Tracing the Origins of New York’s Nickname, ‘The City That Never Sleeps’

Posted on: June 26th, 2014 at 6:05 am by
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I’m sitting in a 100-year-old converted loft on the Bowery watching the world go by. The Avalon Bowery (the building that killed McGurk’s) is in my peripheral, and it appears the well-heeled residents there are calling it a night behind those curtain-less windows. A thought hits me – the city that never sleeps, a phrase basically born on the Bowery.

What follows is a selection of sources substantiating that the saying was meant to describe the Bowery itself, and not New York as a whole:

1892, The Century, Volume 43:

A tour of this street by night is a never-to-be-forgotten experience, but in the main the street is like a great electric lantern. It is the Argus head of New York and it is the eye that never sleeps; for when the rest of the town is dim and its bustle is all but hushed, the eye of the Bowery look into the night with a gleaming star that only the rising of the suns is able to intimidate.

From The Bowery: A History of Grit, Graft and Grandeur, By Eric Ferrara:

…the Bowery was  ripe for wanton corruption (perfected over decades) and had openly become one of the greatest vice districts in America. It was the original “city that never sleeps,” the Times Square of its day…

In 1898 Jacob Riis (most famous for his photographic tell all How The Other Half Lives) also remarks “the Bowery never sleeps” in Out of Mulberry Street: Stories of Tenement Life in New York City.

That damn sure describes the Bowery. Or at least it used to.

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So where was the phrase first printed?

Well, here’s the deal, Boogie-ers: many folks cite The Fort Wayne Daily (in Indiana) as the first ever publication to print NYC as “the city that never sleeps.” But they are wrong.

Here is that newspaper clipping from September 6, 1912:

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Fort Wayne Daily News

Did you catch that? “…add to its title of the city that never sleeps…” Therefore, the title already existed at the time of this publication.

Based on furious research, credit goes to the above-referenced article published decades earlier in the The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine:

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For good measure one mo’ time:

A tour of this street by night is a never-to-be-forgotten experience, but in the main the street is like a great electric lantern. It is the Argus head of New York and it is the eye that never sleeps; for when the rest of the town is dim and its bustle is all but hushed, the eye of the Bowery look into the night with a gleaming star that only the rising of the suns is able to intimidate.

Though I suppose with all the new hotel construction throughout the Lower East Side- there may be some sleep in this City after all.

 

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