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?
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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.