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Chelsea Dreams

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The Chelsea Hotel, November 18, 1983

The Chelsea Hotel, November 18, 1983

Inside the Dream Palace
The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel.
By Sherill Tippins.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 457 pp. $30.
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This Ain’t No Holiday Inn
Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel, 1980–1995.
By James Lough.
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There is a depressing irony in the title of James Lough’s small-press oral history, This Ain’t No Holiday Inn, of which its author is unaware: Gene Kaufman, the architect responsible until recently for the Chelsea’s interior renovations, already has to his credit the design of eight Holiday Inns and more than a dozen other chain hotels. The new owner of the Chelsea, Ed Scheetz, the CEO of a luxury hotel company, replaced Kaufman shortly after taking control of the property last fall, but the architect had already had his way with enough of it to make Lough’s title somewhat outdated.

Departing chronologically and journalistically from where Tippins’s more polished, talked-about book leaves off, This Ain’t No Holiday Inn focuses on daily life at the Chelsea—there is even a section on the staff—and disperses the mist. The rampant drug abuse lauded by Tippins as “part of a long, even distinguished, tradition in the hotel” is revealed by Lough’s interviewees to have been a creative black hole. So many residents fell down the stairs that management eventually boarded them up, Lough writes, “to protect the front-desk clerks from falling bodies.” It seems equally vital to know that in the 1990s a dentist worked on bohemia’s sixth floor.

However, contrary to the usual representations—especially after his ouster—Stanley Bard was no slouch as a businessman. Rather, he nurtured a distinct plan to bet on artists he thought might one day be successful, indulging their eccentricities and forgoing their rent payments. If they showed no signs of impending stardom after five years, Bard would apply severe pressure—ambush not excluded—to convince them to vacate the hotel. But if one achieved mainstream success, there was little Bard would not do to keep that artist anchored at the Chelsea, like a corporate client in a skyscraper. Bard’s practice of perusing and judging artists’ portfolios before permitting them to become tenants prefigures the situation, described recently in The New York Times, whereby those who wish to live in artist-restricted Manhattan lofts have to convince a two-person panel in the Department of Cultural Affairs of their creative worth. Having a famous name could open the door, as Bard himself knew, using established artists as magnets for the tourists whose brief stays at the Chelsea subsidized the artificially low rent of permanent residents. The painter John Zinsser, interviewed by Lough, refers to Bard’s “art appreciation and love of famous people” as if they were not two different things.

Indeed, the egalitarian structure prescribed by Fourier and designed by Hubert scarcely survived contact with the modern urban economy. After going bankrupt, the Chelsea was at least partially transformed in 1905 from the original cooperative arrangement into a short-term hotel. The Chelsea went bankrupt again in the 1940s, when Bard’s father purchased it with a group of fellow Hungarian exiles. In the early 1950s, according to Tippins, “floors were further subdivided, linoleum was laid down over marble, and cheap paint was slapped onto the walls.” Under the younger Bard’s stewardship, the lower floors were largely remaindered to “pimps, hookers and drug dealers”—as a grinning Lough put it at a TEDx Talk on the Upper East Side last year, to raucous and knowing laughter from the audience—whose ability to pay was apparently always assured. But the original woodwork has been preserved in the composer and critic Virgil Thomson’s six-room apartment, inhabited after his death by the painter Philip Taaffe and his wife. “The wealthy dwellers of the upper floors knew next to nothing about the feral inhabitants of the floors below,” Lough writes. At the Strand, Tippins expressed confidence that Scheetz’s reforms—“he says he’s gonna put refreshments out in the halls so people will be encouraged to mingle”—may help preserve the Chelsea’s old spirit and structure; while Lough, expounding in his TEDx Talk on the endangered species known as bohemians, proposed the establishment of “national parks for artists” to “preserve the ecosystems for bohemians in urban environments.”

