Flophouse, by David Isay and Stacy Abramson, photographs by Harvey Wang
When Paul Tillich joined the faculty of New York City's Union Theological Seminary in early 1934, the Bowery of the Lower East Side was in full flower. It was the world's most famous skid row. From the end of the 19th century to the post-World War II era, anywhere from 25,000 to 75,000 men called home. Now only 1,000 remain. David Isay and Stacy Abramson have captured this ebbing culture in a series of interviews at four of the lingering flophouses: the Sunshine, the White House (its name possibly referring to a now-defunct policy of whites only), the Andrews and the Providence.
Beginning with a folder of news clippings about the Bowery, Isay developed a public radio documentary on "The Sunshine Hotel" that then generated a New York Times article. Collaborator Harvey Wang added his textured black-and-white photos to both the Times piece and this book, which also features an occasional color shot. The photos reveal the closeness of life in cubicles smaller than many jail cells, yet also the conviviality of a place where, for older residents at least, everyone knows your name. The photos show places that are terrifying and intimate at the same time.
The book may be more aptly described as witness, confession or testimony than as a collection of interviews. Of the 100 men who spoke to Isay for ten minutes or four hours, the stories of 50 are here collected. Many of these men came to the U.S. in search of a better life. The format, which omits the questions Isay asked to elicit the stories, mirrors the freedom many experience living on the Bowery. The testimony of the last man featured expresses this joyous spontaneity: "The Lord grabbed ahold of me and I was his! Amen." A knife to his belly had brought him to the Bowery Mission, where he continues as a lay preacher.