by Sherill Tippins
In the 133-year history of this storied hotel, a reader would expect to find a veritable catalog of New York's underground and avant-garde. This lively book must set some kind of record for name-checking. But it's all in service of a sprawling contextual history. This isn't name-dropping for no purpose. The Chelsea Hotel really has been a nexus of artistic ferment since its very first plans were laid out. The hotel's Fourierist phalanx, which started out as an apartment building that served many socio-economic layers, has had a remarkable journey, much of which is obscured by its associations with late 20th century fame and merely by the fog of time. Today, the hotel's very character is under threat by a grand renovation by a new owner, the kind of restoration that tends to wash away any real character in a living historical landmark. On the other hand, the Chelsea survived generations of change and may yet find its way to survive its latest. We don't want this institution to become Disney's Chelsea-land, but change is relentless and often merciless. Certain readers might have looked for the urban history of the building, its groundbreaking designs, how it affected the local landscape, and how it has aged. But there's too much social ground to cover here to leave much room for that story.
It all started with an immigrant from France, steeped in the theories of the Utopian Fourierist movement, one of the alternative and communal movements that seemed common in the mid-19th century. Experiments such as the Oneida community and Brook Farm are cited at length in the engrossing early history of the Chelsea. Its builder envisioned an urban phalanx of eighty families, a perfected society in which all functions are met by people of character suited to their functions. A commune. Thus, the apartment building was an assemblage of large and small Victorian apartments, art studios, and support functions such as dining halls, barber shop and gathering spaces. It was one of the first large apartment buildings in Manhattan. Early on, such figures as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Mary McCarthy and Stephen Crane lived and worked here. What ensues in the book is a long telling of the complex history of the artists who came and went, lived and visited the hotel. Along the way, the hotel itself undergoes changes and crises, but somehow always seems to remain dedicated to the cause of art, with its understanding managers, the sort willing to take a painting in lieu of rent. Indeed, the need for money is an overarching theme in this book. New York doesn't treat the impovershed very well, and communes most often fail for financial reasons. The Chelsea was somehow a refuge. And in its episodes of debauchery and open tolerance, its story resembles that of the City of Mahagonny, the Brecht opera that inspired an epic and tragic interactive cinematic experience by another Chelsea resident, Harry Smith.
Artists, political thinkers (usually socialists), musicians, all stood out at the Chelsea. But others, people who chose to live in unconventional surroundings, also lived in the hotel. Stock brokers, widows of Victorian businessmen, union organizers. The Fourierist phalanx never really came together. The residents cooperated on many things, and looked out for one another, but did not have the singularity of purpose necessary for a coherent community. Yet the story is a dizzying array of personalities, artistic events, and often surprising historical context.
Of course, there were later famous denizens. Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Patti Smith, William Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Arthur Miller, Alan Ginsburg, Sid Vicious, Marianne Faithfull, Ethan Hawke. The list goes on, and many get at least a bit of their stories told. Despite the vast number of personalities and stories that come out of the Chelsea, at any one time there were scores of other people living in the hotel, the forgotten many who didn't make themselves as famous as the lucky few. Their stories are untold, perhaps only handed down among anonymous friends and family. (There are, however, numerous on-line accounts and blogs from Chelsea denizens.) The author relies largely on published work and extant artworks. There is an extensive bibliography richly researched. But, one wonders about the survivors, famous and otherwise. The book, entertaining and informative as it is, might have benefitted from the immediacy of reporting contemporary interviews that are nevertheless mentioned in the writer's acknowledgments. Still, this is almost too sprawling a story to get into one modest-sized book. The Chelsea is a landmark of countercultural fame. It is a Magic Mountain for Manhattan. Even in its seedy decline, the place fascinated and drew people from all over the world, people determined to live a life just outside cultural norms, and within the most vibrant city on Earth.
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See also: [Just Kids by Patti Smith]
[Gotham by Edwin G. Burrows & Mike Wallace]
[Brook Farm by Sterling F. Delano]
[Other books by Women Authors]
[Other History, Biography and Memoir]