The beautiful, brutal antidote to nostalgia that is the film On the Bowery was the subject of last Sunday’s Squish production with Film Streams. Among the issues attendees talked about was the tendency to romanticize bygone times, including the seeming authenticity of life, freedom from modern pressures and a robust self-determination. The characters that cavorted and collapsed along skid row lent little to support that imagined idyll. We also talked about the sheer mass of humanity occupying the streets and wondered at Omaha’s history and more sanitized streetscape today. Where are the less fortunate, the homeless, the mentally challenged citizens of this community? One of our attendees, a long time Omahan, regaled us with tales of the “Bowery” style of life in Omaha, which has been swept from sight, although not because the underlying issues have been solved. Indeed, we discussed the degree to which we treated people as human, or as an eyesore.
To underscore this, we perused some of the stories in the revealing book Flophouse by David Isay and Harvey Wang, which chronicles the remarkable lives of residents at some of New York’s remaining flop hotels. Isay is, of course, a driving force behind the capture of everyday yet compelling stories and conversations, including those of the StoryCorps initiative. I have written about that here and here.
We left wondering what life was like for those struggling to survive in the 1950s and what life is like now for those who have been removed from view. Thanks to Film Streams for screening this poignant and provocative film.