“Men Shall Rise on Steppingstones of Their Dead Selves”

Homelessness in the 1940s Bowery, Redemption at the Bowery Mission, and Lessons for Today

In 1941, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) released a short documentary film about homelessness in New York City’s Bowery district. The film, titled “This Is the Bowery,” provides a glimpse into 1940s homelessness, shows how a major nonprofit organization addressed the problem, and emphasizes important truths that must be relearned today.

As background, the film was one of 47 “shorts” produced for MGM from 1938 through 1949 under the series title of “Passing Parade,” which began as a series of American radio programs written and narrated by John Nesbitt (who, for trivia buffs, was the great-nephew of John Wilkes Booth). Joseph Koehler of Billboard called Nesbitt “radio’s No. 1 story-teller.” Later, the “Passing Parade” radio program was adapted into an Oscar-winning film series that Nesbitt produced. He was eventually awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in radio and motion pictures.

“This Is the Bowery” was filmed in Manhattan’s Bowery district, which at the time was New York City’s skid row and home to 20,000 “cast off men”: alcoholics, criminals, and the down-and-out. Nesbitt, the film’s narrator, called the neighborhood “a great city’s permanent hangover.”

The film opens with a “newcomer” walking on Bowery Street, where he asks a man for money, passes a restaurant selling plates of pig snouts for 10 cents, and passes hotels and flophouses (the average cost for a bed is 25 cents per night).[1] He cannot afford any of those, so he ends up at the Bowery Mission (a nonprofit organization that still operates today).

There, the mission director, Charles St. John, who was the actual mission superintendent at the time and formerly “a shaking drunkard out on the Bowery,” greets the newcomer in the mission’s chapel and offers the man accommodations, which he accepts.[2]

The first offerings are strong coffee and hearty soup with French bread. Next, the newcomer hand-washes his clothes, which are also fumigated, followed by a shave and shower. Nobody receives a clean bed for the night—the “supreme luxury”—without first completing those earlier steps.

Breakfast is served in the morning, followed by receiving new clothes or mending worn clothes and shoes. The final stop is the mission’s employment office, which places men in jobs that are accepting of workers trying to overcome “failure’s last mile.”

An underlying storyline throughout the film is the newcomer’s anticipation of religious sermons during his stay at the mission, but instead of “a thee or a thou or an Amen” he meets with the director in his office, where Charles St. John conveys an inspiring message: “Try once more. It doesn’t matter what it was that broke you—drink, women, or misfortune, or plain cussedness—believe in yourself once more and try once more.”

It is risky to base one’s knowledge of any issue or historical period on a movie, but a few things stand out after watching “This Is the Bowery”:

    1. There always have been people experiencing homelessness, and there always will be for many reasons. Politicians and pundits often speak about “ending homelessness.” Serious scholars, however, talk about minimizing homelessness and its negative social consequences, as well as not encouraging self-destructive, anti-social, counterproductive behaviors through government subsidies of various sorts. Eliminating any social condition is exponentially expensive (economists call these “corner solutions,” and ending any social phenomena would be typically prohibitively costly to achieve).
    2. As in the film, police officers can be partners in the quest to bring compassionate care to people experiencing homelessness. As my colleagues explained in the Miami Herald, “With the right programs in place, law enforcement can play a crucial role in shepherding people into recovery. Many recovering addicts credit their arrest with the moment they began to turn their lives around.” Importantly, arrests are not for the status of being homeless, but rather for specific conduct such as vandalism, trespassing, public defecation, and open-air drug consumption. They noted, “A growing number of cities has begun implementing ‘jail diversion’ programs, which facilitate partnerships between police, courts, and rehabilitation centers. Diversion programs offer arrestees a choice between jail time or recovery” from substance abuse and mental illness.
    3. The film’s most important lesson is that the goal of any intervention must be to help people become self-sufficient contributing members of society. Today, the dominant approach to “ending homelessness” is called “Housing First,” which has poured billions of taxpayer dollars into programs that seek to provide a permanent roof over the head of every homeless person, either for free or heavily subsidized. Housing First, especially in America’s urban cores, has proven to be an expensive fool’s errand—homelessness keeps rising as spending surges.

Instead, as the 1940s Bowery Mission understood, people experiencing homelessness need to persistently confront the underlying root causes of their homelessness,[3] get a job, keep a job, and put a roof over their heads using their own earnings. This expectation was a constant refrain, “try once more.” Achieving self-sufficiency was the goal at the Bowery Mission, and it should be the goal everywhere today. Sadly, it is not.

The film reveals the stark contrast between the message of the 1940s that people must overcome the obstacles that keep them from achieving self-sufficiency, and today’s message that success is measured by how many people become permanent wards of the state in Housing First units paid for indefinitely by taxpayers, while root causes of homelessness are unaddressed. (Those competing approaches are explored in the report Beyond Homeless: Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes, Transformative Solutions, coauthored by a team of scholars that included me.)

Click below to watch “This Is the Bowery,” an 11-minute documentary motion picture released by MGM in May 1941 about homelessness in New York City’s Bowery district, directed by Gunther von Fritsch, written by Herbert Morgan, narrated by John Nesbitt, and featuring, as himself, Charles St. John.


[1] The gritty 2001 award-winning documentary “Sunshine Hotel” looks at one of the few remaining flophouses in the Bowery.

[2] A year before the release of “This Is the Bowery,” Charles St. John published a book titled God on the Bowery (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1940). On the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Bowery Mission, its former chapel director Jason Storbakken published a book titled Bowery Mission: Grit and Grace on Manhattan’s Oldest Street (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).

[3] “Trauma-informed treatment” was likely not a phrase used back then.

Lawrence J. McQuillan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute. He is the author of the Independent book California Dreaming.
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