Cover image for Flophouse : life on the Bowery
Flophouse : life on the Bowery
Isay, David.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2000]

Physical Description:
xv, 150 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 21 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV4505 .I83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
HV4505 .I83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



"This book takes you to places you think you don't want to enter, to people you think you don't want to meet, to lives you think you don't want to live--and makes you rethink all your assumptions. It reveals the tremendous strength and humanity of those who are usually ignored. And as you pay attention, your own humanity expands."         ---Susan Stamberg, special correspondent, National Public Radio 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-a-night rooms home to fewer than a thousand men, mostly long-time residents. In a handful of years, this world will be gone.          In Flophouse, documentarians David Isay and Stacy Abramson and photographer Harvey Wang chronicle this vanishing world through the voices and portraits of a number of those residents, interspersed with photographs of their surroundings. The men come from all manner of backgrounds, and the rich variety of the tales they tell is a testament to the number of ways the bottom can fall out of life in America, even in prosperous times. This book warrants comparison with Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but the authors were inspired most directly by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote about some of these same flophouses with an honest warmth and an acceptance of life as it's found. Shimmering with humanity and utterly devoid of false sentiment, Flophouse is a powerful reminder that even on the margins, life defies all attempts at reduction.

Author Notes

Executive producer of Sound Portraits Productions, an independent production company. He is a regular contributor to All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. Over the past ten years his radio documentary work has won two Peabodies, two Robert F. Kennedy Awards and most recently the MacArthur Prize. He lives in New York City

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

David Isay, a regular contributor to NPR, and Stacy Abramson, an independent producer, along with professional photographer Harvey Wang, offer entry into a world most of us would only want to visit vicariously. The team toured four of the few remaining flophouses on New York City's infamous Bowery, and their excellent marriage of text and photos homes in on the lives of several unfortunate Bowery denizens. The Bowery was once the world's most famous skid row, where men and even women could find a dinky room with a small bed for very little money. City neighborhoods change, and as the Bowery is cleaned up, its flophouses are disappearing. Isay and his friends talked with 50 people who still live in these grim places, individuals whose lives are spent on the edge of homelessness, some of whom--amazingly--go for weeks without leaving their tiny cubicle. Their faces often speak more eloquently than their words, and for the most part, empathy rather than sympathy is what they want. This is an important sociological document, leaving the reader with a broader picture of contemporary American society. --Brad Hooper

Library Journal Review

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.]DDeborah Bigelow, Leonia P.L., NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction 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. Excerpted from Flophouse: Life on the Bowery by David Isay, Stacy Abramson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.