This is an audio portrait of one of the final vestiges of the Bowery, New York’s notorious skid row. In the first half of the century, the mile-long Bowery’s bars, missions and cheap hotels (or flophouses) were home to an estimated 35,000 down-and-out men each night. Today, only a handful of flophouses, virtually unchanged for half a century, are all that remain of this once teeming world.

For several months in 1998, David Isay and Stacy Abramson had unprecedented 24-hour access to the Sunshine Hotel, one of the last of the no-frills establishments. “It was like stepping into King Tut’s Tomb,” Isay says. “The Sunshine is this fascinating, self-contained society full of unbelievable characters. While it’s a profoundly sad place, it is, at the same time, home to men with powerful and poetic stories.”

The Sunshine Hotel was awarded the Prix Italia, Europe’s oldest and most prestigious broadcasting award, in 1999.

Recorded in New York City. Premiered September 18, 1998, on All Things Considered.

Update on The Sunshine Hotel

Nathan Smith, manager of the Sunshine Hotel, wrote the following update on March 13, 2001:

Naturally things have changed since the broadcast of The Sunshine Hotel in 1998. The Bowery has changed, the Sunshine among the final six of the remaining flophouses on the Bowery. Renovation is the name of the game in SoHo. The mayor envisions a huge apartment complex and sports plaza from Confucius Plaza to 6th Street. The pending invisible memory of the Sunshine, located some two thirds of the way between the two streets along Third Avenue, the trolley and el gone with everything else of yesterday’s memories.

The hotel has changed as to its population: Vinny and his birds are gone. L.A.’s gone. The guy on the tape who says he doesn’t want to die in the hotel was found sitting up in bed, dead, looking straight ahead through sightless eyes. Here you witness the ignominy of death — Vinny dropped dead in the street that morning; L.A., grotesque in the dim light, a look of shock on his face; Anthony, all 425 pounds of him, died from diabetes in Beth Israel Hospital.

Yeah, they’re all gone. But there are some success stories, like a former porter becoming a social worker and car owner. Another of our car owners had his stolen three weeks after he bought it. It wasn’t new anyway, even if it was a Cadillac. Prince Street is becoming very trendy. The wise guys are gone but in keeping up the flavor of the former neighborhood, they shot and killed the manager of Connecticut Muffin. You’re hard pressed to see winos anymore, but you will see a smattering of the emotionally distressed, like “One Can” Kerry raving in the street harmlessly, closing in of the day somebody will beat him up. But he proves the adage that God protects drunks and babies, though sometimes that seems little more than a charming statement.

Yes, the Bowery and the hotel have changed. Fast coming are the days when all of this will be no more than a chapter in someone’s book of memories of days gone by.

Nathan Smith

This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.