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99% Invisible

The Sunshine Hotel

The Bowery, in lower Manhattan, is one of New York’s oldest neighborhoods. It’s been through a lot of iterations.

bowery google maps

In the 1650s, a handful of freed slaves were the neighborhood’s first residents. At the time, New York was still a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam, and the Lower East Side was farm land.

In the early 1800s, The Bowery had become a bustling thoroughfare with elegant theaters, and taverns, and shops. But by the late 1800s it had become a much seedier place, full of saloons, and dance halls, and prostitution.


[Bowery circa 1910. Credit: Valentine & Sons Publishing Co.]

By the 1940s, The Bowery had become New York’s skid row—a place where down-and-out men could go and rent a cheap room for the night in one of the neighborhood’s many flop houses.

Now, of course, the Lower East Side affords no room for a skid row. The Bowery, like the rest of that area, is full of expensive places to live, and fancy grocery stores.

But back in 1998, before the last of the flop hotels closed their doors, David Isay and Stacy Abramson spent months documenting one of the last of these places: The Sunshine Hotel.

Nathan Smith, Manager, Sunshine Hotel, Bowery, NYC

[Nathan Smith, Manager, Sunshine Hotel, Bowery, NYC—by Harvey Wang from FLOPHOUSE: LIFE ON THE BOWERY]

The Sunshine Hotel opened in 1922. Rooms—or really, cubicles—were 10 cents a night. The Sunshine, like other flop houses, was always a men-only establishment. In 1998, the hotel had raised it’s rates to 10 dollars a night and it was managed by resident Nathan Smith [above]. He sat behind a metal cage at the front desk, answering the phone and doling out toilet paper to residents for 35 cents. Smith had once worked in a bank until he was injured, and then fired. His wife left him and he ended up in the Bowery, and eventually at the Sunshine Hotel.

Bruce Davis, Runner, Sunshine Hotel, Bowery, NYC

Bruce Davis, Runner, Sunshine Hotel, Bowery, NYC—by Harvey Wang from FLOPHOUSE: LIFE ON THE BOWERY

The Sunshine could accommodate 125 residents, and it was nearly always full. Residents stayed in cubicles measuring four by six feet with no windows and chicken wire ceilings. Bruce Davis [above] was the hotel’s runner. He did errands for the other residents for tips.

Anthony Coppola, Sunshine Hotel, Bowery, NY

[Anthony Coppola, Sunshine Hotel, Bowery, NYC—by Harvey Wang from FLOPHOUSE: LIFE ON THE BOWERY]

Some residents of the Sunshine stayed for a few days, others, for years. Anthony Coppolla [above] lived in the hotel for years.

Vic K, Clerk, Sunshine Hotel, Bowery, NYC

[Vic K, Clerk, Sunshine Hotel, Bowery, NYC-by Harvey Wang from FLOPHOUSE: LIFE ON THE BOWERY]

Vic [above] was the front desk relief clerk. He  grew up with an alcoholic mother and an abusive father in Ohio, where he always felt like misfit. He read philosophy and poetry, and followed his dreams to The Bowery, where rent was cheap. He never left, and eventually ended up at the Sunshine Hotel.

Manager Nathan Smith said of the hotel’s residents: “some of my guys are drug addicts or alcoholics, some are just off Riker’s island, others just dream too big.”

Sound Portraits

This week, 99% Invisible presents The Sunshine Hotel, an audio documentary produced by David Isay and Stacy Abramson for Sound Portraits. It won the Prix Italia, Europe’s oldest and most prestigious broadcasting award, in 1999. David Isay now runs StoryCorps—check out their great podcast, and David’s awesomeTED talk.

All the black and white photos above are by Harvey Wang from the bookFLOPHOUSE: LIFE ON THE BOWERY.

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