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About this Item

Title: City Photographs—No. V

Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Velsor Brush]

Date: April 19, 1862

Whitman Archive ID: per.00249

Source: New York Leader 19 April 1862: [1]. Transcribed from a digital image of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: Whitman's name does not appear in the byline for this piece. However, the article is signed "Velsor Brush," which is a known Whitman pseudonym. Charles I. Glicksberg first identified Whitman as the author of the "City Photographs" series in Walt Whitman and the Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933), 15–23. Scholars have continued to support Glicksberg's claim. The Whitman Archive editors agree that the style and content of the piece are consistent with other known Whitman writings of this period.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, Janel Cayer, Sarah Walker, and Kevin McMullen

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[Written for the Leader.]






Along the crowded sidewalks—along, up the hill that opens Chatham square into the Bowery, and so advancing into that great thoroughfare, I had such a pleasant time strolling last Monday afternoon, enveloped on all sides with hubbub, haste, and countless thousands of people—I must here resume the thing, after a fashion, and tuck you, reader, under my arm. Then the reminiscences that flit around us as we stroll—we will arrest them too.

The Bowery!1 Pleasing phrase or name, of arboricultural assumptions, which I am in favor of retaining now and forever; but it must be confessed the verdure of the place is at present very bogus. A brown and faded cedar branch or two, nailed on top of an awning-post—the puny flower-pots of the "Apollo summer garten," and the drab and brown collections in "the old herb root store," are the sole remains of this once so copiously rural, shrubby, viny, orchardy, cabbagey road. And then, considering its Dutch origin, and the marks it once afforded of their habits and customs—how ridiculous are the fates! Now we see on the spot the pavement called Dutch, and every third or fourth cellar seems to be a small domestic factory of cheap Dutch caps for men and boys, set forth in array about the coping.


Here, at the lower end of the Old Bowery (for the street is now cut through with a wide swathe, and runs down to Franklin square, but the currents that have so long ebbed and flowed in the old channels seem hard to be diverted, so that the New Bowery, below there, is very much like an illegitimate offspring that don't yet succeed to any of the property, although it may one of these days). Here, at the outset of the Bowery, we plunge at once into tides, indeed real vortices, of some of our modern kinds of life in a great city, and significant, in certain respects, of this city, out of all the rest of the world. Here Chatham street, Catharine and Division streets and the Bowery, all come together, and, as it were, fall in and deliver and transfer to each other, like four big rivers. Here pass the purchasers to the numerous second-hand auction shops of the square. (You can see the heaps of goods, household, &c., just yonder.) Here precipitate themselves, early in the forenoon, hundreds and thousands of delicious New York girls, going to their work, to all kinds of shops down town; and by this route of course they return, very thick, between six and seven in the evening. Here cross, and criss-cross, myriads of men—young and would-be young men—old and middle-aged, native and foreign, Jews and Gentiles. Here you may catch, as it passes in large quantities, the physiognomy of "the east side of the town." Here, if there happens to be an alarm of fire in the Seventh or Eighth District, you will, in its fullest extent (and with joy, if you accept strong sensations, and take the precaution to brace yourself by an iron lamp-post), realize the practical meaning of the phrase, "h—l broke loose," and will fancy that there is now going to be a powerful demonstration made toward the extinction of the long-talked-of and dreaded element of those regions. Much more demands its little jot here, where these four streets come together, and where, perhaps, the most pronounced personal and idiomatic New York characters, or the germs thereof, are to be found on exhibition, in one way or another. But let us move on.


The sounds, the sights, are indeed those of the Bowery, not of its high-bred, aristocratic brother, half-a-mile off. But these, too, give pleasure, though different from those. The scale here is conventionally lower, but it is more pungent. Things are in their working-day clothes, more democratic, with a broader, jauntier swing, and in a more direct contact with vulgar life.

Carpet stores exist in the Bowery. You will be sure to know the spot;—sometimes one—sometimes two or three stores together—oppressively gorgeous. Nos. 19 and 67 Bowery—and then the celebrated Andersons, 99, 103, and I think, still a third place, immediately above (for I like to specify, and also here asseverate, once for all, that when I do so specify, I do it to give definiteness to my sketch, and don't get a cent for it, honest).

Carpet stores! Let me privately confess to a weakness, about this time of year,—a strange propensity, to wander off and go and stand on the other side of the way, opposite one of these flowery establishments, and gaze. It is, perhaps (although you ain't sure), a four or five story brick-fronted house, pierced with windows. But you see neither brick front nor windows. It is poured over, from the very roof down, with the richest, intensest colors, in worsted, silk, ingrain, three-ply, tapestry and rug—all glistening, variegated out there in the strong sunlight. Swooping down, I say, from the very eaves, long, slender cataracts of crimsons, greens, blues—just swaying in the wind. Or, if you please, covered over with costly banners, heavy woven—here they hang forth, so much of them that you can't see anything else from top to bottom, only little gaps, just off the sidewalks for you to pass in.


At Bayard street we come to the hotels—wherein, too, our Bowery has things after its kind. A great reference, upon investigation, to that large and substantial, but not fashionable class, who (as he who runs may read) have come from the country. In the groups at the doors, in the dining rooms, at the bars, you smell the fresh smell of market wagons, cattle on the hoof, the well-loaded schooner or hay-boat, and also smell money in the pocket, besides.

