24 July 2023

The Bowery — A Vanished World Revisited

The protagonist of my long-running Bruce Kohler mystery series got sober at the beginning of Death Will Get You Sober, written in 2003 and published in 2008 by St Martin's (back before the birth of Minotaur), on Christmas Eve in detox on the Bowery. I wrote the following in a SleuthSayers post called "Down on the Bowery" in 2012.

The Bowery in lower Manhattan, along with Seattle’s Skid Row and its namesakes in Los Angeles and other cities, had long been synonymous with down-and-out chronic alcoholism. The area was famous for its bars and flophouses as well as the “Bowery bums” who came from all over the country to drink cheap Thunderbird and sleep it off in the gutter. I first went down to the Bowery in 1983. I was not yet a fiction writer, much less a clinical social worker with a master’s degree or a psychotherapist. For a seminar connected with getting my alcoholism counseling credential, I had a choice of places to intern. My professor urged me to pass up the expensive private clinic and go down to the Bowery. “You’ll love it,” he said, and he was right.

I caught the very end of the era before the homeless spread out all over the city. There were only a few bars and two or three genuine flophouses left. But walking down the Bowery from Astor Place, you entered another world when you crossed Fifth Street. The program was housed in the notorious men’s shelter on Third Street, still a scary place at that time. To reach the elevator, you had to breast your way through crowds of not too sweet-smelling men who stood around in a fog of cigarette smoke. The elevator had no buzzer. To get to the program on the fourth floor, you had to pound on the scarred elevator door with your fist, and eventually Wisdom the elevator man would bring it creaking down to get you. (His name was Winston, but no one called him that.) You took your life in your hands if you used the stairs.

My first day as an intern, the last of the cops who’d formed the first “rescue team” in 1967 to bring “Bowery bums” to detox instead of just throwing them in jail took me out with him. It was Check Day, when all the guys on any kind of public assistance or veteran’s benefits got their monthly check. So nobody was lying in the gutter. The cop said we’d find them in the bars. It was 10:30 in the morning. I remember the sun slanting down across the bar, the dust, the bartender polishing a glass, and the row of heads that turned toward us in unison.
They all knew the cop. They knew why we were there. The bartender sounded like an elevator man in Bloomingdale’s. He said, “Fourth floor! fourth floor! who wants to go?” They knew exactly what he meant. They’d all spent many nights in the shelter. Some of them had been in detox 60 times.

The shelter was cleaned up by the time I went back in 1993 as program director of an outpatient alcohol program. The building also housed a drug therapeutic community. I once walked up the formerly dangerous stairs in a Santa Claus hat and a red feather boa to help sing Christmas carols in the detox. During the later 90s, chi-chi restaurants and fern bars started moving onto the Bowery. A block east, blue recycling garbage cans stood neatly in front of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. Their stretch of Third Street curb was painted yellow. The city had put up a sign: “Parking reserved for Hell’s Angels motorcycles only.”

Today, the building has been thoroughly renovated, though it still houses social service programs.
There’s a chic restaurant on the corner and a boutique hotel beyond it, with an outdoor patio bar looking onto the 18th century graveyard hidden behind the facades of the buildings that form the square between Third and Second Streets and the Bowery and Second Avenue.
When I left in 1999, it was still a secret wilderness of spiky grasses, wildflowers, and a gnarled old tree or two, its silence broken only by birdsong and the occasional yowls of mating cats. Now it looks like a park.

Ten years after I wrote this—the blog post, not the novel—Project Renewal still runs programs for the homeless out of the old Men's Shelter. I've heard they bought the building from the City for a dollar. It's been thoroughly renovated, and the word PUBLIC in faded, giant letters, with the L missing, is no longer visible on its side to give passersby a smile. At the Bowery Hotel, as of July 2022, you could book a room for Christmas Eve ("room only") for between $515 (queen) and $1,281 (suite) a night. If you imagine yourself facing south at Astor Place and the point where the north end of the Bowery (it is a street) meets Lafayette Street as the prow of a ship, its figurehead is the Cooper Union, in whose Great Hall Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that propelled him to the Presidency. That's still there. It's a landmark building. But the Bowery as a neighborhood with a flavor of its own, even a changing one with fern bars overtaking the dereliction, is gone. The buildings, glass and steel and chrome, were built in the twenty-first century, after I left my job and finally had time to write Death Will Get You Sober, which I'd been talking about for years.


  1. I just checked this year's rates. You can spend Xmas Eve to Xmas Day 2023 in a deluxe studio suite at the Bowery Hotel, a Sunday night to Monday morning, for $1,500. Five star service, of course. Some flophouse!

  2. Oh, what a wonderful portrait of the old days! I remember in Atlanta, GA, when I was oh, 18-19 years old, working at the Four Corners Market, when Atlanta still had Blue Laws, and every Saturday two cases of Polly Peachtree Aftershave arrived and every Sunday about 20 winos lined up to buy them with shaking hands. Always two bottles, one to drink and then throw it back up, the other to drink and keep it down...

  3. Now, that's one I've never heard, Eve.

    1. It got them through a dry Sunday. Sad, but true.

  4. What a change! In the latter 60s, I had to locate a guy in the Bowery. A cop advised me to bring a six-pack to pay tolls. I had forgotten until Eve mentioned aftershave, but apparently one source of alcoholic desperation was to strain liquid shoe polish through handkerchiefs.

    The memory that's stuck with me was Wall Street, not 4th Street. At lunch, I was strolling with my boss who stopped to speak with the owner of a cardboard flat over one of the grates. After the chat, boss somberly told me the man had been his manager until he entered into an affair with his manager's wife. His life spiraled out of control as he lost his wife, his job, and everything that mattered. Riches to rags tales do happen.

    Thanks for the update, Liz. You're a very interesting person.


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