Beyond the Bowery

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Like most men interviewed for this article, he doesn’t want to be identified. Suffice to say he’s quick-witted and light on regrets, and bears no malice toward Matt Damon for lifting the idea for Good Will Hunting from him at the Mars Bar. After a casual accounting of the ups and downs of his 15 years on the Bowery, the ex-bartender leans back in his chair in the common lounge at 197 Bowery, the building he calls home, and delivers a final assessment on the state of his neighborhood: “We got the Chinese coming in from the South, the millionaires from the North, the yuppies from the West, and the Hasidim from the East. This is the end of the line.”

So much about the Bowery has changed, including its physical scale, that it’s easy to miss the Andrews Hotel, tucked between a brand- new luxury high rise and the bright display windows of a neighboring purveyor of lighting fixtures. A narrow six-story building of sooty brick, criss-crossed by an iron fire escape, the Andrews is a typical example of what has defined this neighborhood for almost a century: the flophouse.

What it has offered its residents is basic in the extreme: a narrow bed in a plywood cubicle, cheap rent (often paid weekly), and, above all, anonymity. As one resident puts it, the unwritten rule at the Andrews has always been, “Don’t bother anybody and they won’t bother you.”

Only 15 years ago, 3,600 men still lived in “cubicle” hotels on the Bowery. Now less than a thousand and perhaps as few as 500 remain, scattered among eight enduring lodging houses. One by one, hotels that served the needs of generations of Bowery men are being transformed. The Prince will soon become luxury loft housing. The White House is catering to European backpackers, who live segregated from the other tenants, while the Grand and the Sun are home to Chinese immigrant workers.

But just as the age of the flop draws to a close, a high-profile nonprofit is stepping in to revive the idea of the Bowery style “lodging house” as a potential response to New York’s homeless crisis. The men of the Andrews, some of whom have lived in the same cubicle for more than 30 years, will soon be having guests. This February, the organization Common Ground Community purchased the Andrews Hotel in order to launch First Step Housing, a program designed to target those elements of the homeless population who are deemed “hard to serve”: those too scared, too crazy, too high or too independent for city shelters or traditional “supportive housing.” For $7 a night, these guests will be provided shelter for up to 21 days with access to medical care, substance abuse counseling, and housing placement, all with a bare minimum of case management.

First Step Housing is the brainchild of Rosanne Haggerty, the executive director of Common Ground. Haggerty was traveling and not available for an interview with City Limits. But in the April issue of Metropolis magazine, she explained the reasoning behind the purchase of the Andrews: “Social scientist Christopher Jencks zoned in on the loss of cubicle hotels as a specific cause of the rise of single-adult homelessness. Why don’t these places exist anymore? For years I’d get close to the question and then recoil because these buildings were so squalid. The quality housing advocate in me couldn’t comprehend how one could responsibly advocate their resurgence.”

The answer? Not-for-profit management could transform the Bowery lodging house, just as it has the single room occupancy hotels that Common Ground and many other organizations now run. “Then it clicked. It’s more of a failure of imagination on our part than anything embedded in the model.”

“What we’re trying to do with the Andrews is update and enhance the ‘lodging house’ style of housing,” explains Dave Beer, head of housing development for Common Ground. “We think it serves a need for service-resistant men who aren’t going to go into the shelter system and don’t have any good options as far as accessing permanent housing.” Larry Schatt, Common Ground’s Chief Operating Officer, hopes to coax people into “a decent place, where, if you have a couple of bucks in your pocket, you can rest, get a shower, and maybe make a decision to get off the streets.”

To realize its vision, Common Ground is going to refit the Andrews from the basement up, with an elevator, a new boiler, complete rewiring and a makeover of the grimy façade, adding three floors to the six-story building in the process. A potent brew of public and private financing will cover the $5.1 million renovation, including loans from the Industrial Bank of Japan, Greenpoint Bank, and Deutsche Bank, along with HUD supportive housing grants. Funding from DHS and the New York State Homeless Housing Assistance Program will cover operating expenses; the state Department of Mental Health may also eventually join in.

But construction is just one part of what promises to be a long and difficult process. In addition to the complexity of gutting and rehabbing a hundred-year-old building occupied by 87 elderly men, Common Ground may need all of its professional expertise in overcoming what, in New York City, can be an insurmountable obstacle for landlords: the rent-stabilized tenant.