Here are the Worden House, the New England Hotel, Held's Hotel, and others—all deserving custom, and getting it. Supercilious youths, at the new Delmonico's,2 or the huge pale-faced Fifth avenue, will, of course, turn up their noses at restauration and a night's repose in the Bowery, near Bayard street. But what do you care, you full-blooded samples from the rural districts, and from marine bays and sounds, as you eat your hearty dinner or supper, or, early retiring, sleep without demur, having deposited a well-stuffed pocket-book in the safe in the office, or haply under your pillow?

Yet the complexion of this part of the Bowery is not invariably that of conscious innocence. Nay, it must be said that the pocket-books just alluded to sometimes go home shorn of their good proportions by methods that are not pastoral, nor related to poultry or pork.


From Bayard street up to Canal, we, by the exercise of our perceptives, make discovery of a number of young and middle-aged gentlemen out of that class to which an expressive art of nomenclature, (by no means the least of the fine arts) flourishing wild among young fellows in New York, has adopted and affixed the name of the Sports. These adjoining public-houses and basement saloons are off and on sprinkled with them—not so full as they used to be years ago, for the war has drawn off many of them, best and worst; but I notice some handsome fellows left standing, about with cigars in their mouths.

Here is the Branch. Here is the Bowery Theatre, whereof we will have more to say in our next.3 Here used to be on this block, a little realm, full of little potentates from the stage of the theatre, the saw-dust of the circus, and the arena of the professionally trained fighting-man. Here, winter after winter, were Levi North, Hiram Franklin, Melville and Macfarland, to be daily seen. Here Tom Hamblin reigned, and John R. Scott and fat Tom Flynn, and funny Gates.


Whoever was present at the Branch, or indeed anywhere in the lower part of the Bowery the night after the famous pugilistic victory, thirteen years ago, won by Tom Hyer over Yankee Sullivan, saw what a culmination and torrid heat of enthusiasm the east side of the town could be capable of.4 Hyer was a young butcher, who represented the prowess of the markets, the dock, Columbia street and the Bowery, all combined. The fellows, the firemen, &c., made his cause a personal one, and when he came back toward the close of the day triumphant, and it was known that his headquarters were at the Branch, and that he himself was or would be then and there present, of course that row adjacent to the Bowery Theatre was besieged, jammed all night with clustered crowds, as by bees migrating and hiving. It proved a matter of life and death then to get inside through the doors of the Branch, or to get out either. I suppose no hero ever received more of an ovation, genuine or characteristic, than Tom did at the Branch that night.


The public houses along here used to be filled winters with the circus-men, showmen, &c. You will see a few driblets of such remaining; but the former and peculiar glories of the neighborhood of the Branch seem to have taken to themselves wings. I saw, last Monday, as I walked by, that the place itself had moved and hung out its shingle two or three doors further off.


I think the Bowery, this section of it, is the birthplace, and was for a long time the chosen and favorite ground, of the Sports of New York. Here they held their revels, even the first class ones; here they reigned supreme. But it is in the fortunes and localities of Sports as it is with nations. This quarter may be called the Spain, or perhaps the Poland, of Sportdom. Other powers, new ones, have come up, and on other territories, have outstript it. Now the first class Sports are to be found, as is well-known to whom it may concern, on Broadway, between Grand and Bleecker streets.

But let not the Bowery despair, nor the range between Bayard and Canal streets. Fashions of all kinds ebb and flow, with unaccountable caprice. Some time, perhaps soon, the curious eddies may whirl back right in the direction of that old neighborhood again. For Spain is coming up; her old glory seems renewed, and to glint brightly. (But what dare I say for Poland?)

I shall speak of the Bowery Theatre next week, and then ramble farther on.



1. The Bowery was at this time considered a lower-class theater district made infamous by prostitution and other pleasures that could be found on its streets. Though some pejoratively associated Whitman with the unrefined Bowery, Whitman celebrated its working class and sexualized image. For more on Whitman's association with the Bowery, see Kenneth M. Price, To Walt Whitman, America. [back]

2. Delmonico's, which opened in 1837, became the country's first four-star restaurant and a gathering place for the rich and famous. It closed in 1899. [back]

3. The Bowery Theatre was the largest theater in the country when it opened in 1826. Initially considered sophisticated, it quickly became known as a popular theater only, largely due to its Bowery location. It underwent several name changes—Bull's Head Theatre, New York Theatre, Bowery Theatre, American Theatre—and burned down six times, the last in 1929, after which it was not rebuilt. [back]

4. The 1849 fight between Tom Hyer and James "Yankee" Sullivan received widespread national attention and highlighted ethnic tensions. Hyer, American-born, knocked out the Irish Sullivan in under twenty minutes. [back]

5. "Velsor Brush" was Whitman's pseudonym for a series of articles entitled "City Photographs," which he published in the New York Leader. The name was a combination of his mother's maiden name (Louisa Van Velsor) and grandmother's maiden name (Hannah Brush). For a discussion of the possible artistic implications of the name Brush, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 25–26. [back]


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