Aug 1, 2016
Chatting with The Bowery Boys on NYC History, Podcasts and More
Last month, Tom Meyers and Greg Young, aka The Bowery Boys, published their first book, Adventures in Old New York: An Unconventional Exploration of Manhattan’s Historic Neighborhoods, Secret Spots, and Colorful Characters. Loosely based on their popular podcast—without the accompaniment of which it long ago became impossible in our household to wash the dishes or sweep the floors—the book offers a rich assortment of stories about the city’s always-disappearing past and the many visible signs of it that remain, though often hiding in plain sight or just out of a view. On a warm afternoon in July, we met up with the Bowery Boys in Battery Park, just steps from where the original fort of New Amsterdam stood, where New York City’s history began, to chat about the podcast, the book, and the relationship between this famously forward-thinking city and the history it seems at once to remember, forget, and repeat. Their witty, fast-paced banter, which makes the podcast so appealing, was even more engaging when encountered in real life.
– Richard Kreitner and Brahna Siegelberg
Brooklyn Magazine: How did you become interested in New York City history?
Tom Meyers: We both moved to New York in the same year, 1993. I came for college and Greg came from college.
Greg Young: I was a journalism major at the University of Missouri, Columbia, living with his sister. I had had an internship at Entertainment Weekly in 1992, so I came here to be a journalist. I lived at 23rd and Park. For a long time I lived with his sister at that apartment.
TM:After graduation I moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side, at Essex and Canal, and stayed there for 19 years, until last year. It was in that apartment in June 2007 that Greg opened up his laptop and showed me a new program called GarageBand that could make podcasts. And I was like, “What’s a podcast?”
GY:The world recommended New York City history as our subject. I was a big history buff already, and Tom was also. We had a bunch of New York history books on our shelves. Because we lived right on Canal Street, we decided to make our first show about Canal Street. That set us on the course.
TM:We called the first episode “New York ‘Cast,” with the optional apostrophe. That was the first wave of podcasting, and they all had “cast” at the end of them. I bought Podcasting for Dummies like a week later and it turned out we made every mistake in the book at the beginning. We were still recording, drinking and editing all in one evening—which is kind of sloppy. But somebody, bless their heart, at iTunes liked the show and they featured us on the homepage.
GM: At that point we were doing something somewhat competent in a universe where nobody was really doing much of anything. Podcasts back then were almost like personal journals. Places like Slate were just dipping their toes in.
BM: How many listeners does the show have?
TM: Each show typically gets between 70,000-100,000 downloads. Some go well over that, if they’re a big hit. We did one on the murder of Stanford White last summer that for whatever reason had what you might call “crossover appeal.” In 2013, we got featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, and that gave us a big bump. Then Serial happened. Suddenly podcast listenership on the whole rose dramatically.
GM:Luckily we had really upped our game quite a lot by that time. Our shows were longer, deeper, the format was pretty set in stone. I did solo shows. We did mini series on special topics.
TM:Then last year Ulysses Press came to us and said we should do a book, a sort of part-history, part-travel guide based on the show, but we could do whatever we wanted.
BM: How much of the book comes from your notes for previous shows?
GY:The book is from every aspect of the living Bowery Boys universe—all the podcasts, the blog posts, and a lot of it is material we collected along the way. Places we knew about.
TM:It took us a while to come up with a formula for the book. But it’s twenty-five chapters on twenty-five neighborhoods, from the tip to the top, and each chapter is divided into an article based on a podcast. Then there are 20-25 points of interest, and that’s our take on a travel book—like a time-travel book. We had fun with that. Greg actually walked the entire city and laid out the first draft. It was a challenge to make it sound like us—to make the conversation nature of the podcast come alive on the page. How do you do that? We didn’t know what the answer was. Hopefully we have the tone without specifically attributing something to each of us.
BM: What kind of work goes into an episode? You show so little of your work. It feels organic.
GY:That’s right. We take all this information and sort of grind it up and it comes out in unrecognizable form.
TM:Like sausage. Usually we come up with a topic a few shows in advance. Greg makes up an outline, and each show has four sections with a commercial break in the middle.
GY:We both know the general history, of course. But Tom focuses on specific questions to dig deeper on certain aspects of the history. I think that’s the most interesting part of what we do, finding weird quotes or strange anecdotes or obscure newspaper articles. If you’re focusing on one particular thing, you latch onto those items. When we come together to record, we don’t know what the other person has researched.