Pete Lambert, a 10-year resident of the hotel, is a little sick of how the press portrays Bowery residents. “I don’t want people to get a screwed-up idea that everybody down here is half-retarded,” he says. Since Common Ground acquired the building in February, Lambert, a slender, bespectacled man in his early sixties who works part-time for an architect, has been keeping a close eye on proceedings. Lambert is among the roughly 20 men who have been meeting every two to three weeks at the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men, on Bleecker Street, with lawyers from Mobilization for Youth’s East Side SRO Law Project. Recently christened the Andrews Hotel Tenants’ Association, they plan on being actively involved in the Andrews’ transformation.

It was Lambert who contacted MFY when Common Ground began construction at his hotel without a Certificate of No Harassment, a document every developer rebuilding an SRO must obtain to ensure they treat tenants fairly in the process. (Within a matter of days, Common Ground obtained a waiver from HPD; Beer admits that Common Ground “jumped the gun.”) He has a clear grasp of his rights regarding any efforts to relocate him and the other tenants even within the Andrews during the upcoming renovation. Notes Lambert, “They cannot make us move.”

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“When you’re talking of the Andrews,” reflects Father John Ahearn, who recently retired as director of the Holy Name Center, “you’re talking of people who have lived lodging house lives for 40 years.” Father Ahearn has been working with the men of the Bowery for three decades, and he has been dealing with the Andrews since 1981. Until five years ago, he ran one of the best private short-term shelters in the city in the main auditorium of Holy Name, with the help of the greatly beloved Sister Virginia Vayda. He describes two constants in Bowery life that have drawn men to it: “A market for cheap labor and a degree of anonymity that you control.”

When it came to safety and stability, the Andrews has always been considered to be in the top tier of Bowery flops. This was due in large part to the management of Mike Gatto. Whatever people thought of Mike as a person (assessments range from “gruff” to “He hated our guts”), it’s generally acknowledged that he ran a tight ship by lodging-house standards. Drug use, besides alcohol, never went beyond a little discreet pot on the roof. Violence was kept to a minimum, even during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, when other hotels became increasingly dangerous. His ledger accounts were accurate and, as new Andrews director Shari Siegel discovered when she converted them to Common Ground’s computerized system, up to date.

The crowd was always older, and, it should be said, nearly always white. According to Gerry Howard, an African-American member of the Catholic Worker community on East 1st Street who lived in Bowery hotels in the early 1990s, “It was a widely held perception that people of my color were not welcome at hotels like the Andrews.”

The Andrews is generally a quiet place, and life for the tenants follows set routines. Those who work get up and go to their jobs. Others sit quietly in the dim common room and watch TV or play a little cards. Of course, there are some men here who drink. Since the last “Bowery bar” closed in 1993, men usually take their beers out to a nearby park when the weather’s nice or quietly consume 40s in their rooms. Then there are those who do not leave their cubicles at all: the elderly sick who realize that staying put is the only thing keeping them from a nursing home, and those who simply prefer not to. They rely on “runners”–men who make trips to the neighborhood stores for a small fee–to supply their daily needs. The Bowery Residents Committee brings by meals twice a week, there’s a visiting nurse who stops in, and those who are interested know where the senior centers, meal programs and AA meetings are located (though plenty of people have gotten sober here with or without the 12 steps).

Like all inveterate New York renters, the men at the Andrews reserve the right not to know their neighbors. Of course, this is difficult when all that separates you from your neighbor is a thin sheet of plywood. Consequently, who you live next to determines, to a large degree, your quality of life. Though it’s easy to lump them together demographically–older, white, with a high percentage of vets and drinkers–they are among the most individualistic people you could meet. They do what they want to do, hang out with who they want to hang out with, and any attempt to interfere with their privacy is treated as presumption.

Rosanne Haggerty is right: The Andrews is squalid, and it has gotten even more so in the last few years, as owner Mike grew tired of the business. The cubicles, two rows to a floor separated by a narrow cement hallway, barely accommodate the sole furnishing of an iron bedstead. The walls are open, topped with a foot of iron mesh, so noise travels easily. It’s cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and the toilets often stink. Ventilation is almost nonexistent and tobacco smoke is thick.

