Bend it like Bedlam
In the heart of Chinatown beats a crooked little street with a storied past
by Sarah Nicole Prickett photography Alex John Beck
Once there was blood here; once alcohol, prohibited; once gangs and dens of various drugs and death. Now Doyers Street feels mostly hungover. The foot traffic moves quieter here than anywhere else in Chinatown, hindered perhaps by the inexplicable dropped-hairpin curve. Because of that curve, too, there's always somewhere to hide from the light. There is a grimness to those shadows. Shufflers along this small demented block — often tourists uselessly holding maps, or near-locals looking for that noodle place — seem lost or dazed, as though unpiled here from a black and plateless minivan.
It feels like the sum of great mistakes.
In ways it was. Named for the Dutchman whose distillery ruled the block at the end of the 1700s, Hendrik Doyer, it was Doyer's until, scores later, a pococurante sign painter let slip the apostrophe and made its name Doyers. The apostrophe remains, at least, in the street's confounding shape. “It is a crazy street and there has never been any excuse for it,” wrote Herbert Asbury in The American Mercury, in June 1926; plus, “it resembles one of those mean byways in what the A.E.F. used to call the 'foreign sections' of French cities.”
“It is a crazy street and there has never been any excuse for it... ”
Well, Doyers made its own excuses, and was one of the meanest streets in all Manhattan history. The “nerve center” of Chinatown, as Asbury called it, was home to exclusively, isolated Chinese immigrants — 2,000 of them in a four-block radius by 1882, when America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act — and thus the city's first Chinese-language theatre, operable from 1893 to 1911. In 1903, the theatre was the site of a fundraiser for the victims of a Jewish massacre in Kishinev, a beautiful gesture extended to one oppressed group of people from another. Only two years later, it was the site of gang-shooting horror. Members of the Hip Sing Tong (which has the sound of a Chinese Glee Club, but like, with murder and drugs) opened fire on their rivals, the On Leong Tong, killing three. The cause? An On Leong comedian, made a joke they did not find funny. It was the bloodiest tong war ever to go down in Chinatown.
There were more shootings between the two gangs, more gamblings and murders and more noir-steez mysteries, all the way through the 1930s. The midpoint of Doyers was then known as the “Bloody Angle,” because there you could hatchet a done-wrong man to bits and not be seen by passersby on either Pell Street (where Doyers begins) or Bowery (where it ends). Also, you could lie waiting on the rooftops and shoot with dead-on balls accuracy. There were bodies without names, there were tenement houses without laws, there were music halls without music.
And there were irregular terrified attempts by lawmakers and law-enforcers alike to root out the vice, even if (or especially because) much of that “vice” was merely being, you know, not white. “New York's Chinatown will not be fully known until the wreckers raze the old tenements and open their cellars to the sunlight,” wrote a determined New York Times article in 1907, days after the city approved demolition to make way for a park off Bowery. Said Park was never built; the fear that seemed to necessitate the park's building flourished on.
At 6 Doyers, where Irving Berlin entertained at the Chatham Club, and where white conman Chuck Connors reigned as “Mayor of Chinatown,” there's now a hideous rectangular post office.
“The mysteries of the quarter find an explanation in the habits of Chinamen,” went the article. “They live huddled together in ill-smelling, unventilated, and unsanitary quarters that are inconceivable to the average American.” There was more, and worse; really, the only nice thing the New York Times had to say about Doyers was that it was “picturesque.”
Chinese immigrants are just as average as any other Americans, and Doyers now is practically as picturesque and boring as any Levittown. Where there were knives now are scissors, as a slew of barber shops compete to provide $10 haircuts, and where there was heroin now is Ting's, a 50-year-old delightful tiny gift shop. Where the Chinese theatre stood is now CoCo Fashion, a cheap and sick-bright boutique stocked with imports. Where there were tenements now are noodle shops. At 6 Doyers, where Irving Berlin entertained at the Chatham Club, and where white conman Chuck Connors reigned as “Mayor of Chinatown,” there's now a hideous rectangular post office. Underground, in dirty tunnels through which mobsters once escaped post-deeds, there are now agencies for travel and employment, silty with the slow decline of both.
But where there was the Nom Wah dim sum and tea parlour, there is still the Nom Wah dim sum and tea parlour. It's been restored to permanence by Wilson Tang, an affable 30-year-old from the neighborhood, who knows his Chinatown history from all angles. Tang is neither the first nor the last of the local business owners to explain that everything changed after 9/11, that when nearby offices closed in the aftershocks, they lost a lot of that rush-hour foot traffic. Concurrently, rents went up. The Nom Wah will be fine, he assures, but how many beauty salons can one faded block support?
The original immigrants have been slowly succeeded by a newer wave, from another province in China, and some of the older immigrants — like a gentle man who sits and smokes all morning outside the salon — say the newer immigrants work harder, make more money. They say this matter-of-factly and without resentment. There will be no more turf wars, at least not between Chinese.
If some of the salons close, perhaps Doyers will be populated with more white-owned places, like Apotheke, the lush and spendy novelty cocktail bar. It pulls ungently on the secret history of Doyers, rebuilding the heady buzz of illicitness, but for white people who have nothing to hide except ignorance. We go there, Alex (the photographer) and I, on an unchilly Thursday night. He buys me a $14 “health” cocktail.
Inside, a 30-something wasted woman from New Jersey reads our energies, tells us we're a beautiful couple (we're not a couple). Outside, a suspiciously friendly white guy tells us he can help us have a good time, which is how we know he's a drug dealer.
It's after midnight and the heavily medicated crowd is spilling outside to smoke and now where there were Chinese lanterns there are flashing cop cars, rolling in one after another, four of them. On a road that's mostly bend it feels like something is always about to happen, and now perhaps it has.
Eventually one of the officers explains they were called by a resident. Vice here is now an annoying white thing, and the Chinese denizens, it seems, have had enough for the night. The Apotheke staffers attempt to shoo patrons back inside the bar; some of them go down into Pulqueria, the newish Mexican speakeasy-type place, instead. The policemen loiter. Their lights make the Bloody Angle red again. A few oldsters stroll mutteringly, smoking their own cigarettes, waiting impatiently for cops to clear up the new mysteries of this quarter.