3:51am

Tue March 12, 2013
Arts & Life

'Bowery Boys' Are Amateur But Beloved New York Historians

Originally published on Mon March 18, 2013 4:12 pm

In the 19th century, the Bowery Boys were a street gang that ruled that small section of Manhattan. In the 21st century, the Bowery Boys are two best friends — Tom Meyers and Greg Young — who record a do-it-yourself podcast with the same name.

Meyers and Young love to perform almost as much as they love New York City, and their show traces the unofficial history of the place. They record a few blocks from — you guessed it — the Bowery district.

Podcasts have been around for less than a decade, but in that short time, homemade shows have exploded. To date, "The Bowery Boys" has had more than 5 million downloads.

One episode is about Tin Pan Alley, in the Flower District, where 19th century composers churned out sheet music to distribute across the country.

"Charles Harris wrote a song called 'After the Ball' in 1892," Young says in that show. "He was lucky enough to get a vaudevillian star by the name of May Erwin to perform the song in her show, and it would sell up to 10 million copies. I mean, could you imagine, like, a Lady Gaga song rolling out over six years? Rolling out throughout the country?"

The Bowery Boys' audience doesn't quite rival Lady Gaga's, but 20,000 listeners isn't too shabby. Still, Meyers and Young are the first to admit that they are not professionals.

"We bought Podcasting for Dummies," says Meyers, "partially to figure out what a podcast was, and also how to record these things."

The pair doesn't use fancy equipment, either.

"I think that for the first episode, we recorded with a spare karaoke microphone that we had in the closet for ... other occasions," recalls Meyers, laughing.

In each episode, the two friends tell little-known stories about the history of their adopted city — Meyers grew up in Ohio and Young in Missouri, but they're more than qualified to talk Big Apple — like why a trip up or down Manhattan is quick and easy, but traveling a few blocks east or west takes much longer.

"That's because of decisions made 200 years ago by the Commissioners' Plan, through the use of a grid," Young explains in an episode called The Manhattan Grid Plan. "That is something that every New Yorker lives with every day."

Meyers and Young have touched on New York's iconic landmarks, like Times Square. But the Bowery Boys don't stop with the familiar.

In another episode, they take listeners to a 1960s theme park in the Bronx called Freedomland USA.

"It was shaped like the U.S.," Young explains in the episode, "and you went into each area, and there were themed rides and everything."

"What's happening over there in Chicago? Fire! Look at that!" says a voice in an old advertisement. "It's the Chicago Fire of 1871. Here at Freedomland, they have the Chicago Fire every half-hour, every day."

The quirky amusement park closed after only four years. Young says he likes an element of randomness to help choose episodes. And it works.

"I got responses [from] people who said, 'When I was a kid, my parents took me to Freedomland. And I thought I had made it up,' " he says.

The Bowery Boys pack an incredible amount of history into each episode — not so easy for two guys with day jobs. (Young works in music licensing for Sony, and Meyers runs his own online travel business.)

"I don't read anything that's not related to New York City history," says Meyers, "which is a little bit sad, because I'd love to read a novel that wasn't — I'd love to read a novel. But at the same time, I can't get enough."

The Bowery Boys' podcast now includes a blog that gets about 100,000 hits each month. And Meyers and Young have become unofficial ambassadors of New York City history; they've appeared on local television and done events with the city's Municipal Arts Society.

"We don't pretend to have doctorates in the subject," says Meyers. "[But] I feel like we are getting our own degree in this. ... We are home-schooled historians."

Home-schooled, maybe. But five years and just shy of 150 episodes later — when it comes to New York City, they're schooling us.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's take a moment to check in on the world of podcasting. That medium has exploded in the decade or so that it's existed. Over the next few months we're going to be listening to some of your favorite podcasts. And first up, one that's been downloaded more than five million times. This podcast is called "The Bowery Boys" and it's named for a 19th century Manhattan street gang. The podcast bills itself as telling the unofficial history of New York City.

Here's NPR's Caitlin Dickerson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CAITLIN DICKERSON, BYLINE: You could call Tom Meyers and Greg Young modern-day Bowery Boys. They're best friends who love to perform, almost as much as they love New York City. And they record their show a few blocks from the Bowery district.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER THE BALL")

DICKERSON: Here's a clip from an episode about Tin Pan Alley, where 19th century composers churned out sheet music to distribute across the country.

GREG YOUNG: Charles Harris wrote a song called "After the Ball" in 1892.

TOM MEYERS: Yes.

YOUNG: He was lucky enough to get a vaudevillian star to perform the song in her show. And it would sell up to 10 million copies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER THE BALL")

MARY IRWIN: (Singing) Many a heart is aching...

YOUNG: I mean, could you imagine like a Lady Gaga song rolling out over six years, rolling out throughout the country?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER THE BALL")

IRWIN: (Singing) Many the hopes that have vanished...

DICKERSON: The Bowery Boys audience doesn't quite rival Lady Gaga's, but 20,000 listeners isn't too shabby. Still, Greg and Tom are the first to admit they're not professionals.

MEYERS: We bought "Podcasting for Dummies," partially to figure out what a podcast was and also how to record these things.

DICKERSON: And they don't use fancy equipment either.

MEYERS: I think that for the first episode, we recorded with a spare karaoke microphone that we had in the closet for other occasions.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Yes, that's exactly right.

DICKERSON: Each episode, two best friends tell little-known stories about their adopted city's history. Tom grew up in Ohio and Greg in Missouri, but they're more than qualified to talk Big Apple. Like, why a trip up Manhattan is quick and easy, but traveling a few blocks east or west takes much longer.

YOUNG: That's because of decisions made 200 years ago by the commissioners' plan, through the use of a grid plan. But that is something that every New Yorker lives with every day.

DICKERSON: Tom and Greg have touched on New York's iconic landmarks like Times Square. But the Bowery Boys don't stop with the familiar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DICKERSON: They took listeners to a 1960s theme park in the Bronx called...

YOUNG: Freedomland USA was an American theme park. It was shaped like the United States and you went into each area and there were themed rides and everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's happening over there in Chicago? Fire. Look at that. It's the Chicago Fire of 1871...

DICKERSON: That's an ad from Freedomland, the quirky amusement park that closed after only four years. Greg says he likes an element of randomness to help choose episodes. And it works.

YOUNG: I got responses of people who said when I was a kid my parents took me to Freedomland and I thought I had made it up.

DICKERSON: Tom and Greg pack in incredible about of history into each episode - not so easy for two guys with day jobs. Greg does music licensing for Sony and Tom runs his own online travel business.

MEYERS: I don't read anything that's not related to New York City history, which is a little bit sad...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Yeah.

MEYERS: ...because I'd love to read a novel that wasn't - I'd love to read a novel. But at the same time I can't get enough.

DICKERSON: The Bowery Boys podcast now includes a blog that gets about 100,000 hits each month. And Greg and Tom have become sort of unofficial ambassadors of New York City history. They've appeared on local television and done events with the city's Municipal Arts Society.

MEYERS: We don't pretend to have doctorates in the subject. And I feel like we are getting our own degree in this because...

YOUNG: Oh yeah, home-schooled.

MEYERS: We are home-schooled historians.

(LAUGHTER)

DICKERSON: Home-schooled, maybe. But five years and just shy of 150 episodes later, when it comes to New York City they're schooling us.

Caitlin Dickerson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Hey, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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