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1 Beaverton Sociology- Poverty

This title in other editions

Flophouse: Life on the Bowery


Flophouse: Life on the Bowery Cover





From the end of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, the Bowery was the world's most infamous skid row. Under the shadow of the elevated Third Avenue line, the sixteen-block stretch of lower Manhattan was jammed with barber schools, bars, missions, men's clothing stores, slop joints (cheap restaurants), flophouses, and tattoo parlors. The estimates vary, but in its heyday somewhere between 25,000 and 75,000 men slept on the Bowery each night.

Today, the barber colleges are all gone. Al's, the last rummy bar on the Bowery, closed in 1993. There are no tattoo parlors, no employment agencies, no pawnshops, no burlesque houses, no secondhand stores, no El train. All that remains of the skid-row Bowery are a single mission and a handful of flops, still offering the shabbiest hotel accommodations imaginable for as little as $4.50 a night.

During the Depression, there were close to a hundred flops (the polite term is lodging house) lining the Bowery. Almost all of them were walk-ups, with a bar at the ground level and the hotel on the floors above. Up a steep flight of stairs sat the hotel's lobby-wooden chairs, a couple of benches, and some tables. Near the entrance was the cage, where the clerk sat with his ledger.

Beyond the lobby were several floors of accommodations. Guests had two choices: a cot in a tightly packed barrackslike dormitory (a little cheaper, a lot more bedbugs) or a cubicle. Smaller than a prison cell (about four-by-six feet and seven feet high), the cubicles offered nothing more than a bed, a locker, and a bare, dangling bulb. They were built in long rows, separated by narrow hallways. The walls between cubicles extended only partway to the ceiling, so each room was topped with chicken wire to discourage "lush divers" from crawling over and riffling through a dead-drunk neighbor's wallet.

The skid-row Bowery grew out of the Civil War, which created homelessness on a vast scale. Cheap hotels for returning vets opened up in what was then a New York City red-light district, and before long the Bowery became a mecca for the nation's down-and out. Seventy-five years later, the Second World War brought the street's skid-row era to a close. The Bowery's population plunged, as it always would in times of war. At the end of this war, though, returning vets were greeted by the G.I. Bill and other new social programs. Few became homeless. The flops began to empty out. By 1949, there were only 15,000 men left on the Bowery. A 1955 change in the city's housing code prohibited the construction of any new hotels with cubicle-size rooms. Bars and slop joints and employment agencies were replaced by restaurant equipment wholesalers and lighting-fixtures stores. Real estate values on the Bowery continued to rise; old flops were converted into residential lofts and office space. In 1966, there were 5,000 men left on the Bowery.

Today, about a thousand men remain in eight old flophouses: the White House, the Palace, the Sunshine, the Andrews, the Prince, the Sun, the Grand, and the Providence. The hotels are a fluke. While the rest of the skid-row Bowery was wiped clean, housing laws made it tough for hotel owners to empty the buildings. Some burned their tenants out. Some sold their hotels to a Chinese businessman, who uses his flops to house newly arrived Chinese immigrants. A couple of owners threw up their hands and decided to stick it out. The remaining flophouses on the Bowery are, at least physically, a nearly perfectly preserved remnant of old New York.

This book profiles fifty men from four of these hotels, each one a self-contained society of more than one hundred residents. Most of the flops' staffs (clerks, porters, etc.) live on the premises. Some residents go for weeks without leaving their cubicles, relying on the hotel's runners to bring them food and cigarettes. Part prison, part way station, part shelter, part psychiatric hospital, part shooting gallery, part old-age home, each hotel has a distinctive character and clientele. They are fascinating places, inhabited by the last residents of a world soon to vanish.

Product Details

Life on the Bowery
Wang, Harvey
Wang, Harvey
Abramson, Stacy
Random House Trade
New york (state)
Sociology - Urban
Men's studies
Men's Studies - General
Subjects & Themes - Portraits
Edition Description:
Trade Pbk
Publication Date:
September 2001
8.08x7.66x.48 in. .99 lbs.

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » American Studies » Poverty
History and Social Science » Sociology » Poverty

Flophouse: Life on the Bowery Used Trade Paper
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Product details 176 pages Random House Trade - English 9780375758317 Reviews:
"Review" by , "This book takes you to places you think you don't want to enter, to people you think you don't want to meet, to lives you think you don't want to live. And makes you rethink all your assumptions. It reveals the tremendous strength and humanity of those who are usually ignored. And as you pay attention, your humanity expands."
"Review" by , "Variously described as growing grounds, medieval communities, respites for the weary, dysfunctional fraternity houses, and scenes from Dante's hell, the eight remaining flophouses on New York City's Bowery make for a bracing amalgam of fertility and futility. As National Public Radio contributor David Isay and crew note in this unflinching work of oral history, these spartan accommodations renting for as little as $4.50 a night are also home to a rich but sadly vanishing milieu of strivers, eccentrics, and the simply down-and-out....More than anything, it's the stunning candor with which these men speak about their lives — marked as they frequently are by deep psychological scars — that elevates this book from a sociological curio to a meditation on the human spirit. Illustrated by Harvey Wang's stark photographs, this collection is suffused with a quietly ferocious will to survive."
"Review" by , "Though the subject of those we consider down and out may not be a topic a lot of us care to visit and — if truth be told — a topic most of us tend to shy away from and even fear, Flophouse puts it in your face and demands that you deal with it, even if it is from a bit of a distance....It's remarkable enough that the authors got to record each subject at length talking about his life and equally remarkable that Wang gained access in order to photograph the 50 men who are featured...some, right in the smaller-than-a-jail-cell rooms in which they live. They are young, old, mentally challenged, physically ruined (one, even dead), and Wang's black and white, square format pictures capture them all with equal amounts of respect and photojournalistic candor....Flophouse is gritty and often visceral and gives a glimpse at a life many of us may never see."
"Review" by , "This book should be required reading in every home across the country. It tells of the lost ones, the forgotten men who have given up on the American dream, and once we enter their crumbling, derelict world, our own world will never look the same to us again. Harvey Wang's photographs are superbly honest and raw. The testimonies gathered by David Isay and Stacy Abramson are little poems of desolation, vast hymns to the paradoxes of the human heart."
"Review" by , "In this extraordinary book...fifty of these men deliver a heartbreaking litany of the self-destruction and misfortune that brought them there. Wang's portraits wrest his subjects from the murk and dinge of their surroundings, investing even the most hopeless with dignity....[T]he unvarnished testimony recorded by Isay and Abramson turns out to be just as colorful, articulate, and moving."
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