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On Bowery, Cultures Clash as the Shabby Meetthe Shabby ChicPublished: October 12, 2011On the Bowery, on the second floor of an ancient flophouse, nine men pay less than $10 a night tosleep in cramped cubicles topped with chicken wire. Half the stalls in their shared bathroom aremissing doors, and their halls are lined with spooky rows of empty cubicles whose last occupantseither took off or died off.Directly above them, on the third and fourth floors, stylish young men and women pay $62 to $129a night for a refined version of the gritty experience below. Their cubicles have custom-mademattresses and high-end sheets. Their shared bathrooms have marble sinks and heated floors. Theirtowels are Ralph Lauren.The alternate worlds within 220 Bowery rarely intersect, although the hotel’s flophouse aesthetic ismeant to create a “living history” vibe that is “equal parts museum and hotel,” its developers say.One of them, Sanford Kunkel, goes so far as to describe the men below, living in walk-in closets,scraping by, as “an asset to the property.”An example of this is the hotel room called the Peppers Bunk, named after “Charlie Peppers,” amongthe building’s “most colorful longtime residents,” the hotel’s publicity material explains. There is, infact, a silent, unapproachable tenant named Charlie who does, in fact, eat lots of peppers. He hasnot been told by the hotel that a room upstairs is named after him, or that he is considered colorful,or that his cubicle lifestyle is being used as a P.R. come-on.But Charlie has, at times, expressed his displeasure with the flophouse homage above him. Beforethe hotel, calledthe Bowery House, opened in midsummer in Lower Manhattan, this man of fewwords walked up to a couple of its workers and said, simply: Leave.Here, then, continues the never-ending push and pull between New York’s past and present. Thoseon the second floor — Charlie, and Ricky, and Walter — represent the Bowery’s fading days as aboulevard of last resort. Those on the upper floors — many of them European, a few of them models— represent the Bowery’s growing status as a gentrified hangout for the oh-so-hip.The arrangement recalls “My Man Godfrey,” a Depression-era comedy with a social conscience, inwhich oblivious socialites race to the city dump to find a “forgotten man” for an elite gathering’sscavenger hunt. Better yet, it echoes a distant Bowery practice known as slumming, in whichgaggles of Gilded Age gentry would tour its saloons, opium dens and slums, all for that flutteringthrill of There but for the Grace of God — and the Breaks of Privilege and Birthright — Go I.The Prince Hotel was built in the late 1920s as just another lodging house for the fallen princes ofthe city: 54 crammed on the second floor, 74 on the third, 74 on the fourth. Around 1950, woodencubicles were installed, along with a small clerk’s booth on the second floor — a standard flophousesetup.A dozen years ago, Joey Grill, the co-owner of the Click modeling agency, bought the flophouse andstopped accepting new tenants, in hopes that through attrition he might someday create dormitory-style housing for models and actors. Eventually, though, he moved his remaining tenants to thesecond floor and, for several years, leased the upper floors to Common Ground, a nonprofit agencydedicated to solving homelessness.As the years passed, more and more cubicles at the Prince became vacant, though not available.Then, several months ago, Mr. Grill and his partners were approached by two developers with out-of-town roots and big plans: Mr. Kunkel, a real estate entrepreneur originally from Indiana, andAlessandro Zampedri, a businessman and former racecar driver from Italy.
Their idea, to create a hostel-like hotel for a sexy, vibrant clientele — while also preserving part ofthe Bowery’s past — reminded Mr. Grill of his own original plans, and a deal was struck. Soon, theupper-floor cubicles were being renovated to accommodate those desiring a frisson of Bowerydespair.Mr. Kunkel is 30, enthusiastic and in obvious awe of the building’s history as a human warehouse,although his publicity material renders that history inaccurately. For example, it claims that thebuilding was built for manufacturing use, then reborn as the Prince Hotel to provide lodging forreturning World War II soldiers. But according to public records, it was always a lodging house andwas called the Prince Hotel as early as 1927.Trailed by two public relations assistants, Mr. Kunkel recently led a tour of the building that began atthe third-floor reception desk, where guests collect room keys shaped like dog tags, in tribute to allthose soldiers. The chocolate-brown cubicles, freshly painted, sported wooden lattice instead ofchicken wire, and the numbered plates above the door were a California artist’s careful replication ofthe porcelain originals.Here, for example, was Room 314, a full cabin with rates starting at $99 a night; folded on theneatly tucked twin bed were two black bathrobes bearing the Bowery House monogram of TBH. Andhere was Room 303, an original cabin, with a 69-inch-long mattress, that goes for $67 a night.It has “a custom-made mattress and the original bed frame,” Mr. Kunkel said, after which one of thepublic relations assistants, Susan Weingram, clarified that “all the mattresses are new.”As he walked through the living quarters, past a dormitory-style room occupied by male models, Mr.Kunkel pointed out the attention paid to the flophouse-plus décor. The original Chesterfield couchesin the day room. The Red Flower products in the bathrooms. The Bowery-related movie posters innearly every room — including one for “On the Bowery,” a documentary-style movie from 1957 thatfocused on the grim culture of chronic inebriates that defined the Bowery for generations.All this for a clientele described by Ms. Weingram as young, connected “and attractive,” and by Mr.Kunkel as people who might choose a cheap cubicle for their city accommodations, yet “go out for$300-a-bottle table service.”Mr. Kunkel led the tour down a back fire escape to the second floor, where he said he knew some ofthe flophouse tenants. He pointed to men’s underwear draped over the fire escape’s railing. “Mightbe a good shot,” he said to a photographer.In the darkened warren of mostly empty cubicles, one resident declined Mr. Kunkel’s request toopen his cubicle door. Another resident, a youthful man with tousled gray hair named Ricky,reluctantly agreed. He opened the door to a neat, tight room with a television, as well as the door toan adjacent room stocked with DVDs that he rents out.Ricky said that he knows Charlie Peppers, a fit man of 84 who frequently does situps on the fireescape. But he said that in the decade that he has lived here, the two men have never had aconversation.The tour finished, Mr. Kunkel returned to his third-floor office. He said that the hotel’s occupancyrate hovers between 90 and 100 percent. He said that he and his partner intended to buy thebuilding outright. He said that he might “sequester” the flophouse residents and even pay a few toleave. But he has no plans to push any out of their home, he said. “We don’t want to rock the boator bring on bad karma.”And what about Charlie Peppers?Mr. Kunkel displayed a photograph on his smartphone of Charlie sunbathing on the roof. Hedescribed the man as cocky, volatile and uncommunicative. And no, he had not told the man of thehotel room named after him. “I don’t even think he knows he’s called Charlie Peppers,” Mr. Kunkelsaid.A touch of irritation could be heard in his words. Here is why: At least twice, he said, the man calledCharlie Peppers has smashed the sleek neon sign that announces this new, flophouse-chic hotel toall who walk the Bowery.