Main Street NYC: The Bowery

All so-called Main Streets are not alike. In Manhattan, main thoroughfares like Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street have gone through massive changes- yet they maintain anchor tenants that bring people back over and over. So it is with the Bowery. In the third installment of the Main Street NYC project, WNYC's Brigid Bergin takes us to a five-block stretch of this street with an infamous reputation and ongoing transformation.

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REPORTER: For most of the last didn't visit the Bowery -- unless you had a very specific reason to be here.

ROMERO: I learned about the Bowery Mission because I used to be a counselor and I used to bring people here to get help. Little did I know that I would be one walking through those doors one day.

REPORTER: 39-year-old Alejandro Romero says when he arrived at 227-229 Bowery....he was a functioning addict.

He was getting high at night and working as a counselor at a homeless shelter during the day.

But last July....Romero says he was the one that needed the help.

ROMERO: It was like 2 o'clock in the morning and....... I....I....had two dollars in my pocket and I said I could take these two dollars and flip it....or I could take these two dollars and get on a train and come to these reds doors. And I prayed and the next thing I knew I was on the train.

REPORTER: Romero moved into the residential rehab program....which is housed on the upper floors of the one of the Mission's 2 buildings.

Most people don't live here but they come here to eat.

The Bowery Mission brings hundreds of people hundreds of men to the street every week.

Most men don't live here but the staff says it serves 820 hot meals a day, a five percent increase over this time last year.

The Mission is an institution that has managed to hold on to its Manhattan location, primarily because the Christian Herald, a faith based organization, has owned the buildings since 1909.

So if places like the Mission made the Bowery a destination of last resort the restaurant supply stores do just the opposite.

Think of it like this, the city has some 1500 pizza shops and here's where they shop for equipment.

CARONE: Basically everybody comes down. They price everything up and down the block....It's always coming down to the Bowery to get the best deal.

REPORTER: Nicholas Carone works here at Bari Pizzeria and Restaurant Equipment.

CARONE: One guy just came in to buy a fryer. I just matched the price and he's coming back with the money cause they like doing business with us because we're a big company been here forever so...

REPORTER: The family has owned the business since the 1930's.... And they own both sides of the street.

They're now trying to lease an empty store front. They also own the single room occupancy hotel upstairs, one of the remaining few....

CARONE: We keep hustling you know....gotta keep hustling to bring in revenue.

REPORTER: Owning real estate is certainly one way to buffer against prevailing economic trends... but it took years of prosperity in New York City for this street to finally lose its "down and out" image.... Now it's trendy...even touristy.

One major draw stands 7-stories tall.

It's a series of silver blocks emblazoned with a multicolor sign that says Hell, Yes.

Started as an idea in 1977, it was the brainchild of Marcia Tucker. Temporary galleries grew into the New Musuem which opened some 30 years later in 2007.

A week before the opening, WNYC spoke executive director Lisa Phillips about the Museum's role in gentrifying the neighborhood.

PHILLIPS: Well we expected there would be changes in the neighborhood. But we didn't expect it would happen so fast. And we thougt we'd kind of be alone for a while.

But the New Museum won't alone for long. A new crop of galleries sprang up attracting different people to the neighborhood.

Sarah Beatty's hoping those people will become her customers.

BEATTY: When we were thinking about our live stores and our flagship space...we really wanted it to be a monument to the possibilities of green.

REPORTER: Beatty is the owner and founder of Green Depot.... the Bowery's latest eco-friendly outpost.

It sells things like those compact fluorescent light bulbs. Locally-made, chemical free cleaning products. And even organic baby furniture.

Green isn't exactly a new thing here..

"Bowery" comes from the Dutch word meaning "farm". And the street itself was once the route to an actual farm owned by 17th century Manhattanite, Peter Stuyvesant.

Now with a Whole Foods just blocks away, offering that farm freshness, but at top dollar. Beatty hopes her store fits right in.

BEATTY: The Bowery, you know this is the next hot upcoming neighborhood in New York City and it's really about reinvention here and that's also why we selected this place.

REPORTER: That was the thinking behind another business farther up the block. That's having a hard time getting off the ground.

AYOUB: The project is a hotel. It's going to be the first green hotel.

REPORTER: At 250 Bowery, between Houston and Prince streets, Josef Ayoub spends most of his days sitting in a trailer next to a huge hole.

AYOUB: We finished with the 30 feet deep underpinning and the economy hit so right now we are on hold until the bank re-evaluate the budget.

REPORTER: Ayoub says the plan is to build an an 8-story, 72-room luxury green hotel.

Right now the site is fenced off with blue plywood, and there's no sign of construction going on here. He spends his days trying to shave expenses from the budget, and asking contractors to understand the complexities associated with green building.

But for now he's waiting for the another kind of green. He's watching the economy.

AYOUB: It's very hard to predict. I wanted to start today. I wanted to go back, but it's very hard for the whole entire country so, I don't know.

REPORTER: The feeling of uncertainty is not unique to the Bowery, but the sense of which direction this main street will go, returning to its rough and tumble 20th century identity or picking up where developers left off, is what we'll be watching.

For WNYC, I'm Brigid Bergin.