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Public Characters: Brenda Coultas and Investigative Poetics on the Bowery

Brenda Coultas’ The Bowery Project

Taped into a small notebook are photos of vacant lots on First Street and Second Avenue. Elsewhere there is a photo of flowers and graffiti for Joey Ramone outside the former site of CBGB, on Bleecker and Bowery. Gathered together, these pieces of ephemera constitute contemporary poet Brenda Coultas’ The Bowery Project (published in the Leroy Chapbook Series in 2003 and re-printed in her book A Handmade Museum). As she describes it, The Bowery Project is “centered on documenting and reacting to the layers of debris… that layer the streets of the Bowery in NYC.”

As essayist Susan Briante describes, Coultas “writes the city from surface to detritus, from I to we… [Coultas] is both native of the neighborhood, and yet has a different relationship to it than the indigent people with whom the neighborhood is so frequently identified. Instead of resorting to the language of urban development, Coultas uses an ethnographic model to generate her own documents, her own archive.”

The project, already local in scale, narrows its focus to the section of the Bowery between Cooper Union and Houston Street, where Coultas resides. At the time of her writing, many historic buildings of the Bowery had been, or were slated to be, demolished: Coultas laments the “extinction” of “the artist coop… that used to be McGurk’s Suicide Hall (named so because prostitutes flung themselves out the windows in a symbolic protest of their working conditions), the Sunshine Hotel, and various soup kitchens…”

The Bowery, 1960 (Arthur Brower)

Manhattan’s oldest thoroughfare, the Bowery was originally a Lenape footpath that spanned roughly the entire island from North to South. The name derives from the Dutch word Bouwerij, or “farm,” since the path originally divided two colonial farms. The Dutch governor of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant, held domain over the Bowery, which connected farmlands beyond the bounds of the city to today’s Wall Street and Battery Park neighborhoods. Of course the land still bears traces of this history (including the plot on which Village Preservation’s office in the rectory of St. Marks’ Church-in-the-Bowery stands today.) Coultas herself, incidentally, comes from rural Indiana, joking in an interview post-publication that “I didn’t realize until a few weeks ago that I was still writing a ‘farm poem’…”

The Bowery, 1831 (New York Public Library)

Needless to say, the Bowery looks a lot different today – “sprout[ing] luminous towers with multimillion-dollar condos,” as writer Joseph Berger described. But between the Bowery’s pastoral origins and its gentrified present life are far more layers of history than meets the eye. “It would not take an archaeologist,” writes Berger, “to find traces of [the Bowery’s] time as the definitive boulevard of broken dreams, lined with flophouses and evangelizing missions that catered to boozed-up Bowery Bums.” Poet Fanny Howe, in her autobiographical essay “On the Bowery,” describes it as a “place of personal failure… there was an elevated train that darkened Cooper Square and, farther down Houston Street, some artists’ lofts with enormous battered elevators were in use.” The El, at this time, she writes, had been torn down; “shattering light on the stone…women and men… kick, laugh, dance, run in front of cars…”

“A lot of people came here all at once,” writes Coultas, “[and] this is how and why my tenement exists.” In the poem Tenement Tour, acknowledging her own place in the economic development of the neighborhood, Coultas describes opening up her Bowery apartment (a former tenement), to tourists:

“I wanted everyone to see how we lived and I had my own questions. Were we identical to other husbands and wives, to the other couples stacked above and beside us?…

Had to tell the tourists that tenement life was much better these days, we were nearly middle class and that only 2 people lived in these 4 rooms. That poor people couldn’t live in them anymore…Tenements are now expensive and the truly poor live in a worse kind of projects or in Queens while hobos and bums live in Rockaway beach…

So we wrote script, recorded it, and customers listened as they toured each room.”

Coultas traces her lineage to the second-generation New York School poets, who congregated and published around the East Village. She was inspired by the work of Bernadette Mayer, former director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. In particular, Coultas notes Mayer’s “Memory,” an expansive work that investigates and documents daily life in the East Village and the surrounding areas.

Coultas’ street-level study of the Bowery owes something as well, she says, to the work of Luc Sante, author of the 1991 book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. “The inhabitants of the city,” he wrote, “are the custodians of a history of which they are seldom consciously aware. How else explain, for example, that the Bowery retains in its name a faint odor of honky-tonk and barrelhouse that it has not deserved since roughly 1914?”

The noted preservationist Jane Jacobs figures as an influence here as well. Jacob’s idea of a “‘public character,’ the person who serves as the eyes on the street,” inspired Coultas to become “a public character on the Bowery.” Setting up shop on her block, Coultas put up a sign for passing strangers to write down their wishes and place them in a box, capturing the experiment in a three minute black and white film.

“Bowery Wishes”

“Sidewalk contacts,” as Jacobs writes in Death and Life, “… lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they appear… are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

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