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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.
Buy this book

Last October, David Byrne threw a mild fit on the website of The Guardian. Born in Scotland but raised in suburban Baltimore, Byrne came to New York City in the mid-1970s “because it was a center of cultural ferment”; he intended to pursue the visual arts. “One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy,” he wrote in his essay, “but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships.”

And now? “Most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities,” Byrne wrote, “pleasure domes for the rich (which, full disclosure, includes me), and aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types.”

Byrne attributed this change to “the top 1%,” “rich folks,” “figures like Mayor Bloomberg” and especially jet-setting foreigners: “In the neighborhood where I live (near the art galleries in Chelsea), I can see three large condos from my window that are pretty much empty all the time. What the fuck!?” The former Talking Heads front man then announced that he would leave New York if its artistic fertility becomes further compromised by the city’s money culture.

A concurrent debate simmered throughout the fall, sparked by an article about gentrification on the website openDemocracy. Its author, a freelance journalist named Matt Bolton, noted the function often unwittingly performed by artists in sowing the seeds of culture later reaped by, for and as capital. “It seems that wherever artists go, rising property prices, cafés filled with seats from 1940s railway stations and low-level ethnic cleansing appears to follow,” Bolton argued. Critics quibbled with his conclusion, noting instances in which gentrification had occurred absent this homesteading by artists. But they largely conceded, in the words of a “creative placemaking” advocate, that “even though ‘shock troops’ is an overstatement of artists’ roles in gentrification, pawns may not be.”

In the first season of The Wire, the canny drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale comes across two of his crew members using a chess set to play checkers and decides to teach them the finer points of the game: “Pawns, man—in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early.” What else is Byrne’s unelaborated reference to living “near the art galleries in Chelsea” and seeing luxury condos from his window but a tacit acknowledgement of the tradition—native but not confined to that province—of artists playing checkers with a chess set, too busy fighting other battles, losing other wars, to master the higher game?

* * *

Sherill Tippins began researching Inside the Dream Palace, her book about the Chelsea Hotel, around 2007, shortly before the hotel’s board of directors, eager to capitalize on the Chelsea neighborhood’s art-world cachet, ousted longtime manager and part-owner Stanley Bard. Four years later, the hotel was bought for $80 million by Joseph Chetrit, a specialist, as The Wall Street Journal reported, in modernizing buildings with a “storied pedigree.” Chetrit then closed the hotel to new guests and undertook extensive renovations. Burst pipes, hazardous materials and other disruptions led a group of holdout residents to file several lawsuits, which were settled last year after Chetrit transferred control to his former partner Ed Scheetz, who promises improved tenant relations and a greater respect for the Chelsea’s architectural integrity. But a great deal of damage has already been done to the building, physically and otherwise, and many current and former residents nervously await further changes to the first building in New York to enjoy landmark status for both its historical and architectural importance. Crucially, only the structure’s facade is legally protected.

The commemorative plaques surrounding the Chelsea’s entrance attest to the sacred status reserved for it in our officially sanctioned cultural history: it has been home and haven to the likes of Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Lee Masters, Arthur Miller, Arthur Clarke, Shirley Clarke, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. The Chelsea opened in 1884 as one of the city’s first cooperative apartment buildings and has been a byword since then for dime-store decadence and avant-garde art, the first stop for arrivistes and the last for tarnished celebrities. “The richness of imagination and experience retained within this building’s walls—the product of more than a century of friction between the hotel’s inner culture and the outside world—is like nothing else on the planet,” Tippins writes.

During her reporting, Tippins discovered that beneath the crust of the hotel’s many interior renovations are elements conducive to fostering the kind of urban artists’ colony that thrived there for so long, despite a succession of rises—and falls—in the fortunes of neighborhood and city. The parents of the Chelsea’s architect, Philip Hubert, were disciples of the French utopian Charles Fourier, who promoted the construction of elaborate “phalansteries” where hundreds or even thousands of families would live together, in communities organized to promote perfect equality and creativity. Believing that each of the 810 personality types on his homemade chart could be compared, in Tippins’s words, “to a key on a keyboard that, when played in glorious harmony with all of its fellows, produced a symphony of human expression,” Fourier encouraged his followers to build “a social instrument to house those keys so that each note could ring free and true.” American improvisations on his idea included Brook Farm, satirized in its co-founder Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and New Jersey’s North American Phalanx, both of which succumbed to fire and dissent before the new evolutionary stage had been achieved.

Built on a lot purchased from a disgraced associate of Boss Tweed’s, fronting a booming 23rd Street described by Tippins as a “Babel of moaning beggars and hand-organ men, society swells and streetwalkers, theatergoers and policemen,” the Chelsea used an alternating layout of large and small units on each floor to foster the intermingling of the erstwhile apartment-averse upper classes with their less affluent neighbors. The range of apartments available upon its opening—from $986 to $5,910 per month, in today’s dollars—marked the Chelsea as unique in the Gilded Age metropolis. (However, the exclusion of blacks from this utopia was rectified only in the 1950s; “it was good to see the ban on African-American tenants lifted,” Tippins notes—her only comment on the matter.)

Aesthetic details complemented the layout’s humanistic spirit:

The lobby fireplace with its carved figures served as a kind of campfire about which neighbors could gather, and the light-flooded staircase, adorned with flowers, served as a symbolic link between the social world at ground level and the solitary, spiritual life above. Inside the apartments, high ceilings and generous proportions instilled a sense of expansiveness and calm in the residents, yet curved walls and hidden recesses subverted this sensation, instilling a sense of mystery as well.

