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October 22, 2011

How the Other Half Lives

In 1890 the immigrant social reformer Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, a searing photo-textual expose of the appalling and inhumane living conditions of the 300,000+ residents packed into a square mile of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

And as is the case with many impoverished inner cities neighborhoods, the Lower East Side has undergone significant gentrification in recent years.  So it is that the NYT recently reported on the renovation of The Prince Hotel, a nearly century-old flophouse in the Bowery that continues to offer rooms—actually “cramped cubicles topped with chicken wire” —for $10 a night to a few men who continue to need a place to live and can actually afford the rent, but which also has converted several “upper” floors into a “stylish,” and “refined version of the gritty experience” for $62-$129 a night that includes “custom-made mattresses and high-end sheets.  Their bathrooms have marble sinks and heated floors.  Their towels are Ralph Lauren.”

There is something tawdry about the whole endeavor, to be sure.  The real estate developers who came up with the idea of promoting a “flophouse aesthetic” believe that it embodies a “living history vibe” that is as much a museum experience as it is a hotel for “stylish young men and women.”  Indeed, the NYT reports that the down-on-their luck individuals who live in the dilapidated cubicles on the lower floors are “an asset to the property,” apparently because they give some authenticity to the experience of “slumming”—a word, alas, which has returned to something like its original usage.  We could go on at some length to criticize the industry of slum tourism which, at least until now, has been more prominent in developing nations like India, Brazil, and Indonesia than the U.S., but there is really a different and more important point worth making.

The two photos above, which show one of the “nicer,” lower-level squalid rooms, top-left, and one of the upper-level, renovated versions of the “gritty experience,” bottom-right, right invite us to see the direction of America’s economic future.  Those who live in the room top-left have barely enough to get by. The room is dimly lit, and while neat and orderly, it is stuffed full with all of this person’s worldly goods. This is not the room of a destitute street person, after all, for they do have a television and other electronic equipment, including a jury-rigged ceiling fan, and they have enough money to pay the rent which implies some very minimal resources; but it is equally clear that their piece of the American Dream has eluded them.  And a look at their bathroom facilities makes the point all the more.  Those who live in the room  bottom-right seem to have arrived.  They not only survive, but enjoy the luxuries of an aristocratic class, with designer towels and sheets, and black bathrobes (that apparently bear The Bowery House monogram: TBH).  Their bathroom stands in marked contrast to those living on the floors below.  The developer describes the clientele for rooms like this as “people who might choose a cheap cubicle  for their city accommodations, yet go out for a $300-a-bottle table service.”

What we see in these two images when juxtaposed (and by the hotel-museum aesthetic more generally) is a glimpse at a possible—and all too likely—economic future, a world divided between the haves and the have-nots with little room in between.  In short, we see a world in which the middle class itself has been erased.  There are many reasons why this spells tragedy for our future—and somewhat ironically, not least the inability for a capitalist economy to sustain itself— but surely at the top of the list is the simple fact that  a society defined by such stark and radical economic inequality will never be able to sustain a vibrant democratic political culture.

– John Lucaites

(Photos: James Estrin/NYT)

  • tinwoman

    Well, hopefully some of those swanky visitors will have the “full experience”, including being mugged or beaten down by some of the “regulars”.  There’s always hope.

    • Ciclo

      That is a fairly hateful statement about people, the “regulars,” who are doing the best they can, sleep safely for $10 a night.  They are poor, downtrodden, and fortunate to be off the streets.

      Do you have you direct experience staying in flop houses?  Do you know for facts that the “regulars” are thugs and thieves? If not, please don’t stereotype part of our 99%.

  • bks

    Now that celebrities are turning out to have their photo ops at OWS, this would seem to be the perfect pied a terre.  Occupy Skid Row!

        –bks
     

  • glenn

    I read this article when it came out and I don’t know how I feel about it, other than uncomfortable. The economic distance between the high end and the low end clientele is really less than it appears, I think. $62 – $129 a night is really a very low hotel rate in New York City.

    We can’t conflate TBH’s marketing and branding rhetoric with reality. I don’t imagine there are many “people who might choose a cheap cubicle  for their city accommodations, yet go out for a $300-a-bottle table service” out there. More likely, the proprietors of TBH have found the narrow tipping point of between cost and amenities that young hopeful visitors can manage.

    Within a few blocks of TBH are undergraduate dormitories for NYU and The New School, which look very similar in terms of space and size – and cost $13,000 – $17,000 per semester. If you divide 122 days (Sept – Dec) by the cost, it comes out to about the same as TBH.

    The neighborhood isn’t really slumming, in fact. They’re at Bowery and Prince – there are scores of high-end boutiques and restaurants there. The regular clientele of TBH are more out of the norm in that neighborhood nowadays than the hipsters are.

    Back in the 1970s when I rehearsed off-off-broadway theatre productions on the same block as the Prince Hotel, young hopeful artsy types from the Midwest stayed at YMCA hostels on their arrival in New York, before they could find a squat on the LES to share with other artists.

    Looks like TBH are counting on hipster middle-to-upper middle young people coming to town to pay less than they’d pay in a real hotel while trying to make connections for more permanent living – in some equally tiny makeshift cubicle in a tenement apartment with their new friends.

    The high thread count furnishings are just window-dressing to make it seem less of a rip-off.

    • tinwoman

      It says something that most of the clientle are Europeans—these are, I would guess, cost-conscious middle class Germans (remember when the U.S. had a middle class?) whose parents are mid level office workers and such.  I am constantly surprised by how many Germans even from the “lower brackets” of income have done a couple of weeks in New York followed the next year by a couple of weeks in California.  A place like this hotel would be perfect for them–adequate, not too expensive.

  • Jaime

    - a “stylish,” and “refined version of the gritty experience”-

    this seems to me to appeal to the same tone-deaf tendency towards things like hobo-themed weddings and, in a more historical context, the Hameau de la Reine.  That didn’t end well…

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  • bks
  • tinwoman

    The article clearly states that one of the “regulars”–of which there are fewer than ten, as the management badly wants to get rid of them entirely–has twice smashed the sign outside the hotel.  Another has been to prison regularly.  These long-term indigent residents who cannot be moved on legally appear to have some mental problems, of which at least, violent vandalism has been a part.

    So…………….

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