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.
Originating as a 1998 radio documentary on NPR's All Things Considered, this group portrait of 50 men from four of the remaining Bowery hotels offers an affecting glimpse of life on the 16-block stretch of lower Manhattan, that once reigned as ground zero for the nation's dispossessed. An estimated 25,000 men slept on the Bowery every night in its Depression-era heyday, with almost a hundred flops renting cots or cubicles under bare bulbs for their weary inhabitants. But many flops were shuttered after the G.
I. Bill offered a new life for veterans returning from World War II, and now, as the hotels are converted to office space or residential lofts amid the city's economic boom, each building's closure brings the end of a vibrant, if dystopian, community.
"I've had 'em all here from a priest to a murderer," says Sunshine Hotel manager Nathan Smith, and the voices from these edited transcripts of interviews are similarly varied. A former bank executive quotes Shakespeare as he explains his decision to embrace a life of nothingness and alcoholism. A man who grew up in a 15-room apartment recounts his fall after 20 years of drug smuggling, and the devastating blow when his family disowned him. Another resident tells of once working as a nurse's aid and caring for a wounded police officer, but then slipping into crime and killing three people. Some of these men have lived on the Bowery for 20 years or more, and each one has a riveting story. 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 is a writer and editor in New York.