The hotel’s purchase and renovation has not happened in a vacuum. Successful artists and the tourists who nibbled at Bard’s bait often put down roots in the hotel or its environs, occupying space and locking up capital—cultural and financial—then unavailable to younger artists who had not yet found success, as well as to those who never would but nonetheless provided “added color and dimension to life,” as Lough condescendingly writes. In his Guardian piece, Byrne referred to “those of us who managed years ago to find our niche” as incidental exceptions to the atrophying of culture in New York City, obscuring the reality—obvious to those of us without $4 million penthouses—that they, and not “figures like Mayor Bloomberg,” are the arboreal giants jealously blocking their own progeny from the sun.

* * *

In an influential paper published in Urban Studies in 2003, the geographer David Ley argued that gentrification can best be understood as the transformation of a place with low economic capital but high cultural capital into one with high economic capital but low cultural capital. “Spaces colonised by commerce or the state are spaces refused by the artist,” Ley wrote. “But, as scholars know, this antipathy is not mutual; the surfeit of meaning in places frequented by artists becomes a valued resource for the entrepreneur.” He concludes:

The practice of the artist led in a different direction from economism; it invoked the path of voluntary poverty, and rules and rituals that reversed conventional society. The aesthetic disposition frequently rejected commercialised middle-class products, practices and places, while upholding the off-centre, the ordinary and obsolete, even the plebian. The redemptive eye of the artist could turn junk into art. The calculating eye of others would turn art into commodity.

The bohemians at the Chelsea who, surrounded by the fiscal and social crises of late-twentieth-century New York, “continued to dance on the ashes of a dying democracy” (to quote Tippins) perhaps did not realize that their dancing would draw a paying crowd. Now the crowd edges onto the dance floor and gets cursed as philistine. As for how a city with hundreds of art galleries can be described as low in cultural capital, David Byrne wrote that New York is becoming more like Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi—cities which “might have museums, but they don’t have culture.” Avant-garde, yes; but for whom?

The unintended, mostly unforeseeable complicity of the Chelsea’s residents—and bohemians generally—in their own displacement and demise is anathema to anyone committed to preservation. It’s much more painful to admit how snugly the hotel’s historic identity fits into the plans and aspirations of its new owners and guests than it is to pretend—with not exactly radical motivations—that they are self-evidently incompatible. Ed Scheetz has no such illusions. “Staying true to the spirit of the Chelsea is not just the right thing,” he told Vanity Fair last year. “It’s the most profitable thing.”

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Though Tippins and Lough wrote their books during the Chelsea’s most turbulent era to date, neither provides more than a thin, obligatory account of recent developments. The abdication is most obvious in Inside the Dream Palace, which devotes its penultimate chapter to rehashing stories from Patti Smith’s National Book Award–winning Just Kids (2010) but neglects to mention an incident that happened two years after the memoir’s publication. Smith had agreed to play a show for Chelsea residents sponsored by Joseph Chetrit, but she canceled the appearance when protesters threatened to stage a “die-in” in front of the hotel’s entrance while singing her 1988 hit “People Have the Power.” (For an encore, they might have considered “Big Business,” an early Byrne solo track: “Stop talking,” he chants. “Help us get ready.”)

In her chapter on Howells, Tippins notes the reaction the author had upon reading proofs of Edward Bellamy’s utopian fantasy novel Looking Backward (1888), in which a scion of the Boston aristocracy falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in 2000 to find that the United States, after a nonviolent revolution, is now free of the class tensions that had threatened in his time to tear it apart. Bellamy’s book begins with an elaborate comparison of capitalist America to a grand coach, dragged forward by the masses, with plush seats on top for the rich to “enjoy the scenery at their leisure, or critically discuss the merits of the straining team.”

A runaway bestseller, Looking Backward inspired Howells to make class issues more explicit in the novel he was working on, A Hazard of New Fortunes. As for Bellamy, he “abandoned writing altogether in favor of direct political action,” Tippins notes. She quotes from one of his letters to Howells: “The responsibility upon us who have won the ear of the public, to plead the cause of the voiceless masses, is beyond limit,” Bellamy wrote. After failing to organize the revolution, he published Equality, a sequel to Looking Backward, shortly before his death. Bellamy, it seems, was disturbed by the thought of how writers and other artists fit into his metaphor of the coach.

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