Once upon a time at THE DAILY NEWS I wrote a story called “Christmas on the Bowery.” It began like this: “Monsignor John Ahern, the redoubtable Skid Row priest, is expecting 800 guests Sunday for an early Christmas dinner.”
Most will arrive from a dozen grandly named flophouses along the Bowery — the Palace, for instance, or the Sunshine — where they sleep in windowless $5 rooms enclosed in chicken-coop wire. Some will come from the municipal men’s shelters, open dormitories where the beds are free but said to be unsafe at any price. Others will flock in from the city’s streets, where home may be a piece of cardboard in a doorway on a frigid corner. Whoever they are and wherever they’re from, they will receive a full plate of roast beef and mashed potatoes and as full a measure of human dignity as the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men can bestow.
I haven’t been down to the center lately. But I was willing to bet it is now a gentrified condo for Wall Street honkies. Anybody who’s been to Manhattan’s Lower East Side these days probably wouldn’t have taken the bet, either.
The free Christmas dinner, a Holy Name custom for five decades, needs no invitation and is, moreover, emblematic of the center’s longtime purpose. Located since 1939 in a mammoth old school building at 18 Bleecker St., the center began caring for the destitute in 1906. … Ahern, who looks more like a Marine officer in civilian clothing than a 58-year-old Catholic priest, has iron-gray hair and a ramrod bearing that exudes military authority. … “We offer the men a place to come to every day,” he says. “For the old guys, it’s a safe place where they won’t get mugged. For the young guys, it’s a bit of hope.”
Well, I just checked. The center, it turns out, is still operating two decades later — though in a much reduced way — within spitting distance of the most publicized symbol of Bowery gentrification, The New Museum of Contemporary Art. And wonder of wonders — amid the boutique hotels, the multimillion-dollar condos, the liveried doormen, the custom-shopping grocers, the expensive cafes, the uptown art galleries for rich collectors now lined up on the Bowery in a “gallery row” — Monsignor Ahern is still there at age 79, offering what he can. These days “he looks like a bantamweight,” says Patrick Wynne, the center’s program director. The Christmas dinners, however, are long gone.
With the elimination of the flophouses 10 years ago, Wynne explains, “the old guys have disappeared. They’ve either died off or were sent to nursing homes.”
On a recent morning … a dozen men were lined up for flu shots being given in the library, a room with a single, waist-high shelf of yellowing books. Across the hall, two regulars played pool on a threadbare table. Despite the institutional look of the place and the overpowering smell of ammonia, the center has the reassuring calm of a men’s club. But downstairs at the front door, the harsh reality of the streets is borne in on a tide of weather-beaten men entering the basement for their showers. “You ever see ‘Wild Kingdom?'” asks Jose, posted at the door. “That’s the way it is out there. The strong feed off the weak. Yesterday they stole a coat from one old guy right out front.” Cognizant of that, perhaps, one wary visitor stood at a wash basin and kept his overcoat buttoned to the neck even while slathering his face with shaving cream.
The center still offers free daily showers. But now, Wynne says, it’s mostly immigrant day laborers, mainly Mexicans, who come in for them.