Makeover needed: Flophouses

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In his travels across the United States, Jack Kerouac often saved money by staying in what he called "Skid Row Hotels," reveling in their low prices and simple charms. Flophouses didn't offer much: just a room about the size of an office cubicle, with a bed, a small table, and a door that the occupant could close against the outside world. Sometimes, they were last-ditch homes, where bums or migrant workers could cheaply buy a night of safety and privacy. Other times, they were a promising, quiet spot to catch a little quick shuteye or (in Kerouac's case) write in relative solitude.

Ultimately, the transient clientele and seedy nature of flophouses led to their downfall. These "workingman's hotels" weren't as profitable as their swankier cousins and tended to drive down property values. Meanwhile, critics accused them of being shooting galleries for drug abusers or "no-tell motels" for gay hustlers. One after another, flophouse owners gave into the inevitable, shuttering their doors and selling out to developers. Meanwhile, hostels picked up the slack, charging budget travelers comparatively high prices to stay in barracks-style accommodations with almost no privacy.

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In the process, something was lost. Years ago, my youngest sister and I met up in Amsterdam. Since she got there first, she was in charge of the night's accommodations, which ended up being a crumbling dump in the middle of the red-light district. For $15 a night, I got a narrow cot, an oil barrel with a locking lid, a shared bathroom that seemed like the perfect setting for a prison-style rape, and an endless parade of drunk, half-naked eighteen-year -olds bumping me awake as they tried to navigate the room (and each other) in the dark. The next morning I found another place for us to stay. It had a door.In New York's Bowery, an area that once boasted over 100 flophouses, only one remains. The Whitehouse Hotel currently offers rooms for as low as $38 a night, including fresh linens and towels, internet access, and many other amenities. While most of its revenue comes from the tourist trade that it attracts, it also has 23 permanent residents, some of whom pay as little as $10 per night.

As the country starts to relearn thrift and revisit the money-saving techniques of the 1930's, it might be time for flophouses to make a comeback. The Whitehouse Hotel could lead the way; with its super-cheap accommodations, relative privacy, and comparative security, it offers a reasonable alternative both to the grotesqueries of cheap hostels and the overpriced luxuries of standard hotels. While flophouses aren't the swankiest or the most attractive accommodations, there will always be a need for a clean, well-lit place that even the poorest can afford to call home.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. While some hostels are pretty nice, that Eli Roth film really turned him off...

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