Flophouse: Life on the Bowery
by David Isay
A review by Leah Bobal
"They’re just fellows waiting to die," is how flophouse resident Simon Twhigg describes the old men he lives with in the Andrews Hotel, one of four hotels left on America’s skid row, the Bowery. But Twhigg loves his neighbors, whether they’re old, lazy, even drunk. He sees behind his pals’ dirt and grime, behind their forlorn and angry faces. He knows these men as family they are just a few of the 50 men profiled with dignity and respect in Flophouse: Life on the Bowery.
From the end of the 19th century through the mid-20th century, lower Manhattan’s Bowery was the world’s most notorious skid row, a 16-block stretch of over 100 motels (or flops, as they’re commonly known) which thousands of men called home each night. Cheap rent is the main attraction of Bowery hotels. From $4.50 to $15 a night, a guy can have a roof over his head. Each hotel offers prospective tenants either dorm style living the cheapest or a cubicle topped with chickenwire. Residents get a bed, a locker, and a hanging lightbulb.
Today, only a handful of hotels are left; home to less than a thousand men, mostly long-time residents. The Bowery is a world that is slowly shrinking and in a few years, will likely be only a part of our social history. A documentary of this troubled world, Flophouse is the culmination of three years of work by Isay and Abramson, who, with the help of photographer/friend Harvey Wang, have created a compelling record of down and out America, surpassing the renowned James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
What sets Flophouse apart from Agee’s work are the nature and source of the stories within they are the words of Bowery lifers, not the words of a journalist (read: outsider). In Let Us Now Praise, Agee peppers, and in some cases, douses, the narrative with his observations; we learn more about Agee’s opinions than the lives of migrant farmworkers. Flophouse is far more engaging in that we see the Bowery from the eyes of those who live in it. Each profile, coupled with a photograph of the storyteller, is so honest that they are almost too painful to read.
"I'll be out of here sooner or later maybe two months, maybe two years," comments White House hotel resident Misha M. "If I don’t think so, I would kill myself right now. Right now." Misha M. left Poland 17 years ago to study economics in the U.S., then returned to help his dying father and his sister suffering from multiple sclerosis. When Misha came back to America in 1994, he hit rock bottom. He’s lived on the Bowery ever since.
Wang’s photographs of residents and their living quarters are not intrusive or exploitative, just honest images that capture everyday life in each hotel. We see empty hallways in subdued colors; we see wrinkled faces, tiny rooms in varying shades of grey. Within these pictures, the Bowery comes alive amid desperation, even silence.
The portraiture is so dignified that the reader may weep and smile at one glance. Flophouse is a chronicle of a place and a people forgotten. It is moving, funny, beautiful and depressing a book, simply, about the ugly beauty of life.