An unwritten rule that prevailed at the Chelsea for a while decreed that residents should not visit one another’s rooms unannounced. Rather, a message would be left at the front desk if Edgar Lee Masters, say, wanted to take the painter John Sloan to lunch.

Though Tippins provides many proofs for the familiar cliché about the Chelsea’s atmosphere—to make creative people comfortable, Bard told reporters, he had to “allow things to go on that you couldn’t do in the Hilton Hotel”—she has little interest in sorting out its constituent elements, instead resorting to a feeble idealism that many of the artists whose lives she chronicles would have found naïve. In an early chapter about the mid-career travails of Boston transplant William Dean Howells—who lived briefly at the Chelsea in the late 1880s and returned there often to visit friends—Tippins misses the satire in Howells’s treatment of the young art student Charmian in The Coast of Bohemia (1893). A rich city girl whose ostentation far surpasses her middling artistry, Charmian introduces her talented friend Cornelia to her carefully appointed attic studio: “I’m going to show you where I live, where I dream.” Tippins even uses these words as the chapter’s epigram—and borrows “The Coast of Bohemia” for the chapter’s title—while ignoring the novel’s not-exactly-subtle point that Charmian’s studio is more a symbol of her pretentiousness than her imagination. “What I want is to have the atmosphere of art about me, all the time,” Charmian gushes to Cornelia. “I’m like a fish out of water when I’m out of the atmosphere of art.”

Far from replicating or even recognizing the mockery, Inside the Dream Palace exudes more of the same rosy reluctance to question cherished notions of creativity that marred Tippins’s first book, February House: The Story of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America (2005), which has lately been adapted into an Off-Broadway musical. (Sample passage: “If we don’t act now, when will we? they asked themselves in choosing this shared creative life. If we don’t use our talents to find a new way to live, who will?”)

In a December event for Inside the Dream Palace at New York’s Strand bookstore, Tippins described as “addictive” her technique of drawing timelines of famous artists’ lives and focusing on the “little hotspots” where these lines intersect. “That was how I structured the book, just moving from one big knot to the next,” she told the audience. The result, while engrossing, is a skewed emphasis on the successful and their twice-told tales. That would be Tippins’s trip, as they used to say, and none of our concern, if only it did not omit a vital element of what made the Chelsea such a dynamic place—and why its fate is so symbolic.

It is of course tantalizing to read about Edgar Lee Masters pausing in the lobby to receive news of the Pearl Harbor attack and “thinking immediately of the things he had left to do”; of Gore Vidal discovering, in a steamy shower after a night of drinking, that Jack Kerouac was circumcised; of a white female tourist asking Jimi Hendrix, en route to the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, to carry her luggage upstairs. But no matter the scene or the year, all sorts of interesting and not uncreative plebes were occupying most of the rooms at the Chelsea, serving as ornamentation for the now-canonized artistic celebrities whose doings are (somewhat contrary to the Fourierist spirit) what really count for Tippins. The few snippets we do get of the Chelsea’s ordinary people and their extraordinary lives—“the fat lady from Barnum and Bailey’s circus, who took up all the space in the narrow elevator; the tall, gaunt figure called the Preacher, who roamed the halls in a black trench coat looking for a chance to minister to the bereaved; the sweet-faced burlesque dancers Patti Cakes and Cherry Vanilla; the solitary woman who talked only to God; the pretty West Indian maid with her hair dyed bright red”—are entirely derived, like most of her material, from secondary sources on the subject.

More instructive as to the peculiarly generative climate of the hotel than even the most detailed recitation of its well-known lives and deaths and works—not to mention more relevant to its current predicament—is a passage in Arthur Miller’s brief memoir, published in Granta in 2002, about Mendel Rubin, an ex-marine who was the hotel’s engineer.

Between bouts with his oil burners, Mendel would occasionally surface to help hang pictures in the lobby or strike up little time-passing artistic conversations with the guests. Learning of the astronomical sums [Chelsea resident Larry] Rivers got for his work, Mendel saw no reason not to begin scribbling designs of his own on leftover linoleum tiles he had found in the basement, splashing them with orange, green and black paint from leftover cans down there. These tiles he would display here and there in the lobby, and a lady visitor from Iceland, I think, or possibly New Zealand bought several, and paid him in money. He would never be the same. All his time now was spent on his tiles and he even managed to have a show in a downtown gallery.

Aside from a nominal coda (“As the 1980s became the 1990s…”), Tippins’s book climaxes with the murder of Nancy Spungen, most likely by her boyfriend Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, whose “lack of musical talent” does not prevent him from being implicitly included by Tippins as part of the same narrative of great American art at the Chelsea that began with William Dean Howells.

She extends the honor to other punk rockers as well: “The Ramones might work by day at the dry cleaner’s or in the mailrooms of office buildings, but at night they could transform themselves into rock-and-roll heroes just by copping an attitude and producing a lot of fast, hard noise,” Tippins writes, before quoting Chelsea resident Dee Dee Ramone’s memoir Lobotomy: “It wasn’t about ‘thinking that you had to be it, or work for it. You just had to shout and demand it…. That’s revolution.’” Hardly. In his Granta memoir, Miller observed that “a kind of fog of exhausted enquiry suffused” the Chelsea. Tippins suffers from much the same, viewing her subject through eyes, like Charmian’s in The Coast of Bohemia, “filled with a romantic iridescence that danced before them and wrapt it in a rainbow mist.”

* * *

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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