This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
Shopkeepers across the Bowery tracked its progress: 42 stories, 43, and finally 44. Pedestrians on Canal Street craned their necks up to take in the expanse of brick that stretched across the slow curve of its facade.
Such towers were nothing new in New York City by then, but there was nothing like Confucius Plaza in Chinatown when it was finished in 1976, and there still isn’t. And like the 80-story luxury high-rise now under construction a few blocks away on the Lower East Side, Chinatown’s first skyscraper was not without controversy.
The massive housing block presides over the messy confluence of the Bowery, Canal Street, and the Manhattan Bridge. At 433 feet tall, the building dwarfs the low-slung tenements that surround it, and contains 762 apartments, a public school, a daycare facility, community spaces, and numerous shops.
For locals, the tower’s size matches its significance in the history of Chinatown. Confucius Plaza was the first large development built with public subsidies specifically for the Chinese-American community in the city, and the product of years of organizing in the neighborhood.
The noble goals and grassroots campaigning that spurred the construction of the tower are all but absent from the earlier history of the plot of land it came to occupy. Before then, the primary motors of development on the four city blocks where the building now stands were caprice, necessity, and vice—punctuated by at least one other grandiose architectural vision. From Dutch farmland to immigrant entertainment district to the shoulder of Skid Row, the land under Confucius Plaza has experienced vicissitudes as extreme as any other corner of Manhattan, and its fate has always been linked inextricably to the Bowery, the city’s oldest thoroughfare.
Even back then, the site where Confucius Plaza now stands was a place of some note. The building is bound by the Bowery to the west, the Manhattan Bridge to the northeast, and Division Street to the southeast. Chatham Square stands at the intersection of Division and the Bowery, but in the early colonial period it was a hill frequented by natives as a hunting lookout and by Europeans for picnics.
By the 1620s, the Dutch had permitted freed African slaves to settle on the hill—a decision motivated seemingly by as much self-interest as anything else. The livestock farm they established there and other neighboring villages like it served both to feed the growing number of colonists on lower Manhattan and to shield Fort Amsterdam from native tribes. The old Wickquasgeck Trail connected the city to the settlements, and became known as Bouwerij Road, in reference to these small rural communities.
By the 1630s, according to Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes’ famous record of early Manhattan published in the 1910s and 1920s, the Confucius Plaza land was part of a farm owned by Claes Cornelissen Swits. Swits apparently bought the land in Amsterdam in January 1630 from one Wolphert Gerritsen, and held it until his untimely death near Turtle Bay in 1641 at the hands of a member of the Wickquasgeck Tribe (“As his father had been,” the text notes). Swits’ son Cornelis inherited the land and went on to sell it to William Beekman in March of 1653, who himself would sell the land off in 1668.
As the property changed hands, the importance of the Bowery grew. By the end of the seventeenth century, the old trail had been incorporated into the Boston Post Road—a vital link to neighboring colonies. Chatham Square came to host stables for postal carriers and stores offering travelers from the north their first chance to buy goods since Harlem.
By the 1740s, the Confucius Plaza site had come into the possession of James DeLancey, who kept a farm there, as conveyance records archived at the City’s Department of Finance show. DeLancey was the son of a powerful New York politician and one of the richest men in the colony. His 339-acre estate stretched from the Bowery to the East River, and from present-day Division Street up to Houston. In the 1760s, DeLancey began putting down streets in the southwestern corner of his estate where Confucius Plaza now stands, and to rent out parcels.
The Revolutionary War spelled the end of DeLancey’s prosperity in New York, however. According to Eric Homberger’s Historical Atlas of New York City, DeLancey was one of some 100,000 New Yorkers who remained loyal to the British crown and were forced into exile with the victory of American forces. On November 25, 1783, British troops marched down the Bowery, bound for the Whitehall Street docks, and left the city forever. General George Washington followed them down the old Wickquasgeck Trail soon thereafter on a triumphant procession into the city. James DeLancey lost his large Manhattan estate and lived out the rest of his life in Europe.
Americans were all too eager to make use of his property. Conveyance records show that New York’s Commissioners of Forfeiture began selling off the Confucius Plaza land in 1784. By the early 1800s, the area had developed into a fashionable, well-heeled district, and Chatham Square was one of its commercial centers.
