Down and Out and … Up and In on the Bowery

Top: The Whitehouse Hotel, rooms $9 to $54 a night. Bottom: The Bowery Hotel, rooms $425 to $1,200 a night. Photographs by Michael Edwards

When I was growing up in Flushing, a friend who lived across the street had an uncle, Jack, a gnarly, unshaven sort, who used to sit on the porch all day long. We knew he was an alkie, as much as 8-year-olds know about that stuff. Then one late spring day, Jack disappeared. I asked my friend, “Hey, where’s Uncle Jack?”

“We dropped him off. On the Bowery,” my friend said. “He lives there with his bum friends, then when it gets cold, we pick him up again.” Uncle Jack was “a summer bum,” my friend said.

With fall slinking into winter, Uncle Jack would have bailed by now, I thought, while I was sardined into Room 309 at the Whitehouse Hotel, not that you could exactly call it a room. Walk-in closet would be stretching it, except most closets have ceilings as opposed to the wood latticework that tops off the partition walls of Room 309. But this was a good thing, since, even if I could hear every single cough, groan, fart, etc. emitted by my fellow lodgers, claustrophobes don’t go for low overhead, especially in a four-by-six-foot plywood coffin lit only by a flickering fluorescent rod.

I knew the drill: Try not to roll off the two-foot-wide foam slab, take half a Xanax, hope the scabies savage the skin of the next sucker. After all, I’d stayed in a Bowery flophouse before. Once upon a newsprint time, reporters looking to make their Orwellian bones had to write about their night at the Pioneer, the Palace, the Globe—or any of the Bowery dumps still extant on the world’s best-known skid row. Now, however, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s not much Bowery left. Stroll up from Canal, past the Fukienese wedding parlors, the crystal-chandelier centers, the restaurant-supply Frialators glinting in the sun, and there are signs for some of the old flops, but you won’t find even a summer bum inside. The Chinese lady with the blue eyebrows behind the bulletproof glass at the World takes one look at my bindle-stiff-like suitcase and says, “No room! Go on Internet, make reservation with credit card!”

It has all been disappeared, ditto the punk fantasy-land that followed. The Ramones made sense on the Bowery. What better place for rockers to pretend that the planet had been nuked and they alone had survived, art-bound protagonists in zombieville, spared from the brain eaters by the wearing of their talismanic leather jackets, which warded off the cooties of the nine-to-five class.

The Whitehouse (supposedly so named because back in the day black bums didn’t stay here) is only partly a flop these days. The so-called permanent residents still sun themselves on the sidewalk, but the place also serves young Euro traveler types. Up the stairs to the left, where the permanents stay, no key is required. Posted on a wall inside the permanent quarters is a list of house rules. No. 1 is no screaming, no fighting, no spitting … no use of illegal substances, i.e. drugs. Beside this is a framed no smoking order signed by Robert O. Lowery, John Lindsay’s fire commissioner, who last served in 1973.

A very large man is pushing a very small carpet sweeper down the Whitehouse’s long corridors. “So the Bowery’s done, big deal,” he says. “You can’t cry about it. It’s the Bowery, for chrissakes.”

Paulie is his name, a former licensed plumber who used to unclog toilets at the Waldorf-Astoria. He calls himself “an endangered species.” Once the permanents like himself die off, Paulie predicts, the doughty Whitehouse will cease to be.

The grapevine says offers in the multimillions are on the table for the property, not bad for 237 cubicles full of sad stories. This was inevitable, Paulie said, ticking off several of the ever-more-humongous projects soon to dominate the Bowery skyline, most specifically the Cooper Square Hotel between 5th and 6th Streets, 23 floors of tapered frosted glass that neighborhood-preservationist blogs have taken to calling “the sore-thumb building.” Just down the street is the wedding-cake form of the New Museum.

