Freemans Alley, one of the Lower East Side’s most prestigious and resilient street art destinations, is once again in the throes of change. And while street art continues to thrive on the dead-end alley, there are fears its popularity could also be its undoing.
A once forsaken piece of real estate with its entrance on Rivington between Chrystie and Bowery, Freemans Alley had a colorful history for more than 100 years before becoming a desirable destination for artists, art lovers, tourists, and now developers and even advertisers. Could commercialization threaten the character of a place that has been ruled by street artists for two decades?
“H&M checked into the Lower East Side…amidst the cobblestone backdrop of New York’s Freemans Alley.” – Vogue Magazine
An unmistakable signal that the alley has become attractive to big-bucks brands and others who would seek to profit from its artistic gravitas took place in June when H&M, the multinational clothing giant, hosted an event there. Here’s what Vogue Magazine had to say about it: “Last week, H&M checked into the Lower East Side…amidst the cobblestone backdrop of New York’s Freemans Alley.”
“Amongst the crowd were whisperings of anticipation and perhaps a bit of confusion on what the night had in store. I know this little alleyway and I thought that’s a cute little place… and this all turned out to be this crazy immersive experience,” the article continued. After that, a major fashion house wanted to use the alley for a runway show, but thankfully that plan never materialized.
And the other day, a guide was leading a group of tourists through the alley. “And this is Optimo, or Say No Sleep, you’ll see this character all over the city,” she was saying to the nods and um-hums of the visiting street art appreciators. Such visits, while welcome, are becoming more and more common.
Yes, the one-time site of bread-lines of hungry men and later heroin dealers and hookers has been a lively place of late.
Keeping street art flourishing for now at least is the well-known street artist Vewer who has been curating murals on the east wall of the alley
Keeping street art flourishing for now at least is the well-known street artist Vewer who has been curating murals on the east wall of the alley, calling it the Alleyry (Get it? It’s at once an alley and a gallery). Through an agreement with Mike’s Home Center, the building on the corner of Rivington and Chystie, Vewer has overseen several major collaborative mural installations and at least one exhibition of art on canvas.
Participants have included some of the biggest names in today’s NYC street art scene: 2ease, Dred, Belowkey, Degrupo, Abe, Eyesticker, Vers, ChrisRwk, Avery, Moody, Love Notes and more.
The Alleyry’s mission statement: “The Alleyry founded by artists for artists. Curating an ever changing collaborative effort to bridge the gap between graffiti and street art through pop-up exhibitions and rotating murals.”
“I’ve had the mural on Chrystie and Rivington the last two years, and the owner wanted me to paint the back when I was painting the corner mural,” Vewer told UP Magazine. “So I suggested I can curate it instead of painting it myself as an extension of my We Are One mural campaign that I’ve been painting the last three years promoting unity,” he said.
“It’ll just keep rotating, just like life.” – Vewer
Vewer directed artists, street art supporters and others to @thealleyry on Instagram to keep up with the project and to contact him. Meanwhile, he said, “it’ll just keep rotating just like life.”
But the curation of the east wall is just the latest change to come along since the opening of Freeman’s Restaurant at the alley’s terminus, which more than anything else focused public attention on the alley and made its walls much more attractive to artists. A hotel with a complex story of its own is using the alley for guest access, a satellite of Salon 94 Gallery operates as S94D in the alley and the windows of the preppy clothing store Rowing Blazers on RIvington are sometimes opened along the west wall.
Jimmy Wright is a renowned artist, the alley’s unofficial historian and its only resident at 1 Freemans Alley. He noted that the opening of the restaurant changed the alley from a haven for heroin dealers and hookers to a destination for well-healed diners almost overnight.
Wright – whose work is in the permanent collection of MOMA, the Whitney and other prestigious museums – recalls the alley in the 1980s when heroin dealers ran the place and the only street art was small tags by local teens. In 1983, he recalled, street art legend Richard Hambleton lived at 5 Rivington and painted one of his famous shadowmen in the alley. At the time, there was a three story mural overlooking the parking lot at 12 Rivington, he added.
Today, Wright told UP, property owners, developers and others are following the scent of money to this once forgotten and quiet bit of downtown real estate.
“Because of Freeman’s (Restaurant), they see commerce taking place in Freemans Alley.” Jimmy Wright
“Because of Freeman’s (Restaurant), they see commerce taking place in Freemans Alley. The hotel is now using the alley as an entrance and that combined with the restaurant brings a lot of middle class people in and out of the alley all day and all night. And that’s money,” he said.
This, of course, leads to the possibility that the alley’s commercial potential could be realized at the expense of its current street art portfolio. Something similar happened to Extra Place, the alleyway behind the old CBGBs, which is now home to a Momofuku restaurant and other upscale destinations.
“Permits have been filed for a nine-story mixed-use building at 183 Chrystie Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.”
“Permits have been filed for a nine-story mixed-use building at 183 Chrystie Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.” Seems like a typical notice posted last February by New York YIMBY, the pro-development real estate website.
The notice goes on to say that developers will build a 94-foot-tall building, with “26 residences, most likely condos based on the average unit scope of 1,834 square feet. The concrete-based structure will also have a cellar and a 30-foot-long rear yard.”
That last bit about the 30-foot-long rear yard could be very important to lovers of street art, since the back of 183 Chrystie is in Freemans Alley. No one knows for sure what the developer, the Omnia Group, plans to do about the alley, though there have been suggestions that they intend to keep the wall to give the development an art wash. This could be true; the demolition of the old building is now complete, but the east wall remains intact.
Then there’s the hotel, called Untitled @ 3 Freemans Alley. The hotel at 225 Bowery is a story in itself. The site of the Salvation Army Chinatown Shelter until 2015, it became Sister City NYC, a boutique hotel operated by Ace Hotels, starting in 2018. When the pandemic hit, Omni Group is said to have gotten into a spat with Ace and turned the place into a homeless shelter.
No longer affiliated with Ace, the hotel is now operating as an AirBnB and the doors on Bowery, next to the current site of Bowery Mission food lines, have been shuttered. The new primary entrance is, wait for it, 3 Freemans Alley to take advantage of the alley’s art. The hotel has opened its courtyard on the alley to artists as well to bring the street art feel inside, which certainly gives it an art wash feel as well.
This could suggest that David Paz, president of the Omnia Group, may also try to take advantage of the art as a component of the development plans for 183 Crystie. The Omnia Group did not respond to a request for comment about their plans. Rumors include that the 30-foot setback could be used for some kind of commercial venture, maybe a restaurant or cafe, with a street art theme.
The other property owner with a chunk of frontage, or backage for lack of a better word, on the alley is the Bowery Mission, which for some years used its alley access as a location for breadlines. The mission has been at 227 Bowery since 1909, when President William Howard Taft stopped by to address the staff and residents.
While it’s unclear if the mission has any plans for its backage, there are rumors that the New Museum, just north of the mission at 235 Bowery, is seeking a deal to get access to the alley and its street art portfolio via the mission’s back door.
Also sporting backage on the alley is 187 Chrystie, which has a cute little courtyard behind it. That property is a turn of the century five-story residential building with 17 units and two storefronts, one of which is occupied by, surprise, the Omnia Group. Compass.com lists the owner as someone named Charles Cohen. No word on any plans for that property.
“It’s like the Yukon gold rush down here.” – Jimmy Wright
It seems everyone is vying for a slice of the alley’s apparently limitless commercial potential, while the street artists are left wondering if their beloved open-air gallery may soon be plastered with advertisements rather than art. There are certainly interests pushing for the latter outcome. “It’s like the Yukon gold rush down here,” Wright said.