The Last Days of the Chelsea Hotel
As you head east onto Twenty-third Street at the junction with Eighth Avenue — a part of Manhattan that’s definitely not among the Villages, yet not quite Midtown — the Victorian Gothic facade of a tall red-brick building looms into view, partially concealed by the scaffolding that stops just short of hiding its neon signage.
The desk clerk buzzes me in and I lean my bicycle on one of the walls of the almost empty lobby. There’s a stone fireplace, a coffee table and a few battered armchairs. Seated is an elderly lady whom I’ve encountered on almost every visit here. She was once a Broadway dancer, they tell me. She sits there, slowly eating a sandwich, asking me the same questions she asks me every time we meet. I answer as if it is our first encounter. She sweetly compliments me on my teeth and my accent — just like the last time — before the clerk nods me to the lift which takes me up to the Seventh Floor.
Home for over a hundred years to countless musicians, photographers, writers, painters, pimps and porn stars, the doors of the Chelsea Hotel are closed to guests today. In truth, they’ve been closed for the last seven years since the building was sold off to property developers who will transform her into yet another bland, non-specific, boutique hotel — Trump-style. Save for the handful of long-term tenants, the entire building is filled with workmen. Up on the Seventh Floor, the dust rises to greet me. The beautiful nineteenth century wooden archways have been wrenched from the body of the hallways and smashed to pieces. The doorway to each apartment is covered with plastic sheeting, while the noise of distant drills, saws and hammers resonates throughout the floors.
But the walls of the Chelsea Hotel are seeping with ghosts.
The beating heart for New York City’s bohemia for the latter half of the twentieth century, it’s a place where Bob Dylan composed songs, Patti Smith fell in love with Sam Shepherd, and where Jack Kerouac is said to have written a chunk of On The Road on what he called "the Scroll" — a continuous, 120-foot roll of typewriter paper, each page taped together to avoid any interruption to his flow of thought. In their rooms at the Chelsea, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso gathered to philosophize, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin enjoyed a short-lived love affair (hear Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel’/’Chelsea Hotel No. 2’) and Andy Warhol summoned his Factory regulars to be captured on mid-Sixties celluloid film. Louche and rundown, every sordid thing that you can think of has gone on within in the walls of the rooms of the Chelsea. The ‘doomed poet’ Dylan Thomas almost drank himself to death in Room 206 (he eventually succumbed to a fatal bout of pneumonia), while Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of Sid Vicious, was found stabbed to death in Room 100 — which no longer exists.
Just inches away from the destruction of history — including works of art donated by former tenants — lies a small piece of the Chelsea’s soul. It is the apartment of a tenant, one of about forty which remains. Books, photographs and antique mirrors fill the walls, heavy Persian rugs line the floors — and the wax from Twenties candelabras have dripped, melted and rolled down to set on the tabletops. We smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, drink cheap red wine and blow smoke out of the open window while that most familiar cacophony of sounds — life in New York City — carries on beneath us. Slowly, one-by-one, these tenants are being granted permission to stay here — thanks to an impressive and effective campaign within their own community, protected by state rent laws and regulations. It’s been a long, arduous and stressful process. Others, either too old or too weak to fight, have already left.
Save for the building’s centrepiece — the grand wrought-iron staircase that soars the entire twelve floors of the building — and those remaining apartments, there is nothing left of the hotel as we think of it. That will exist only in our imaginations. Firmly in the hands of property developers — the sort of people who’d be perfectly happy digging up corpses in the middle of the night if it meant getting their hands on the jewellery — we will indeed live to see another incarnation of the Chelsea. But I feel for those guests who, in the coming years, decide to stay here with the hope of feeling the Chelsea. They will yearn to walk on the very same floors that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Bukowski once stumbled onto—beautiful parquetry mosaic, if you were wondering, now inexplicably destroyed — and to open the same window shutters that the likes of Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Nico once themselves touched. But that won’t happen. They are being sanitized. Replaced with something more generic. I wonder if perhaps these future guests might be blind to the ugliness of insipid and unimaginative surroundings? I hope so.
Because the walls of the Chelsea are seeping with ghosts.
As I stumble back into the lobby a little later that night, I slip quietly past the napping desk clerk. The Broadway dancer has vanished into thin air. The workmen have stopped for the day on the floors above me.
As I wheel my bicycle out into this New York evening, the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel is bidding me an eerily silent wish goodnight.
Published in Gorilla Arthouse magazine, September 2017.