Flophouse: Life on the Bowery

by David Isay and Stacy Abramson

photographs by Harvey Wang

Published by Random House

160 pages , 2000

Buy it online





The Bowery Boys

Reviewed by David Middleton


Radio producers David Isay and Stacy Abramson's book Flophouse: Life on the Bowery may be beautiful to look at but it's not exactly about a beautiful subject. Filled with Emmy Award winning filmmaker Harvey Wang's emotionally compelling images, Flophouse features photographs of the residents of four of the eight remaining "flops" in New York's Bowery district.

From the late 1800s to the mid-1950s, this 16 block section of lower Manhattan was an enormous hub of commerce as well as home to between 25,000 and 75,000 men. Each night they would spend their hard (or illicitly) earned money to stay in one of almost 100 lodging houses in the Bowery. These days, life on the Bowery is considerably less populated. Only about 1000 men staying in eight of the original hotels with each hotel home to approximately 100 or so men.

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. To introduce the book Isay and Abramson have given a very brief history of the Bowery. The rest of the book is divided into four sections -- one for each of the flophouses featured: The White House, The Providence, The Andrews and The Sunshine -- with a page of text accompanying each of the remarkable photographs. This is the core of the book. Where Isay and Abramson could have gone into great detail about the historical or social and economic ramifications of the Bowery, they instead choose to show its denizens and let them speak in their own words about how they cope with the life they have either chosen or that has been thrust upon them.

Many of us can not begin to imagine what it's like to live in a room where rates start at $4.50 a night. It's something you might see on a television cop show or read about in a Philip Marlowe novel. You see it and read about it and you think you might comprehend what it's all about, but it really can't touch you until you have to experience it.

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 in Flophouse; 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.

Though most of these men's stories are tragic, ranging from "When my wife passed away I lost everything," to "I was notorious. Killed three people," you can't help but think that some are no more than just a hard luck story. Or perhaps that the significance of some events have been overrated and involvement in others underplayed. But no such judgment is offered up by authors or photographer. Whether the subjects are bragging or whining or just telling it as it is, they are all given a chance to have their say and seem open and willing to tell their story as they see it. Isay and Abramson give them the respect they are due while resisting the temptation to editorialize or eventually preach to their audience. For their participation, each man "received a thirty-dollar food certificate at a local deli to compensate him for his time."

Some of the men -- and they are all men, no women are featured -- are satisfied and can't think of any other life that would make them happier. Some are miserable and some, Like Rob C. from New Orleans, just don't get it. Rob works as a bike courier by day and delivers pizza by night and came to New York looking for a cheap room and perhaps a little adventure:

I tell people if I could somehow stream what I hear every day onto the Internet, it would be the greatest soap opera ever.

I call this place Disfunction Junction, and the Fraternity House from Hell. But the Bowery is a vibrant community. Two blocks over, you're in Little Italy. Three more blocks, you're in SoHo. So I like the location. For a shower and a place to sleep, it's fine, If they'd just make the rooms about three times bigger and have Internet access, I think a lot of people would go for something like this.

Some men, like Ted Edwards, see life on the Bowery with a sharper eye:

This Place? This place is a respite for the weary on the run from life. How did I get here? That's your next question, right? I don't know. I really don't know. It was slow and methodical.

But listen -- before you go, I want to explain something: My wife never left me. I left me. Do you know Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness? I decided on nothingness, because my being wasn't fulfilled in the way that I wanted it to be. So I set out to be nothing. And here I am. I've arrived. Nothing. Nothing!

Three years in the making, Flophouse originally started out as a radio documentary called "The Sunshine Hotel." The program aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and was narrated by Nate Smith, the manager of the Sunshine Hotel, who Flophouse describes as "a brilliant story teller, a keen Bowery historian."

Flophouse is gritty and often visceral and gives a glimpse at a life many of us may never see. | September 2000


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine.