A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

SOUND: A boutique flophouse on the Bowery

“I spent last night at a flophouse on the Bowery.”

This bragging right is one of the amenities that the Bowery House, a boutique hostel that aims to re-create the flophouse experience, offers “individuals on a budget . . . looking to enjoy the authentic nature and living history of 220 Bowery.” For about fifty dollars a night (off-season), visitors can stay in an approximately five-by-six-foot ceiling-less wooden cabin and experience a sanitized version (complete with heated bathroom floors, monogrammed robes, and custom bath products) of what was, in the last century, a seedy, crowded, noisy, and often dangerous living space.

Conspicuously not mentioned among the amenities are the four original tenants still residing on the second floor, grandfathered in when the former lodging house was purchased by developers in 2011, and  living proof of the many ironies of New York’s gentrifying skid row. They share bathrooms, common spaces, and hallways with the hotel’s guests, who pay many times more for the flophouse aesthetic that constitutes these men’s actual lives. While the third-floor lounge features leather Chesterfield couches and an expansive wood table, the second-floor space is decidedly less hip. Since the cabins are tiny, the men, who were once known as “Bowery bums,” use it as a living room, and guests tiptoe past, trying not to gape at the display of “living history.”

The Bowery House was formerly the Prince Hotel, which opened in 1927 and served as a residence for the area’s degenerate population as well as soldiers returning from World War I. Its guests were crammed into what eventually became a warren of two hundred cubicles with chicken wire in place of ceilings to allow for air circulation (and to prevent theft between neighbors).

Today's restored cubicles feature the original woodwork and bed frames fitted with new mattresses and high-thread-count sheets. An Edison bulb in a Mason jar fixture provides dim light. Furnishings are basic: a small dresser, some wall hooks, a corner shelf with a brochure about the property’s history, and a vintage film poster.

Laid atop the Ralph Lauren towel on each bed is a pair of complimentary foam ear plugs—and for good reason. Besides the original tenants, the feature that provides the closest approximation of the flophouse experience is undoubtedly the ceiling-less rooms. The sounds coming through the latticework (which has replaced the chicken wire) are probably not so different than they might have been a hundred years ago, albeit with a few modern twists.

Heels clicking on the concrete floors, coughs and sneezes and burps, someone clipping their nails. Muffled laughter and arguments, the whiskery sound of teeth being brushed in the communal bathroom, zippers zipping—and the beeps and trills of cell phones. A ceiling fan tirelessly circulates the stale air in a constant moaning whir. The interior cabins have no windows, and there is little natural light. Though the hotel is immaculate (housecleaning staff can seem to outnumber guests), it can’t mask years of stale cigarette smoke embedded in the woodwork.

Out in the common room, a guest describes to the receptionist his problems reserving an original cabin through Expedia. “Oh, you poor thing. That sounds like such a drag,” the receptionist says, handing over one of the dog-tag-festooned cabin keys.

It is apparent from the scene on the sidewalk the following morning that he was not the only person who has trouble securing shelter last night: a mattress and suitcase are splayed out on the sidewalk, just steps from the Bowery House’s front door, where the swishing of a housekeeper’s broom can be heard among the other sounds of morning.


will said...

interesting report! thx.

Mary Knapp said...

There's evidently no way to eradicate years of cigarette smoke. It was the first thing my daughter and I noticed when visiting the Louis Armstrong house. This is a fascinating post. Can't imagine why anyone would want to stay there. I guess considering the price of NY hotels, it is probably a bargain (?)