This isn’t just redevelopment as usual, Paulie says as he sweeps. That’s because the Bowery isn’t just any neighborhood. “It is like 42nd Street. Like Harlem. Names that mean something. Those places you don’t just rebuild. You’ve got to rebrand them. The Bowery is being rebranded.”

Directly across the street from the Whitehouse, situated between one of the area’s last drug-treatment centers and the orange-brick Salvation Army home for adolescent boys, is the newly opened Bowery Hotel, the anointed flagship of whatever this famous neighborhood is about to become. At the Whitehouse, the tourist rate is $28—permanents pay somewhere between $6 and $9. Across the divided road, the Bowery Hotel charges $550 for a room with a king-size bed. That’s a $522 difference (at least to start; the Bowery room-service menu notes “an 8.375 percent tax, a $3 delivery charge, and an 18 percent room service gratuity will be added to every order”). It took 35 paces to walk door-to-door, Whitehouse to Bowery, or $14.91 per step. Even Alex Rodriguez doesn’t make that kind of money, just for walking.

A walk-in-closet-like space—with latticework ceiling—at the Whitehouse Hotel.

I’d prepared for the sojourn between these Bowery worlds by wrestling into my Brooks Brothers suit within the tight confines of Room 309. Once through the door of the Bowery Hotel, I was approached by a dapper South African gentleman inquiring if I was “here for the wine tasting?” Since I’d just left the land of winos, this eased the transition.

People say the developing Bowery scene is the new meatpacking district. This seems true enough, especially round midnight, when the new bars fill with state-of-the-art 26-year-old fabulousness, those sleek and randy vibes ricocheting off art-directed walls. The corner of 3rd Street can look like a scene straight out of a way-squarer La Dolce Vita.

While not disputing this general description, Eric Goode, part owner of the Bowery Hotel, isn’t thrilled about it. Goode, a New York nightlife titan, who along with various partners opened such nocturnal standbys as Area, M.K., the Maritime Hotel, and, more recently, with Graydon Carter, the Waverly Inn, says, “If the Bowery becomes something awful like the meatpacking district, it’ll break my heart.”

According to Goode, he and partner Sean MacPherson never intended to open a hotel on the Bowery. “We wanted to do something downtown on eastern Canal Street, around Ludlow Street. The Bowery property fell into our laps. I admit, I had some misgivings. You see, I’ve lived on the Bowery or around the Bowery ever since I first came to New York 30 years ago. It wasn’t like I was a bum—we were hanging out with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Warhol—but it wasn’t like I was rich. I’d come out in the morning to find that some derelict had taken a shit on the windshield of my car. These guys used to walk right into our apartment. I’d try to be friendly, but once they were in there, we never got rid of the bedbugs. But it was fun. You felt like you were somewhere.

“When we opened the B Bar”—Goode’s Bowery Bar on East 4th Street in many ways set the stage for the current scene—“we built that wall around the place because of the neighborhood. There was this bunker mentality. Things were so different in 1992. Now no place is off-limits.

“This kills me because we’ve always looked for the unexpected. The frontier. The margin. When I first came here, there were so many places you felt like a pioneer. There was adventure to it. Where can you get that now? If I was a young person coming to New York now, it would be depressing. Where’s the edge, that place where you fall off into the abyss?

“Throw enough money into a situation and the whole ecosystem turns ugly, paved over. You don’t want a city that reminds you of the Beverly Center, one big entertainment mall. I’d jump off a bridge before I start putting my name on buildings like Trump.”

Asked if this dispiriting trend might be enough to make him stop developing new properties, Goode says, “No. It’s a reason to do something decent.” This is especially true on the Bowery, Goode contends, since the area has been victimized by a number of “hideous” structures, most visibly that lurch of swimming-pool-colored glass looming over Astor Place—probably the city’s most spectacularly misplaced effusion of architectural arrogance. This was the challenge, “the responsibility,” Goode said, when you put up a $550-a-night hotel across the street from the Salvation Army and next door to a drug-treatment center. You don’t want to be “obnoxious.”