“We are not program people” is a common refrain among the men of the Andrews, and Common Ground has promised to do everything in its power to see to it that, as far as possible, the current tenants are left undisturbed. As the new director of the Andrews, Siegel–a nurse practitioner with 10 years experience in the MTA’s homeless outreach program–has intentionally made no attempt to curb the men’s smoking or drinking. Nor has she or her staff insisted that they participate in any sort of mandatory counseling.

The preliminary stages of reconstruction have already resulted in some real improvements in the quality of life at the Andrews. A small mountain of garbage has been removed from the empty rooms, and a massive extermination effort has curbed the predation of the bedbugs that historically have contributed much to the general misery of Bowery life. Cheap snack machines have greatly improved the ambiance of the common lounge. Best of all, cable TV has arrived in time for the bulk of the baseball season.

But the renovation of the building is already proving to be a difficult experience for the men. On the Monday after Easter, a notice went up on the bulletin board announcing that the wire mesh lining the tops of the cubicles would be vacuumed. Most of the men, however, did not realize that they had to cover their belongings to protect them from the years of caked dust knocked loose during the process. One, a waiter, came home from the night shift to find a layer of black dust coating his bed and belongings. The airborne particulates were also not appreciated by those (and there are many) who suffer from chronic respiratory ailments.

Dave Beer freely acknowledges that there have been some “bumps in the road” and attributes problems with the cleaning to a “lack of communication.” He emphasizes that regular meetings are now being held with the men at the Andrews to advise them about the renovation. But the real test of the relationship between Common Ground and its new tenants will come this fall, when the first wave of relocations is scheduled to happen.

The second floor is slated to be completely torn out before work can start on the front of the building. Interim offices for the staff and a staff bathroom will be installed, as well as a temporary stairway to replace the one in the front. The second floor shower will be removed and a new one will be installed on the fourth floor, and the seven residents currently living on the second floor will be moved upstairs.

This concerns some of the tenants. Traditionally, Mike would put the weakest residents on the second floor, close to both bathing facilities and the street. They’ll be asked to move up to the fourth floor this fall, but the promised elevator won’t be ready by then. There’s also a social dislocation involved. Loan Mai-Nakagawa runs the senior center at the Bowery Residence Committee on Chrystie Street and knows many of the men at the Andrews quite well. For the oldest men, particularly the homebound, she says, “moving to a new cubicle is like moving to a new neighborhood.” Even moving up a couple of flights of stairs can disrupt delicate social relationships that have been built up over years and that are especially important for those who can’t (or won’t) leave their cubicles and rely on their neighbors for help.

But the dislocation is necessary if Common Ground is to realize its particular vision of transi-tional housing. Common Ground has a reputation for providing cutting edge social services with style, and it seems that every project has a distinct signature. The Times Square Hotel has a ground floor Ben and Jerry’s that employs residents; the Prince George features a Victorian Tea Room, rented out for meetings and events, as well as a soon-to-be-restored Grand Ballroom. In the case of the Andrews, at the heart of the project is an innovation in interim housing design: the First Step Housing Unit.

Says Rosanne Haggerty, “For many hard-to-reach homeless, just going indoors represents a ‘first step’ to stability.” In order to discover what kind of shelter would appeal to the recalcitrant–something between a dorm bed and a room–Common Ground interviewed more than 200 homeless men and women living on the street. Haggerty followed this with a trip to Japan to study that country’s cubicle hotels (used primarily by business travelers) and to confer with Japanese architects and housing developers. All of the insights gleaned from her research and travels have come together in the simple structures Common Ground plans to install at the Andrews.

These self-contained 9′ x 6.5′ x 7′ high plywood and fiberglass modules, designed by architect Marguerite McGoldrick, are twice the size of the cubicles currently in use at the Andrews. They contain amenities like a desk (illuminated in the prototype installed in the ballroom of the Prince George by an attached gooseneck lamp) and an enclosed closet with a sliding door, fixtures that are simply unthinkable in the narrow enclosures that now line the corridors of the hotel. The units each have interchangeable panels and a handicapped-accessible sliding front door (in its current incarnation of patterned plastic, it resembles the Shoji doors found in Japanese dwellings). These casita-like cubicles can be assembled and disassembled in a matter of hours.

