- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
Flophouse: Life on the Boweryby David Isay
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.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like