Op-Ed: If These Walls Could Talk — Inside the Fight for the Hotel Chelsea

January 12, 2012 at 4:00 am

The Hotel Chelsea is home to artists and writers and fodder for many gossip columns. Flickr/ WilliamNYC.

If the walls of the Hotel Chelsea could talk, oh what stories they would tell…These old walls have seen far more than the outside world knows and are, literally, what we the tenants are fighting for today.

I’ve lived in the Chelsea for 17 years — nothing compared to some of the other tenants who have lived here since the ’60s and ’70s. Like the Hotel California, it seemed impossible to leave. I remember after one month here, I thought I might move out, but when the manager heard this he said to me, “Zoe! Nobody leaves the Chelsea once they have arrived!”

I am one of the lucky ones who has enjoyed the tradition of an informal way of living under a landlord who wanted to offer an oasis for talented people, many of whom happened to be eccentric — and maybe a little crazy, too.

But all of that is in transition. The building changed hands this summer, and our future is uncertain. Tenants who have lived here for decades are kept in the dark, unsure of future construction and demolition, and just 100 of us remain. All the art work that was displayed in the lobby was taken down by the current landlord for the demolition, and we’re not sure where it is. We are all absorbing the new vibes around us, and we cannot say we are feeling comfortable.

We saw Peter O’Toole in the lobby but of course said nothing; another good quality of the Chelsea is that we respect people’s private lives.

So we at the Chelsea Hotel Tenants Association are fighting back in court. In late December, a New York civil court judge ordered the landlord Joseph Chetrit, who has been renovating the building, to comply with proper standards of cleanup because mold and other harmful materials were found after a tenant-funded health study. We are scheduled to appear in court again on Jan. 19, and we hope we will see progress and willingness on the part of the landlord to bring the apartments up to the standards required by law. We also hope that when the new construction begins, we will be better protected from dust and mold.

Things weren’t always this way.

This is how it used to be: When entering the lobby, the paintings and sculptures would seem to come to life as people chatted around tables and children whirled through the space or prepared their homework under the loving eyes of the Chelsea staff. All of us were engulfed in a mystical experience.

Click the images below for pictures of the renovations, the hotel in its glory days and a look at famous residents of yore:

Part of the Chelsea mythology was the rock and roll, the famous residents and guests — from Bob Dylan to Dylan Thomas to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen and of course, Patti Smith (who is performing a controversial concert at the Chelsea on Thursday night, paid for by the current landlord). It was the extremes, the crimes (or accidents) and the myriad other culturally monumental occurrences that took place here that fed the legend. But it was also the great personalities who felt drawn to this place and who came back because it gave them a sense of continuity and belonging.

About six or seven years ago, Peter O’Toole was celebrated by the Players Club at Gramercy Park; my husband was a member so we were also there. Two days before the event we had seen Peter in the lobby of the Chelsea, but of course said nothing as another good quality of the Chelsea is that we respect people’s private lives. When the night arrived to celebrate with O’Toole, we spoke with him and mentioned that we lived in the Chelsea and had seen him there. He told us that on his first trip to New York he stayed in the Chelsea, and after the tragedy of Sept. 11 he felt a strong urge to come back. He bought a ticket to New York and came to the same Chelsea that for him represented his connection to the city and its pain. I think that this can be considered an homage to the history and dignity of this place.


Leonard Cohen discusses his song, “Chelsea Hotel,” which is about the time he met Janis Joplin there. Chelsea Clinton was named after the song. YouTube/messalina79

But this was also real life, with all the mundane aspects of that world too — rockers lugging their equipment through the doors, artists washing paint from their brushes, writers painstakingly slaving over their typewriters.

Of course, it was not perfect, and of course, at times you might have heard screaming matches between the landlord and the tenants, but at least it was communication, and most of the time the disputes were resolved. But still the empathy and understanding was there, and when people had their problems and issues, the family of the Chelsea tried to help, or at least to listen.

The bohemian atmosphere at the Chelsea fed on paintings, poetry and music, shaping the thoughts, ideas and probably even dreams of an entire generation. Now, only a trace of the art that once delighted us all remains. The walls that have held our art and seen and heard our stories are being demolished. Some of the remnants are now in our lungs and eyes. The dust of the demolition has engulfed all of us.

But out of this trouble something extraordinary has emerged, erupting like a dormant volcano: The Chelsea Tenants Association, 38 members and counting, who are showing the determination to preserve our legacy in this place we call home, and above all, to save the soul of the Chelsea.

Most of the demolition may be over, but we can still taste the dust. We respect the right of the landlord to upgrade the buildings, and welcome it, but we ask for respect in return. We are people.

No building can ever have a soul without the people inside it. For those who passed on, for those who have their names on the facade, for those who are still creating and adding to the legacy, we will keep fighting to preserve our home, a home that hosts so much of the cultural history of New York City.

Zoe Pappas is a structural engineer and artist and is the president of the Chelsea Tenants Association. She has lived at the Hotel Chelsea for 17 years.

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