McGoldrick stresses that the design is being continually fine-tuned with an eye to the needs of current and prospective tenants. In fact, the men themselves will be able to customize the units. “It’s the erector set meets Japan meets the American body!” McGoldrick says of her “jewelbox of a design.” By the end of the Andrews refitting, overseen by contractor Richard Vitto of Oaklander, Coogan and Vitto, 146 of these First Step housing units will replace the 203 cubicles now in the hotel.

Relocation is the hot topic right now. In order to complete its complex and multistaged renovation, Common Ground is asking each man to sign a voluntary agreement that would allow him to be moved two or three times during construction. Since the men are rent-stabilized tenants by law–Common Ground does not dispute this–the question naturally arises: What happens if they refuse? When asked about this, Larry Schatt, after expressing repeatedly a deep wish for a peaceful resolution to all potential conflicts, finally offers this bottom line: “It is our understanding that we have the legal right to move them with prior notice.”

Attorney Jim Provost of MFY scoffs at this notion. “They have to have grounds for eviction under the law! The only way they can be removed is if they violate a lease–which they don’t have–or if they’re a nuisance. You’re not a nuisance if you get in the way of a landlord’s plan for his building. If that were the case, landlords all over New York would be kicking people out left and right!” Resident Pete Lambert’s in-house take is succinct: “They could have a battle on their hands.”

Also at issue is the language of the agreements, which is being negotiated between MFY and Common Ground’s lawyers. In the first issue of the tenants association newsletter, published in May, Pete Lambert lays out some of the key points that the men want included. The first is a written acknowledgment of the tenants’ legal status. Though Common Ground has given assurances that the men’s $36-a-week rent would go up only at the rates set by the Rent Guidelines Board, MFY would like to see specific mention of the tenants’ rent-stabilized status in order to afford them all of the safeguards against displacement that rent regulation entails. (New residents will not have such protections: By law, anyone staying less than 30 days does not have tenants’ rights.)

As an adjunct to this, MFY would like to see a provision that would allow the preservation of the 87 spots currently occupied by the tenants as permanent, rent-stabilized housing, and to secure a right for the tenants to screen new applicants for these units. After all, the lack of affordable housing is a primary cause of homelessness. According to Siegel, the men are dying at a rate of one a month. Given this attrition, and the replacement of full-time tenants by temporary guests, the end result of the First Step Housing Program could be the reduction of cheap housing stock. Those rooms could conceivably be filled by men being slowly forced out of the other hotels; men, moreover, who are already at ease with the culture of the Bowery lodging house.

Keeping current residents separate from the new short-term guests is another of the residents’ demands. These men are not simply particular about who they share space with; Bowery life has taught them to be justifiably wary of outsiders, especially younger, possibly violent men. Though the neighborhood has changed, there are still some wild and crazy folks walking the streets at night. Under Mike Gatto, screening was built in, the criteria usually being previous residency, knowing someone or a referral by someone trustworthy like Father Ahearn.

Segregation was one of the big topics raised at a May meeting at Holy Name of the Community Advisory Board, an offshoot of Community Board 3. Questioned by Pete Lambert and fellow tenant Dave Temple about the possibility for a permanent segregation of guests and residents, Beer replied that he would accommodate the tenants “to the extent possible, but we will never leave a unit vacant.” Both Beer and Siegel have mentioned the possibility that guests could be limited to those over age 50, who, in Siegel’s words, would “provide a better fit for the culture of the Andrews.”

While much of Common Ground’s ultimate plan still remains on the drawing board, basic details of the new dispensation are laid out in the contract with the city’s Department of Homeless Services, signed in October 2001. In return for $2.5 million in capital funding and a subsidy of $150 per unit per month, Common Ground will provide 60 percent of its vacant units for DHS referrals and, after one year, maintain a total occupancy rate of 95 percent. Dave Beer acknowledges that this revenue stream lacks the “flexibility” to allow for the maintenance of rent-stabilized housing for any future long-term guests. In effect, the Andrews will now become another adjunct–if quite likely an extremely well run one–of the city’s overall emergency shelter system.

