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Flophouse: Life on the Boweryby David Isay
Synopses & Reviews
In its heyday, close to one hundred thousand men found shelter each night in flophouses along America's largest and most infamous skid row, the Bowery. Today, only a handful of flops are left, their tiny five- and ten-dollar-a-night rooms home to fewer than a thousand men, mostly long-time residents. In a handful of years, this world will be gone.
In Flophouse, documentarians David Isay and Stacy Abramson and photographer Harvey Wang chronicle this vanishing world through the voices and portraits of a number of those residents, interspersed with photographs of their surroundings. The men come from all manner of backgrounds, and the rich variety of the tales they tell is a testament to the number of ways the bottom can fall out of life in America, even in prosperous times. This book warrants comparison with Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but the authors were inspired most directly by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote about some of these same flophouses with an honest warmth and an acceptance of life as it's found. Shimmering with humanity and utterly devoid of false sentiment, Flophouse is a powerful reminder that even on the margins, life defies all attempts at reduction.
"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." Susan Stamberg, Special Correspondent, National Public Radio
"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." Jeff Byles, BookPage
"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." David Middleton, January Magazine
"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." Paul Auster, author of The New York Trilogy
"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." The New Yorker
About the Author
David Isay is the executive producer of Sound Portraits Productions, an independent production company dedicated to bringing neglected American voices to a national radio audience. His radio documentary work has won almost every award in broadcasting. He lives in New York City.
Stacy Abramson is a producer at Sound Portraits. She lives in New York City.
Harvey Wang is a photographer and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. His work includes Harvey Wang's New York and Holding On.
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