Thursday, September 16, 2021

My hero: Mazie Gordon-Phillips by Jami Attenberg


Mazie Gordon-Phillips in 1946. Photograph: Todd Webb, courtesy of Evans Gallery
and estate of Todd and Lucille Webb, Portland, Maine, USA

My hero: 

Mazie Gordon-Phillips

 by Jami Attenberg

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the ‘Queen of the Bowery’ spent her nights walking alone in New York City handing out change to the homeless and helping the downtrodden

Saturday 13 June 2015


’ve lived in New York City for nearly two decades, and never have I seen it as slick and rich and indifferent as it is now. It has become a place where extremely affluent people merely rest their wealth, as if the city were an enormous velvet fainting couch. Often I find solace and inspiration thinking of a long-ago era, and a woman fiercely invested in her community, who loved her fellow citizens and these city streets with a passion, no matter their mutual crumbling state, or perhaps because of it: Ms Mazie Gordon-Phillips, known as the Queen of the Bowery.

Mazie ran the Venice Theater on Park Row from the 1920s to the 1940s. She sat in the ticket booth in front of the theatre – a neighbourhood hub, where she trafficked in gossip and goodwill, buoyed by the more-than-occasional nip from a flask. She was tough-talking and occasionally rough with her often downtrodden clientele, but she never turned anyone away, and they often used her theatre as a place to rest their heads. Her real heroism was displayed every night, around 1am, when she walked the streets of the Bowery by herself, without fear for her personal safety. She tended to homeless men, handing out change to them (each day she gave between $5-$15), along with bars of soap. She often found them places to sleep in the all-male flophouses – Mazie was the only woman allowed to enter. Reportedly, she called more ambulances than anyone in the entire city.

Eventually Joseph Mitchell wrote about her in the New Yorker, but this seemed to change nothing about her life. Fame was irrelevant, money was just something to be given away, time existed to help others, and why make a fuss over an old broad just trying to lend a hand to her fellow man? There’s little additional documentation of her life, but it is enough I have the knowledge that an exceptional woman like her once existed, in the city that was New York.

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