Jim Provost is doubtful that a 21-day program could make much difference. “People stay in Tier II shelters for years!” he says, referring to supposedly “temporary” family shelters funded by DHS. No doubt it will be a challenge for Common Ground to find long-term housing for the hundreds of men who will be passing through First Step Housing each year. But Beer is hopeful that Common Ground’s housing referral services will make all the difference, adding “We hope that ultimately some of these men could end up in Common Ground’s buildings.”

He also elaborates on the essential nature of the screening procedure. “If someone doesn’t come to us clean and sober,” he says, “we’re really not equipped to deal with them.”

This is a far cry from Bowery lodging house life as the men at the Andrews and other hotels like it have known it for the past 50 years. What made the Andrews work–which it did, in its way–was not a program but a web of largely unspoken contracts between men whose common goal was to be left in peace, all of which was overseen by a man whose primary concern was a modicum of order and the steady collection of rents.

But Common Ground didn’t set out to run the Andrews Hotel. (In fact, it initially had their eye on installing the First Step Housing Units at the more capacious Prince.) The organization simply needed a place to experiment with its ideas concerning emergency housing. The critical factor is the building code. Common Ground can’t just go out and create a new flophouse, because housing laws were altered in 1955 to prohibit them, on the premise that they are unsanitary and unsafe. When asked if Common Ground’s units could be placed in other structures, Dave Beer replies, “It’s my impression that we could only do this in buildings that fall under the lodging house code.” They were lucky to find one in today’s market.

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Father Ahearn isn’t quite sure where the Bowery-style lodging house fits into the lives of the city’s poor these days. “Substantially, the people we see are not staying in hotels and probably wouldn’t even if they could. I don’t think there’s much of a market for the permanent flophouse resident. There’s not enough 70-year-old street guys to fill the Andrews, and the younger guys…it’s not in their book. A single guy, no attachments, likes that loner style of life…how many are there who are 35 or 40 years old? People who don’t want to change anything, washing dishes at the Greek diner, been at it for 10 years, no family–doesn’t want one–just wants to be left alone. Who’s in the pipeline behind these guys?”

Social scientists like Jencks and nonprofits like Common Ground are promoting the compelling idea that inferior housing, however unpleasant it might seem to those who don’t have to live in it, is better than no housing. But the time to preserve the flop has passed; the damage done by previous generations of reformers and urban planners is beyond repair. Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and San Francisco–all across the country cubicle hotels have been demolished, and there are absolutely no plans to resurrect them.

Housing for the poor functions best in poor neighborhoods, where people can find what they want: temp labor offices, cheap restaurants and bars, check cashing outlets, street life. Nothing is more unlikely in post-Giuliani New York than the resurrection of Skid Row on an avenue dividing two of Manhattan’s most fashionable neighborhoods. As for the residents, this is the last generation. You’d do better to look to Fukien province than the streets of Manhattan for their replacements.

The lowest tier of New York’s housing market has gone almost completely underground. Illegally subdivided rooms in Queens basements, cut-rate rooming houses in the Rockaways, tenements in Chinatown–these are among the likely choices for poor workingmen today. For as long as they hold on to employment, these men are not lodging house people.

Perhaps unwittingly, Common Ground may be reviving another model of temporary housing: the rescue mission. Like First Step Housing, a mission provides basic housing with few expectations from its guests. What a mission offers beyond that is a standing invitation to accept Christ. Common Ground is opening a different door for homeless men: reentry into the mainstream, through the ministrations of trained social service professionals.

Whatever difficulties Common Ground might encounter in resuscitating the lodging house, the organization does have a proven track record when it comes to providing safe and decent housing. When the rehabilitation of the Andrews is finally complete, anywhere from 18 months to two years in the future, it’s going to look terrific. New lounges, a shower on every floor, on-site medical care, all of these will be great for those guys still around to appreciate them. “Between you and me, it could be worse than Common Ground,” says Pete Lambert. “They could’ve sold it to a Hong Kong millionaire and got three or four goons to get us out. I don’t knock everything they’ve done–what’s good is good. The bedbug situation is definitely better.” This is a common sentiment even among critics.

The ex-bartender looks forward to the new cubicles. “Maybe with a little more space you won’t have to listen to the fellow next to you farting and snoring all night,” he says. Says another resident, in a refrain as old as the Andrews, “This is the best deal we could get.”

Bob Roberts is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.