Hunger and hopelessness on the Bowery

If New York had to nominate one street as its most rock-bottom skid row ever, it would probably have to be the Bowery. Not the Bowery of 2009, of course, with its influx of luxe hotels and boutiques.

bowerybreadline.jpgI’m thinking of the Bowery of 1909, where down-on-their-luck men stood on bread lines and passed time in 15-cent hotel rooms, as these Library of Congress photos show.

If a man found himself on the Bowery, that was pretty much it for him. He’d sunk as low as you could go, and things weren’t going to get better.

Theodore Dreiser understood this when he wrote Sister Carrie. It’s an underrated turn-of-the-century New York novel chronicling the rise of a young, ambitious actress (kind of a Carrie Bradshaw of the 1890s) juxtaposed with the fall of her older common-law husband. 

Sister Carrie ends with the husband, the unemployed, weakened, and abandoned Hurstwood, committing suicide in a Bowery flophouse:

Boweryflophouse“Hurstwood laid down his fifteen cents and crept of with weary steps to his allotted room. It was a dingy affair—wooden, dusty, hard. A small gas-jet furnished sufficient light for so rueful a corner.

“‘Hm!’ He said, clearing his throat and locking the door.

“Now he began leisurely to take off his clothes, but stopped first with his coat, and tucked it along the crack under the door. His vest he arranged in the same place. His old wet, cracked hat he laid softly upon the table. Then he pulled off his shoes and laid down.

“It seemed as if he thought for a while, for now he arose and turned the gas out, standing calmly in the blackness, hidden from view. After a few moments, in which he reviewed nothing, but merely hesitated, he turned the gas on again, but applied no match. Even then he stood there, hidden wholly in that kindness which is night, while the uprising fumes filled the room. When the odour reached his nostrils, he quit his attitude and fumbled for the bed.

“‘What’s the use?’ he said, weakly, as he stretched himself to rest.”

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11 Responses to “Hunger and hopelessness on the Bowery”

  1. NYCDreamin Says:

    I read “Sister Carrie” earlier this summer. Well written and descriptive of old New York, but SOOO depressing.

  2. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Another great book by Dreiser, though on another topic, is ‘An American Dream.’ I love huge books, man, you can be caught up in it for weeks…

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    As depressing as it is, especially once they get to New York, it’s such a timeless book. There are millions of Carries and Hurstwoods in this city.

  4. petey Says:

    all my youth the bowery was synonymous with the dead end, and it’s hard to imagine it any other way. i was amazed when i read in luc sante’s Low Life that it was the theater district in the 19th century, and am amazed now when i see it gone boozhwah.

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