Certainly, you’d never confuse the low-key swank of the Bowery Hotel’s ground-floor sitting room with a Fortunoff jewelry display. Rather, what you get is a serene, clubby Pan-Colonialism, with the dark Spanish-style furniture, stuffed big-game heads, bookshelves full of Kipling and Conrad (were those multiple copies of Heart of Darkness some kind of joke?). The brace of brooding murals of Old New York—our waitress called them “morbid”—add to the understated tone. “We struggled with that,” Goode says. “Whether to go modern or historical. Eventually, we went historical.”

Not that there aren’t ghosts in the machine. One such specter appears on every cocktail napkin and piece of hotel stationery: the hotel’s ubiquitous logo, a drawing of a long-haired, mustachioed man in a stovepipe hat, knee-high boots, flared black trousers, and double-breasted bright-red shirt leaning on a rapier-thin cane. At first I mistook this image for a lawn jockey but was set straight by a desk clerk, who said, “Oh, no, that’s the Bowery Boy.”

This wasn’t a Leo Gorcey/Little Rascal Bowery Boy. Back in the coal-fired soot and TB squalor of mid-nineteenth-century New York, a Bowery Boy was akin to a Dead Rabbit, a Plug Ugly, or a Swamp Angel, i.e., a Five Points street gang as vicious as any Blood or Crip. Epitomized by Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, these B b’hoys were prime muscle for the “nativist” movement then claiming to speak for New York’s “true Americans,” i.e., white Protestants. Decked out in their Stendhalian thugwear, aligned with the racist Know-Nothing movement, the Boyz used their walking sticks to bash in the heads of Catholics and every other immigrant they could find. They also took part in the 1863 Draft Riots, during which blacks were lynched from street lamps. Somehow the hotel’s crack “historical” department missed, or ignored, this factoid.

A suite—with factory windows—at the Bowery Hotel.

As you might guess, the beds at the Bowery Hotel are somewhat more plush than those at the Whitehouse, where the mattresses are encased in piss-resistant plastic that crackles every time you turn over. The Bowery sheets regale the naked body with a 400 Egyptian-cotton thread count, and the ocher blankets will set you back $450 if you happen to mistakenly shove one into your suitcase. But I couldn’t stay asleep. Maybe it was those ghosts, the way the window in my room, 602, overlooked the old Marble Cemetery, which Eric Goode said was one of his favorite things about the Bowery Hotel property: that “expanse of green, with the fireflies.”

“So the Bowery’s done, big deal,” says an SRO employee. “You can’t cry about it. It’s the Bowery, for chrissakes.”

It is a nice touch, the cemetery, death. I remembered the night I was walking past the Merit gas station on the corner now occupied by the Bowery Hotel. Some bums were warming themselves by a fire set in a 55-gallon drum. One of them leaned to light a cigarette, stuck his head right into the flames. His beard must have been soaked with booze; how else could he have caught on fire so fast? One of the other bums tackled the guy, made him roll around in the dirty snow. “Call the police!” he yelled, which I did, flagging down a squad car. By the time the cops got out, hands on their pistols, the fire was out, the shivering bum balled up in a fetal position. “Nothing to see here,” the cops said and told everyone to go home. A few days later, passing the same spot, I noticed the outside wall of the gas station was singed. It stayed that way for months. Now, so long after the fact, the building long since torn down and replaced by a $550-a-night hotel, the mark remains, inside my head—my personal, permanent record of 3rd Street and the Bowery.

It was one more item to process while lying in my beautiful bed at the Bowery Hotel. Here, in postmodernia, the Gideons don’t put Bibles in the night-table drawer, but I could see the back of the Third Street Men’s Shelter. On the wall were the words men. welcome. lodging. meals. employment. Painted who knew how many years ago, the words were faded now, nearly impossible to make out. But still there. Still there.

Down and Out and … Up and In on the Bowery