This era of gentility would not last long, however, as the neighborhood soon also became a hub of nightlife and entertainment in the city. The Bowery came to host countless theaters, large and small, with programs ranging from Shakespeare to minstrel shows. Audiences skewed increasingly working class as the 19th century progressed, reflecting the development of the Lower East Side into a residential district for laborers employed in the manufacturing concerns across the Bowery in SoHo.
One building that stood on the site of present-day Confucius Plaza encapsulates the neighborhood’s evolution in this period. In 1833, the Zoological Institute and Reading Room opened at 37 Bowery between Bayard and Canal Streets—one of the first menageries in the United States. The large facility hosted a panoply of animals foreign to the crowds of New Yorkers that came to gawk at them. A pamphlet written by the Institute’s manager in 1837 notes that admission cost 50 cents for adults and 25 for kids, and lists the variety of creatures on display: lions, bears, vultures, rhinoceros, monkeys, and even an elephant. The manager was particularly impressed with this last creature (“In point of sagacity, he is known to exceed every other animal, and very nearly approaches to human reason”) but decidedly less so with the resident wildebeest (“Nature though regular and systematic in all her works, often puzzles and perplexes human systems, of which this animal affords an instance”).
The Institute was a hit, though not without the occasional accident. In January of 1842, an article in the Hampshire Gazette reported that a chained but cage-free leopard had clamped its jaw around the head of a four-year-old girl, and only relented when “the shrieks of those around brought one of the keepers,” who managed to pry the girl loose. That December, the New York Daily Tribune recounted a chastening day at work for Institute employee Charles Howe, who received a swift blow to the chest from the elephant’s trunk after pricking the animal with his pitchfork. “Mr. Howe was unable for some hours to speak and great fears were entertained for his recovery.”
In 1854, after a series of changes to its name and program, the facility came to host the New York Stadt Theater, the preeminent performance venue catering to the Lower East Side’s burgeoning community of German immigrants. Kleindeutschland—or “Little Germany,” as their corner of Manhattan came to be called—began expanding rapidly in the mid-1840s and would come to contain the third largest urban population of Germans in the world by 1855, after only Berlin and Vienna. These immigrants stuck close to their regional loyalties in Manhattan, and Prussians, who made up roughly one third of Germans in the city by the 1880s, clustered primarily in the island’s old tenth ward, which included the site of Confucius Plaza.
The Bowery formed the western frontier of Kleindeutschland, and the New York Stadt Theater at 37 Bowery was the community’s peripheral outpost for German opera, musicals, and plays. In his book on the city’s German theater scene, musicologist John Koegel writes that the venue hosted some 250 to 300 performances each year—so many that a prompter was required to sit near the stage with a script in the not infrequent case of a performer forgetting a line. The prolific schedule featured a number of famous actors, singers, and productions, including Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser on April 4, 1859—the first performance of one the composer’s operas in the United States.
For some, the chief attraction on the Stadt Theater’s block was the neighboring Volksgarten beer and dance hall. In December 1858, a reporter for the New York Times detailed his visit to the Volksgarten in an article on “How the Mass of our People Amuse themselves.” He was generally pleased with the outing, having seen “no single instance of ribaldry or impertinence.” Entrance cost 10 cents, he reported, and additional small sums could buy beer from waiters or cakes and Brezeln from neighborhood boys. The male clientele seemed mostly working class, he wrote, and “the women were rather homely in point of attractions.”
Beer halls like the Volksgarten likely saw heavy traffic on April 10, 1871, when residents of Kleindeutschland took to the streets to celebrate the end of the Franco-Prussian War. A reporter for the New York Times was on hand at the giant parade that coursed through the neighborhood, deeming it “the most imposing, without exception, ever displayed to the witness of pageants in this metropolis.” The revelry included no small amount of drinking, requiring the breweries of Staten Island to work overtime to meet demand. “At one of the Bowery Gartens nearly 15 kegs of lager had been consumed at eight o’clock yesterday morning,” the reporter noted.
But the character of the neighborhood was ever in flux, and by the 1870s immigrants from points farther east in Europe had diluted New York’s German community. The neighborhood changed in kind, and the New York Stadt Theater was no exception. T. Allston Brown’s 1903 history of the city’s performance venues records that the building became the City Theater and then the Windsor Theater in 1878, and later, in 1893, a theater catering to Jewish audiences.
