Last of the old Bowery bars
Milano's Bar is the last of the old Bowery bars that dominated the area for much of the twentieth century. Originally an Italian cafe that opened in 1923, Milano's gradually became an important place for Bowery men. The Bowery was once New York City's most notorious Skid Row for down and out homeless men. It was serviced by three main institutions: flophouses, charitable missions, and bars. While Milano's provided a place for the men to socialize, cash their government checks, and learn about temporary job opportunities, it was also most significantly a place where their addictions were on full display. Still, the people of Milano's took care of the old-timers and developed genuine relationships with them. As the neighborhood began to change, many of the flophouses and all of the old bars on the Bowery closed, except for Milano's, which continues to serve a few remaining Bowery men. It also has developed a considerable regular population of people who moved into the neighborhood during the 1980s and 1990s, as well as people who travel from outside of the neighborhood to congregate with its community of regulars. It is also a nightspot for people from around the city who visit the neighborhood on weekends. The bar, then, is a perfect legacy of several transformations that have occurred on Lower Manhattan during the twentieth century and leading up to today.
The bar is a perfect example of "cumulative culture." I have described it as a palimpsest, or like a historical document that bears the imprints of past uses. The bar has layers of history on its walls in the form of old pictures of the patrons and the neighborhood, including many depicting old Bowery life. The bar is also festooned with many knickknacks from the past, most of which have lost their exact stories. But collectively they tell the story of the bar and its place in the city.
Bars have always been important neighborhood institutions in New York City. You can trace the history of a neighborhood through a look at its local bar. Milano's is still a place that resembles a neighborhood bar. It is a place for conversation, laughter, and the exchange of ideas. It truly is the type of place that is becoming rarer in the city, especially in Manhattan.
However, I think Milano's is in a great position to stay open for a long time. The bar got a new owner three years ago. He is a longtime resident of the neighborhood and owns multiple establishments. He is a big neighborhood preservationist and intends to keep the bar as it is. (Nov. 2009)