Thursday, 20 November 2008


At the end of the 18th century the Bowery was New York's most elegant street, lined with fashionable shops and mansions of prosperous residents. Lorenzo Da Ponte, the Libtrettist for Mozart's Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi Fan Tutte, ran one of the shops - a fruit and vegetable store - after he emigrated to New York in 1806. But by the time of the Civil War, the mansions and shops had given way to brothels, beer gardens and flophouses, like the one at No.15 in which the composer lived in 1864. It had also become the turf of one of America's earliest street gangs, the nativist Bowery Boys.

From the second half of the 1800's to the mid-1950's the Bowery district was an enormous hub of commerce as well as home to between 25,000 and 75,000 homeless men. Each night they would spend their hard (or illicitly) earned money on food, alcohol and to stay in one of almost 100 'flophouses'.

Today only a handful of the old flophouses remain, the rest having been swept away in an implacably rising tide of affluence. These flophouses are the last vestiges of a different time and a different city, and The Sunshine Hotel, 241 The Bowery, between Stanton and Rivington Streets, is one of them.

The picture (above) taken circa 1903, at another similar flophouse, shows the usual layout with men sleeping in a warren of 4' X 6' cubicles called pigeon coops, which stand only 7' high, beneath 12' ceilings, covered over with chicken wire. The narrow gray hallways are lined with flimsy wooden doors.

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