A Bohemian Oasis
By the end of 2007, more than 44 million visitors are expected to come to NY, and many of them stay in hotels. Last year the hotel industry shattered records by charging an average $265 per day, with an 85% occupancy rate. However, despite Manhattan’s being the no. 1 business district in the country, it has only some 66,000 rooms, compared to 150,000 in a much smaller city like Las Vegas.
To meet the growing demand, hotels are being planned and developed throughout the five boroughs. The largest number of new hotels is planned for Manhattan, and most of are luxury hotels. Some are small boutique hotels, like the 90- room Downtown Hotel in Tribeca and the Thompson LES on the Lower East Side’s Allen Street. Some are incongruously located, like the luxuriant, 135-room The Bowery Hotel, around the corner from a men’s homeless shelter and close by a methadone clinic (offering both a frisson of danger and an opulent restaurant to its guests). The most grandly situated, across the street from Central Park on 59th St. and 5th is the 130-unit transient luxury hotel and 152-unit condominium hotel that will replace the Plaza on its 100th anniversary, opening in October.
But more alluring for me than any of these glamorous new hotels is one that lingers from the past, a unique bastion of bohemia and idiosyncrasy on West 23rd St.: the Chelsea Hotel. The 250-room hotel inhabits a heap of a red-brick building with delicately worked iron balconies, built in an eclectic Victorian-Gothic style, constructed in 1883 as a private co-operative apartment house. At the time, Chelsea was the centre of New York's Theatre District. The Chelsea co-operative soon went bankrupt, and in 1905, the building was purchased and re-opened as a hotel, primarily known for its long-term residents (60 %), but also serving overnight guests.
From its inception, the Chelsea Hotel was a centre of artistic and bohemian activity. In the early years of the last century, it was visited by the actress Sarah Bernhardt and Mark Twain. In the 1930s the novelist Thomas Wolfe and the painter John Sloane lived there. And through the years that followed, it continued to attract famous residents including: Dylan Thomas (who died there of alcohol poisoning in 1953), Brendan Behan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Dennis Hopper, Milo Forman, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan (whose first child was born while he lived there from 1961 to 1964). It’s also where Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death in October 1978.
Few artists who resided at the Chelsea were unaffected by its panache. Leonard Cohen, who stayed there, wrote a poignant song for his former lover, Janice Joplin (also a resident) — Chelsea Hotel # 2, that includes this stanza:
“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous your heart was a legend
You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception.”
I visited the Chelsea Hotel recently, wandering around the undistinguished-looking lobby with its motley collection of aging furniture and its jumbled panoply of first-rate sculpture (e.g., a papier-mâché woman dangling from the ceiling on a swing) and paintings by artists who passed through, like Larry Rivers and Philip Taafe who is still a resident. In the lobby I casually sat down near a dour-looking man in his 40s, who had tattoos on his arms and was wearing dark glasses. We began to talk, and he turned out to be a scriptwriter/novelist who has lived at the Hotel for a number of years. He spoke warmly about the Chelsea as a place that was a “great flophouse,” a hotel that encourages individuality, where laissez-faire is the ruling principle, but also a place where communal bonds are strong. It has attracted not only working artists, but also wealthy Wall Street people with artistic interests who could afford to live anywhere in the city.
While I was sitting with the scriptwriter, a number of striking looking people (artists or mere poseurs?) passed by, with whom he engaged in brief conversations. I began to think that if I had an alternative life, I would have ended up a middling writer living out my bohemian fantasies — drinking and talking about film, fiction, and politics through the nights at the Chelsea. But the moment vanished, and I understood that I had needed security and family too much to ever make that choice.
The Chelsea is about to go through a transformation, and the hotel manager, and co-owner, Stanley Bard, who has maintained it as an institution that allowed struggling artists to pay their bills whenever they could or take works of art instead of rent —is being replaced by people who will refurbish it and make it run more efficiently. A number of the tenants fear the hotel will become generic, and will no longer be the creative oasis it has been over the years. Given the nature of the city’s gentrification, their anxieties are justified.