TM:We don’t rehearse and we don’t script. But this brings up the question of tone. We decided right from the beginning not to be bitchy or mean-spirited or snarky about anything. There’s so much snarky media that we thought we could actually be a little different by being good-spirited.
GY:I didn’t want us to be a morning talk-show. I wanted to downplay that. To be honest, because we’re both gay males, when we first started the show, we got a lot of anti-gay commentary. We had a few bad iTunes reviews. We clamped down, though we have let our freak flag fly a bit. Even in our buttoned-up manner, we’ve had people claim that we’ve gotten too political.
TM:We’ve realized it’s best to stay away from politics in general. It’s easy in a city like this to go with the flow and make assumptions about who you’re talking to and what their beliefs might be. A subject like history has a very diverse following. In a way it’s been good for us, because it’s brought us to a lot of people we wouldn’t otherwise get to know, or who wouldn’t otherwise get to know us.
GY:A few years ago we got a letter from this truck-driver in Louisiana, saying, “I’m as straight as it comes but I still like listening to you while I drive my truck around in Louisiana.” That was one of the many realizations that our voices were getting out there in a bigger way than we’d imagined.
BM: What do you think of New York City’s relationship to history? It’s a city that’s constantly changing…
GY:Compare it to the center of Paris, which is a museum in itself. It has movable parts, but far fewer, than New York. New York has certain historical districts, but those tend to be interlocking around areas of massive development. It’s always been that way.
TM:I have to disagree. In the 1850s in Paris you had Baron von Haussmann, the Robert Moses of Paris, plowing these massive boulevards through medieval neighborhoods and basically destroying the center of the city, remaking it in this belle époque style he found attractive and we find beautiful. But that was some heavy-handed shit! It wiped out a millennia of history. Now of course it’s still preserved. Our friends who are French complain about Paris being vacuum-sealed. They can’t live and breathe and grow in the same way that New York always has. Here, we have the skyscraper next to the belle époque building next to this and that. It’s a different mentality.
GY:New York City is still primarily driven by development and change. Even with all the laws in place for preservation, it’s still an uphill struggle. Then there’s the meta question: should we who love the historical fabric of New York win every battle? That would create a different kind of city. Right now is a troubling time, with a lot of development that’s turning the city into another place than it has been—something brand new.
BM: Do you consider the book to be an effort to tell the people in those new buildings about New York’s history?
TM:I hope so. It’s a way of fighting back a little a bit. We are trying to keep things interesting. We want to spread some appreciation for the more complex fabric of the city.
GY:That’s why it has this hybrid guidebook-history quality. We want people to use it however they want, but it’s not merely for reading in an isolated place and putting it back on the shelf. We want people to use it to see that every single block has some evidence of the history that made the city great, and that’s why you’re probably here.
TM:Consider neighborhoods like the Lowest East Side and Chinatown, where we both lived for almost two decades. That area probably fed an appreciation for the city’s history. We became aware of our role in the history of that neighborhood and to an extent the city. We came in in the late 1990s aware of the fact that those neighborhoods were changing. But it’s already reflected so many different eras in the city’s history: it was Delancey’s farm, it was the cheapest lodging around, it was where the first wave of immigrants moved to, it’s all been there. It struggled for a number of decades, and now it’s been gentrified. Now we have Hell Square, between Delancey and Houston and Allen and Essex.
BM: Hell Square?
GY:It’s a derogatory name for all the bars and restaurants that opened basically in the past ten years…
TM:It only exists late at night on Friday and Saturday nights…
GY:During the day it’s fine. It’s at night when the air gets a little…how to put it? We put a blurb on it in the book. There’s almost no significant history preserved there, with the exception of Katz’s Deli on the northern end. But we wanted to point out that even here, even in Hell Square, which is all expensive cocktail bars and small-plate restaurants, there’s still this and there’s still that. There’s this amazing relic of an old synagogue that sits right next to the corner where the cover of the Beastie Boys album, Paul’s Boutique, was shot. So it’s like, wow! These things have resided next to each other for decades.
TM:In that entry we do exhibit a touch of snark, while acknowledging it’s easy to be snarky about this city. But we can stop for a second and appreciate that even in this place that we can dismiss as stilettos breaking at 1am and frat boys puking, even in this neighborhood, we can tone it down and pull back and see the mural on the wall of the old Jewish fabric shop next to some old mom-and-pop restaurant. I think that probably tells us where we are today in the city. That’s where we live. That’s what we love.
Photos courtesy of Benjamin Stone Photography
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