When I moved to the Bowery in 1969 the street was New York’s most notorious skid row, the final stop for alcoholics, the mentally ill and other homeless indigents.
My block between Grand and Hester streets was dominated by low-end bars and flop houses where for just a couple of dollars one could rent a bed for the night. During the warmer months few bothered with the flop houses, preferring to sleep on the street and use what money they had for wine. Every time I entered or left 98 Bowery I had to push my way past drunken or passed-out men. Most were harmless but you never could be sure. No wonder the rent was cheap.
98 Bowery was one of three or four buildings on the block owned by Sol Fried. The factories and warehouses that had once occupied the upper floors of these buildings were long gone and Sol rented exclusively to artists. Legalizing these spaces was often difficult. Some units were covered by the Department of Cultural Affairs’ special artist-in-residence program, which restricted residency to the top two floors. Each floor was equipped with a big, hanging space heater that barely heated the large, drafty lofts. It was up to the tenants to fix up and maintain their own spaces For the most part it was a raw, borderline existence, although in retrospect, as poorly as we lived we represented the first wave of gentrification.
On the ground floor of 98 Bowery was Harry’s Bar, one of about five bars on the block catering to the alcoholics. At times we would go down to Harry’s to buy cigarettes and quarts of beer, but for the most part, we did our best to kept our distance from the depressing realities of the street. Keeping one’s sanity meant putting on blinders and barely acknowledging the humanity of the drunken men we called “bums.” My consciousness was raised a bit when Bettie Ringma moved in with me in the mid 1970s. Bettie talked with everyone and we soon knew the stories and struggles of Jimmy, Larry and other regulars on the street. I even learned that Harry Mason who owned the bar was an acquaintance of my Aunt Helen in Brighton Beach.
A Thanksgiving Turkey on the Bowery, 1980
During these years Bettie earned money as a multi-lingual guide escorting out-of-town visitors on tourist buses. The Bowery was part of these city tours and Bettie always pointed out the block on which she lived. At one point with Thanksgiving approaching a German tourist gave her fifty dollars to buy a Turkey for the men living on the street. Bettie and our downstairs neighbor Becky Anderson Hoppe prepared a much appreciated feast which we took down to Harry’s Bar. The next day we learned that a similar scene had unfolded just a few blocks away at the Bowery Mission when Cardinal O’Connor arrived with a turkey, and an entourage of press and TV cameras.
The Closing of Harold’s Bar, October 28, 1981
Photos by Bettie Ringma
Towards the mid-1970s Harry retired and handed off the bar to his nephew Harold. The neighborhood was changing and one by one the bars and flop houses were closing. Harry’s (now called Harold’s Bar) would hang on longer than most but finally closed for good in 1981. Neither Harold or Harry were present for the final toast. The storefront is now a Chinese Restaurant.
Harry Mason, owner of Harry’s Bar, 98 Bowery, New York City, 1974
A Photo-Written-Word Portrait by Marc H. Miller
Harry knew my Aunt Helen in Brighton Beach Brooklyn. Nearing retirement he agreed to participate in one of my Photo Written-Word-Portraits. I followed him through his day taking photographs and giving him drawing boards to write the captions.