The Strangest Landlord-Tenant Relationship In Town?

Stacked up in cubicles for decades, immigrants living in a Bowery tenement may have a very unusual situation.

The smell of piss and fish paste are palpable even outside the locked door of 81 Bowery, a four-story tenement just a few buildings up from Canal Street in Manhattan's Chinatown.

The stairwell inside gives off an air of abandonment. On the second floor, a door opens to reveal a nice enough wood-paneled registration counter—a lobby for the hotel on the second and third floors that has been uninhabited for almost a year. There's a statuette of a golden Buddha on the counter and a "Welcome" sign for visitors, along with a plaque advertising a deluxe room for $150 a night. A stack of business cards gathers dust. The rooms aren't bad—each one has a television, and some have neatly made-up queen-size beds.

The fourth floor is very different. The rooms crammed inside are tiny, with walls about eight feet high but no ceilings, and each one about the size of an office cubicle. The dozen or so residents who live on this floor pay about $100 a month to live in what amounts to a broom closet, and all of them share a bathroom with two shower stalls, a urinal, and four toilets. The cubicles are jam-packed with possessions the residents have been piling up for decades. There is no kitchen on the floor.

The tiny rooms of 81 Bowery have no ceilings, for now.
Jackie Snow
The tiny rooms of 81 Bowery have no ceilings, for now.
Only about a dozen residents have returned to 81 Bowery's cubicles since an evacuation last year.
Jackie Snow
Only about a dozen residents have returned to 81 Bowery's cubicles since an evacuation last year.

On a recent afternoon, the man who lives in cubicle 26 squats on a tiny stool in the narrow hallway, eating his dinner of steaming vegetables and rice on a makeshift table—a slab of plastic laid atop a bucket. His neighbor in cubicle 27, Mr. Jiang, stir-fries a watery green gourd on an electric camping stove set up on the floor, while the man in cubicle 28 has placed a metal bowl full of little gray clam shells out in the hallway; he'll soak the shells before boiling them into a broth for soup. In the evenings, the murmur of electric rice cookers can be heard coming from every room.

81 Bowery has been the home for at least a generation of Chinese laborers, men and women who work in the kitchens and on the construction sites of Chinatown. It's actually one of the longest-running and last remaining lodging houses in the city—a relic of a different period in New York history, when such places served poor immigrants who arrived with no cash and needed a dirt-cheap, temporary place to stay. To immigrants arriving in the late 19th century, 81 Bowery was known as the Germania Hotel, an infamous place where recently arrived Irish workers suffered from typhus, once-upright citizens whose reputations had been ruined went to waste away, and drunks were dropped off by police to pass out for the night. By 1923, the Salvation Army was running the place.

Today, the building is flanked on one side by a tenement that has been rehabbed with market-rate apartments, where young professionals in suits leave for work. On the other side is an Asian supermarket that sells giant chocolate pigs in red department-store-size boxes. About 10 times a day, a Fung Wah bus stops at 81 Bowery, unloading dozens of passengers, some of whom need to find a place to spend the night.

Life on the fourth floor of 81 Bowery is invasively communal: When someone snores, everyone hears it. If one person gets sick, so do all the rest. While someone is washing his dishes in the bathroom sink, others are waiting to wash their own. When the boiler breaks in the winter—a frequent occurrence—everyone shivers.

And yet, over the years, the tenants have managed to create a life they describe as comfortable, a life revolving around work, frequent visits from family members, occasional spats with neighbors, and many winters without heat. If the lodging house was originally intended as temporary housing for new immigrants, some of the residents of 81 Bowery have been living in their cubicles for 10 and 20 years. It's poverty that keeps them there, but some of the tenants can make a small profit on their tiny quarters by cramming in additional bunks and subletting to roommates. Needing more space for beds, tenants build up their walls, construct ceilings, and push the limits of what the building can accommodate.

Last November, that activity came to a sudden halt when the city declared the building a fire hazard. The residents were all evacuated within hours and sent to live temporarily at a building in the Bronx.

The Bronx facility was a step up from what they were used to in Chinatown. Suddenly, these poor Chinese immigrants had rooms with real ceilings. And kitchens. And actual privacy.

So what did they do? They filed suit and spent a year fighting to get back into their cramped, smelly cubicles at 81 Bowery with three dozen people to a single bathroom and soup made on hot plates in the hallway.

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

Donald Lee is an amiable man in his forties who can usually be found working afternoons behind the counter of his video store, Hua Min, at 97 Bowery. The DVDs and videotapes on sale and for rent (yes, videotapes—the elderly folks like them) include not only films but row after row of soap-opera episodes produced in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, slices of life from home that are very popular with the recently arrived. Upstairs, Lee is building a new karaoke bar. He and a partner purchased the tenement on the next block, 81 Bowery, six years ago.

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