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.

1024px-The_Bowery_around_1910
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.

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

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.

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.”

Credits

Production

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 awesome TED talk. All the black and white photos above are by Harvey Wang from the book FLOPHOUSE: LIFE ON THE BOWERY.

 

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Comments (20)

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    1. Wisdom

      The one that plays at the end just as Roman begins talking again?

  1. Phil

    Real Journalism ….something that matters, not celebrity worship. Done long ago but still mades me think about lost souls and how easily circumstances can change and we can find ourselves there.

  2. Jim

    Great piece. Thank you for this.
    A few months ago, I stayed at the Bowery House, just down the block from where the Sunshine was. It’s been updated quite a bit, but they kept the “cubicle” setup for the rooms. My room (they call them cabins) was 4×6′, with chickenwire above to keep it secure. I’m over 6′, so I had to lay diagonal in my bed. Since the top is open, save for the chicken wire, you could hear other guests snoring, coughing, or talking quietly. It’s an interesting (though not unpleasant) place to stay, and it made this well-told story even more vivid.

  3. Blew my mind. Just electric, not a second wasted. Such a wonderful piece. This raises the bar for all other audio documentaries. Fantastic! Thank you!

  4. ed

    Saw the original documentary some years ago back when I was living in NYC. I used to walk by the Sunshine all the time and always wondered about the residents. The documentary and this episode are great insights into a part of Manhattan which is fast disappearing.

  5. Lassanyi Tamas

    The Subshine Hotel was mentioned in a novel of this year’s booker prize winner author, Laszlo Krasznahorkai War and War, as a gate to the “fearsome percints of New York”. The main character of the novel visited the hotel in November 1997, which is almost the same date, when your episode was recorded. fun fact: the main character was shocked by the “terrible indefinable rank smell” of the hotel (and by the guests staring at him) and escaped.

  6. Kip

    This is an incredible character study. I was listening and thinking, “this can’t be real!” But it is all too real, and simply incredible to hear people making the best of it.
    The audio piece runs the gambit of just about every NYC archetype and puts them all under one roof.
    I wish all radio and podcasting had such an attention to detail and storytelling as this piece has.

    Thank you for sharing this on 99PI!

  7. I happen to be reading a collection of New Yorker articles by a man named Joseph Mitchell. Though mostly focused on people and hotels further down Manhattan, like around Fulton Market, they give the same sense of a place now gone. I recommend “Up in the Old Hotel” by Mitchell.

  8. Kit

    Was sorry to find out Nathan (the manager) passed away, he seemed like a pretty genuine person.

  9. Sean

    Along with Kowloon city this is my favourite episode, I love this show and just recently got my wife hooked on it as well. Keep up the great work Roman and team.

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