowery Mission. I had discussed faith with him before, and he certainly never resonated with the gospel that is preached at the Mission: the exclusivity of Christ and the need for repentance and faith. Despite that, the Mission had earned his respect - and the respect of many other secular New Yorkers (including Mayor Bloomberg) - by caring for the marginalized since 1880. I learned two valuable lessons from my friend that day: my neighbors on the Bowery love organizations that are old and are suspicious of those that are new, and they respect the Christian community when we are fulfilling our mandate to serve the common good.

Going forward with that knowledge, a key question I ask myself as a church planter is, “If Dwell Church closed, would the neighborhood miss it?” Would they lament the closing of our church or say, “good riddance”? Are we a hindrance to our neighbors? Or are we living out God’s command to love them?

It is an incredible time to be living and serving on the Bowery. It’s changing rapidly, while trying to preserve its soul. We are asking big questions spiritually and socially: How do we communicate the gospel to an incredibly diverse neighborhood? What would it look like to combine justice and gentrification? Is there even such a thing as “just gentrification?”

With a history as rich as any, the Bowery still needs Jesus. The gospel has something to say to both the penthouse and the flophouse in our neighborhood. And because of that, I am grateful that God is calling His people to the Bowery, opening doors for us to serve, and providing opportunities to share the gospel in Word and deed.