Sir Shadow, the prolific artist of the Whitehouse Hotel, is one of six men remaining in the derelict building on the Bowery. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times
By Alex Vadukul
There’s a ghostly old flophouse on the Bowery. Rowdy brunch crowds stumble past its stained-glass windows and locked double doors. It’s lonesome but not empty.
Radiators hiss in its cracked tile floor lobby. Dusty, unused keys hang behind a reception desk. Dark halls are lined with hundreds of boarding rooms empty except for worn mattresses. A few of these cubicles are occupied, stuffed with clothes and belongings. Steam rises from a shower stall. Light flickers behind doors. And a lullaby can be heard through the building when a 70-year-old poet and artist who calls himself Sir Shadow draws at night.
Sir Shadow is one of six men who are the final residents of the Whitehouse Hotel. The crumbling four-story building is one of the last of the cheap single-room-occupancy hotels that lined the Bowery a century ago alongside brothels and saloons and defined the area as a symbol of urban despair. While rooms across the street at the Bowery Hotel cost around $400 a night, the men pay no more than $8.50 for their cramped cubicles, though they pretty much have the run of the place.
Sir Shadow hums for inspiration, as his slender hand strikes a sketchpad with a silver marker and swirls deliriously, never leaving the page, as though he were signing a signature. The elegant silhouette, formed with one continuous line, depicts a saxophone player. He blurs through more: a jazz ensemble featuring trumpet and upright bass; a drummer in the flurry of a solo. His musicians are faceless abstractions.
Sir Shadow arrived at the Whitehouse Hotel around 1995, and he has become a kind of Bowery folk hero since then. At 6-foot-4, he sleeps diagonally to fit into his windowless cubicle. Rarely without his fedora, he gets around on a red electric scooter and draws his blues and jazz musicians across the neighborhood. He calls his one-line style Flowetry, which can be found in the calendars he sells.
But his masterpiece might be the Whitehouse Hotel itself. Nearly every hallway and boarding room contains a Sir Shadow mural. Even the keys behind the reception desk are marked with his musical silhouettes.
“This building is my canvas,” he said. “These drawings are my warriors. They bring me my peace.”
But serenity is a privilege in New York. Sir Shadow’s sanctuary seems destined to meet the fate of every other flophouse.
Lodging houses like the Whitehouse Hotel, which sits at 340 Bowery and opened in 1916, were all over New York’s Skid Row. Dozens of these establishments date back nearly to the Civil War. The Alabama Hotel, the Grand Windsor Hotel, the Providence Hotel — their cell-like stalls had chicken wire rather than ceilings, and they cost pennies per night. They became the primitive dwellings of desperate men who gradually saw no benefits to ever checking out.
In the 1990s, change came to the Bowery, and most of the old flops were developed into restaurants and hotels. But the men clinging on in the remaining hotels were protected by housing laws that gave them the rights of permanent residents. Eviction became a complicated procedure, and real-estate developers have had to contend with these holdouts ever since.
Sir Shadow and his fellow holdouts are in their 60s and 70s: Wayne, Roland, Rob, Bobby, and Charles (there’s also Louis, but he’s in the hospital and I’m told he’s not coming back). They pass by one another with grumbled greetings and take showers in a fluorescent-lit basement bathroom. Chess is played in the lobby. Two men have a bitter grudge and have hardly spoken in years.
I met Rob in a dark hallway. Heavyset and missing teeth, he said he had good reasons to withhold his full name. “Shadow is a great artist,” he said. “I’m an artist, too. I’m a shoe shiner. This is an old hotel. I think of myself as a survivor here.”
Roland spends hours in a chair overlooking a sparse backyard. In the lobby, a handwritten note reads, “Wayne, your sister called.” One afternoon, Sir Shadow’s philosophical musings were interrupted when a yell rose from another cubicle: “Hey, I’m trying to sleep over here!”
“We all live in our own little worlds here,” Sir Shadow said. “I might not see even someone else for days. They’ve tried to get us to take deals. We’ve all wondered: take the money or not? Leave or stay? Now we’re the last men standing.”
But Sir Shadow’s artistic life is now entwined with the building. “I might have this little room in the Whitehouse Hotel,” he said, “but this room keeps me free. I can’t be at some job. That would ruin my flow. A man with a million dollars doesn’t have what I have.
“All that matters to me is the next poem,” he added. “The next drawing. And I have to be ready to receive it. All the other stuff? That’s someone else’s problem.”
One afternoon last summer, Sir Shadow composed his one-line drawings for tourists at his regular spot in Washington Square Park. He hummed his lullaby as he drew in his sketchpad.
A tourist complimented his work.
“Those who try to be great are cursed,” Sir Shadow said. “They have to worry about failure and perfection. No true artist says, ‘I’m great.’”
A young woman said she liked his abstract style.
“You must narrow down to your inner peace,” he offered. “Find that time you were in the trees and floating in the breeze.”
In fact, the artist deflected nearly every comment about his work into philosophical musings. Especially questions about his life.
Did he grow up in New York? “I’m from the universe.”
How long has he been an artist? “I started today.”
Why does he draw jazz musicians? “I never said they were musicians.”
Then there’s Sir Shadow’s least favorite question: What is your real name?
The artist was born Thomas Allen Paxton in 1949, and he grew up in Jamaica, Queens. He was raised in a sprawling housing project, and he was an artistic child who wrote poetry about life in his neighborhood. He dropped out of Jamaica High School. He declined to discuss his family.
In the 1970s, he told me, he heard about the countercultural movement in San Francisco, and he boarded a cross-country bus.