The Chelsea Hotel Reaches the End of an Era With New Ownership
I go away for a few days and the place falls apart. The closing of the Chelsea Hotel to guests must be noted here. Among its numerous and well-documented achievements, it was the place where nightlife lived, crashed, and partied. In its last 40 or so years, it was a place where scenesters hooked up with scenesters, rock stars behaved badly, artists found their vim, and writers became unblocked. It was a cauldron of creativity. I lived there for a bit, high on top in its penthouse peak, with a panoramic view of the relevant world.
I was told that Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there and John Wayne, John Garfield, Isadora Duncan, and a couple dozen more like that enjoyed its charms. Someone famous even died on the steps and supposedly still roams around. Ghosts are a big part of the history and the story of the place. I used to crash in the Sid and Nancy room when my wife got real mad at me. I never felt the “presence” and always brought my own sheets. The Sid and Nancy shebang clouded the Dylan Thomas or Herbert Hunke, Ginsberg legacy and it was dusted under the rug by management. Still visitors were obsessed. The elevator would sometimes stop on the first floor as you traveled down, without a person to be seen when the ancient doors opened. We’d exclaim “Nancy!” to startle tourists and friends obsessed with that rock opera. It opened because someone realized the elevators were super slow and the staircase behind them was a better option, not because Nancy was saying hello…I think.
Even after I left and got me a swanky apartment on the East Side I was treated like family when I would pop by. I was always popping by to see Venice, or Arthur Weinstein, or some other downtown dignitary. I’ve only gone twice since Arthur passed. His Mobiles in the upper atrium spoke to me as he did. The eyes of his Roy Cohen or Lucky Luciano images reminded me of those types I used to know, who wouldn’t see what you or I saw but the hidden truth underneath. Arthur left a hole in my life and the death of The Chelsea will be the end of an era—an end to an old New York that was dying by inches, but now seems to be galloping away.
Then again, I looked at a video of The Tangiers Blues Band, which recently did a gig at the John Varvatos store on Bowery. We all know that the store was once CBGB’s and that a big stink was made about CB’s closing and a clothing store coming in. The sky was falling and the world as we know it was ending. Then John Varvatos did the right thing and made it musically relevant and the loss turned into a gain. John understood the value of the legend and honored it and used it. CB’s wasn’t what it was anymore and it now has new life and new music. Maybe something good will come out of this as well. The Chelsea, without its famous curator Stanley Bard, who, like a club doorman picked and chose who had the right to stay, hasn’t been itself in years. The club downstairs is irrelevant and the people who used to hang in the lobby have moved on. Now it’s all gawkers and wanna-be’s and there is zero chance that a Bowie, or Dylan, or Grace, or Dee Dee will prance through. The Chelsea is a ghost of itself. Maybe the new money will return the old spirit. The aging residents will cling to their pasts but the feeling I have is that here’s nothing new coming from the rooms. Discount tourists don’t ferment art.
El Quijote still slaughters a thousand lobsters a day and their aroma as I walk by on 23rd Street still reminds me of a time when Ultraviolet and Richard Bernstein and Nina Hagen and such would be a part of my daily life. The Chelsea has become as irrelevant as the tourists who can’t book a room there anymore. Maybe developer Joseph Chetrit, armed with architect Gene Kaufman, will understand the value of the past and will strive to bring it back even if it is only a means to market the old hotel. He paid $80 million for the place and it seems reasonable that a smart man would consider the legend and vibe and ghosts and the remaining tenant’s assets, rather than nuisances. Varvatos understood CBGB’s and I’ll argue that he did what needed to be done in our changing world. Although I would have felt better if Andre Balaz had gotten hold of the property I will cross my fingers, toes, and eyes that a renovation will return The Chelsea to its glory.