By 1897, however, the building had become a religious mission, reflecting once again the shifting character of the district. The explosion of nightlife in the area had brought vice along with it, and by the 1890s the Bowery and its environs were filled with gambling halls, opium dens, brothels, and saloons where gangsters held court. Prostitution became a fixture on the old Wickquasgeck Trail, and sexual subcultures verboten in the rest of the city flourished in the dark corners of the neighborhood.
The densely packed district was a magnet for the devastating urban diseases of the 19th century too. An 1899 map commissioned by the city’s branch of the Charity Organization Society shows that, between 1895 and 1899, more than 80 cases of tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, or typhoid fever had struck the more than 6,000 New Yorkers crammed onto the four blocks where Confucius Plaza now stands. The tenement house at 5 Chrystie Street alone reported three cases of tuberculosis and two of diphtheria.
In the 1870s, the elevated Third Avenue train rose over the Bowery, the shadow it cast adding greatly to the street’s seedy reputation. The train line wasn’t the only major incursion into the neighborhood around that time. While the el sliced down the Bowery, the Manhattan Bridge, which opened in 1909, smashed into the street from the east, uprooting many thousands in its way. Among the displaced were the residents of the two northernmost blocks where Confucius Plaza now stands. More than 1,000 families who lived there were forced to make way for the Bridge’s decorative entryway.
The swooping granite arch and colonnade that still stand there today (and which the parabolic shape of the Confucius Plaza tower echoes) was the work of the architectural firm Carrère and Hastings. An article in the Christian Science Monitor from 1915 praises their design for its green open spaces that then framed the entry plaza, turning “a section of East Side, in one of its most squalid parts, into a veritable park.” The project was the earliest but not the only monumental gesture to necessitate wholesale demolition on the plot of land, as Confucius Plaza itself would require two more blocks to be razed some decades later.
These spectacular interventions into the cityscape could not save the neighborhood from its sharp decline, however, and by the 1930s the Bowery had become the city’s skid row, where thousands of homeless slept in religious missions or out on the sidewalks.
Not long after this nadir, came the earliest signs of neighborhood gentrification. Artists and students began creeping east out of Greenwich Village in the 1950s, lured by the Lower East Side’s large and cheap spaces for rent. The demolition of the elevated train line in 1957 accelerated this change, but credit for the neighborhood’s revival is due in large part to its blossoming Chinese-American population.
Much like poor European immigrants before them, the neighborhood’s newest residents often ended up in cramped and squalid housing. From his perch behind the counter of the Chinatown Ten Cent Store on the Bowery at Division Street, Kumshui Stephen Law was all too familiar with the austere lives of his neighbors. So Law began to advocate for affordable and humane housing to be built in the neighborhood, as a 2007 article on AsianWeek recounts, first with small texts in Chinese-language newspapers, then through local civic organizations like the Association for Chinatown Housing and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. It took many years, but by the early 1970s Law and his associates had secured public support through New York state’s Mitchell-Lama Housing Program for the construction of hundreds of new units of affordable housing for neighborhood residents: Confucius Plaza.
Organizing efforts did not end there, however, as the construction of the massive tower introduced new injustices to the neighborhood. None of the one hundred or so Asian Americans who had applied to work on the construction site was offered a job, which led to allegations of discriminatory hiring practices. In response, as legal scholar Karen M. Tani notes in an essay on Asian American political organizing, a group of local leftist activists founded the Asian Americans for Equal Employment—today called Asian Americans for Equality—to challenge the developer’s employment standards.
After the city refused to intervene, the group began mobilizing neighbors, handing out leaflets and staging small rallies at the construction site. These protests gained steam as word in the neighborhood spread and more and more people began turning out for events. The demonstrations reached a high point in May of 1974. Seven were arrested at one protest, which the Daily News covered with a front-page story. The demonstrations came to attract increasingly diverse crowds, including school children, pensioners, and other minority activist groups from around the city. Garment shops closed so that workers could picket, and restaurants offered free meals to protesters. Participants carried signs; one read, “The Asians built the Railroad – Why Not Confucius Plaza?”
The demonstrations lasted six months, as the Asian Americans For Equality website notes, after which the developer yielded to the organizers’ demands. Twelve Asian American journeymen were hired for the job, as well as 27 trainees. They helped finish building Confucius Plaza in 1976, concluding more than three centuries of perpetual change on the five acres of land—at least for the time being.