Flophouse: Life on the Bowery

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For several years, Davis Isay, a recipient of this year's prestigious McArthur Fellowship and an award-winning documentarian, his collegue Stacy Abramson, and photographer Harvey Wang visited the remaining flophouses in New York City: the White House, the Palace, the World, the Andrews, the Prince, the Providence, and the Sunshine. Painstakingly, they recorded the stories of the men who call these places home, many of them for decades now. In its heyday, close to one hundred thousand men found shelter each night ...
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For several years, Davis Isay, a recipient of this year's prestigious McArthur Fellowship and an award-winning documentarian, his collegue Stacy Abramson, and photographer Harvey Wang visited the remaining flophouses in New York City: the White House, the Palace, the World, the Andrews, the Prince, the Providence, and the Sunshine. Painstakingly, they recorded the stories of the men who call these places home, many of them for decades now. 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 rooms home to fewer than a thousand men, mostly long-time students. In a handful of years, because of changing policy, this world will be gone.

On August 18, 2000 Random House will publish Flophouse: Life On the Bowery, an extaordinary valedictory in words and images to this vanishing world. In Flophouse, fifty men from four of these "flops," men from all manner of backgrounds, all classes, tell the stories of their lives in their own words, with candor and intimacy. Proceded by a short history of the flophouse and surounded by Harvey Wang's haunting photographs, each chapter stands as a portrait of a unique community.

As a social document, Flophouse is electrifying. Together, these men represent the variety of ways the bottom can fall out of people's lives in late-twentieth-century America. Because of new laws, the Bowery flophouses will soon vanish along with so much of the rest of Joseph Mitchell's New York. This book will be the abiding testament to that world and the human beings who inhabit it.

Flophouse tells the history of the Bowery, and thus the history of America's urban dispossessed, its lost souls, in a viscerally powerful way–by channeling it through the stories of these individual lives rendered with dignity, humor and good spirit. Flophouse is already being called, rightly, the Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of the urban dispossessed.

About the Authors:
David Isay won a McArthur Fellowship in 2000. He is the Executive Producer of Sound Portraits Productions, an independent production company dedicated to creating radio that brings neglected American voices to a national audience. Isay is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's news-magazines, including "All Things Considered" and "Weekend Edition." Over the past ten years his radio documentary work has won almost every award in broadcasting, including two Peabody Awards, two Robert F. Kennedy Awards, and two Livingston Awards for youung journalists. Isay has also received the Prix Italia (Europe's oldest and most distinguished broadcasting honor), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1994). His is the author of two previous books. Holding On with Harvey Wang and Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago.

Stacy Abramson is a producer at Sound Portraits. Her early production credits include, A Letter to Butchie, and Charlie's Story. In 1999 she produced The Jewish Giant, a audio portrait of the life of Eddie Carmel, which aired on All Things Considered. She is currently co-producing a documentary called "Witness to an Execution" a collection of interviews with men and women who have witnesses or participated in many executions in Huntsville Texas. Stacy is also the Education/Outreach coordinator at Sound Portraits, currently spear-heading an educational project, in which Sound Portraits will be teaching juvenile offenders how to record and edit oral histories.

Harvey Wang is a professional photographer living and working in New York City. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and books, including Rock Wives and Holding On. His book, Harvey Wang's New York, is a classic.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Most of us have passed a decrepit old hotel in a particular part of town and wondered at the outcast state of its inhabitants, at the downward-winding paths we imagine must have led them there. In their moving new book, Flophouse: Life on the Bowery, photographer Harvey Wang and authors David Isay and Stacy Abramson depict a world most of us would be loath to enter and discover that which connects us each to these less fortunate. Luc Sante writes of Flophouse, "Every human story in here is singular, and every one stands in for thousands, perhaps millions, of unrecorded others."
Library Journal
From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, nearly 100,000 men found shelter each night in places with names like the Dandy, the Niagara, the Palace, and the Grand Windsor Hotel. These lodging houses, located in the infamous skid row known as the Bowery, are almost gone now, but those that remain provide a fascinating view of old New York and a vanishing era. Isay, an award-winning radio documentary producer, and Wang, a professional photographer, have captured this world in Flophouse. To present the story of this neglected population, the authors interviewed a number of residents in each of four remaining "flops." Each short narrative is told in the resident's own words and is accompanied by one or two full-page photographs. These are stories of immigrants, drug addicts, and men who are just down on their luck. There's John, who gets up every night at three in the morning to bleach his floor; Jack, who's been shooting dice for over 50 years; and Ted, the intellectual dishwasher, who set out to be nothing and succeeded. This compelling read is recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/00.]--Deborah Bigelow, Leonia P.L., NJ Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Carlo McCormick
Of all the stories in this naked city, none are more naked, nor so compellingly dear to the outcast legacy, now, renovated and co-op'd into oblivion.
Time Out New York
New Yorker
In this extraordinary book (which grew out of a radio documentary Isay and Abramson produced in 1998), 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...the unvarnished testimony recorded by Isay and Abramson turns out to be just as colorful, articulate, and moving.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375758317
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST TRADE
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 7.62 (w) x 8.12 (h) x 0.36 (d)

Meet 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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Read an Excerpt


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.
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