Hotel Chelsea, New York

This review of the (in)famous Hotel Chelsea appeared inThe Irish Times on November 21.

Few hotels have influenced popular culture like the Chelsea. Jack Kerouac stayed here when he wrote On the Road ; Brendan Behan, Jean-Paul Sartre and Frida Kahlo are among the countless artists and bon viveurs who, at one time or another, called the Chelsea home; its faded glamour inspired Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Even punk rock has a claim on it: Sid Vicious was arrested for the suspected murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in room 100.

The hotel’s bohemian heyday is now firmly in the past: rock stars and artists are less-frequent visitors, and, with maximum stays recently reduced to 21 days, many of its long-term residents have moved on. Today the Chelsea – 12 storeys of red brick and wrought-iron balustrades in the heart of Manhattan – appeals primarily to out-of-towners, like me, who want to experience a New York institution without decimating their holiday budget.

CHELSEAThe Chelsea may have been taken over by ambitious new management in 2007, but it has not yet morphed into the well-oiled boutique hotel many patrons feared it would become. Rooms with shared bathrooms are available from €89 (€60) a night, and, as my yellow cab rounded the corner on to West 23rd Street, I was relieved to see the neon lights still flickering intermittently on the iconic Hotel Chelsea sign pinned to its front.

Inside, happy anarchy was the order of the day. The narrow marble-floored lobby was decorated with an eclectic collection of quirky art and even quirkier individuals, at least two of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Bob Dylan circa 1975. “Bear with me,” implored the overworked receptionist as he fielded phone calls, signed for deliveries and placated a pair of irate guests before eventually finding my booking.

“It’s crazy, man. I’m the only one here,” Pete the portly porter said with a laugh, sweat dripping off his forehead as he carried my bag from the old-fashioned elevator to a third-floor double room at the back of the hotel. “But it ain’t always like this.” If he was trying to sound convincing he was failing.

The room was an interior designer’s worst nightmare. Nothing matched, from the rendition of Malcolm X in red and black paint beside the door to the garish green walls and mauve flower-patterned drapes. Worse, it had the distinct air of an undergraduate’s unloved bedsit: an empty fridge in the middle of the room; an out-of-date copy of L, the listings magazine, on the scuffed dressing table; only two working lights.

The en-suite bathroom looked passable if cramped. Closer inspection proved less forgiving. The pastel ceiling was decorated in bluish mould, the combined bath and shower unit did not drain and, most egregiously, the toilet overflowed after just one use.

Judging by the phlegmatic reaction on the other end of the phone, blocked pipes are par for the course at the Chelsea. Within five minutes a gruff workman appeared with what might have been the world’s largest plunger. It did the trick – the toilet flushed without fail for the next two days – although he made no attempt to mop up the dirty water that sloshed around the bathroom’s tiled floor.

Of course, you come to the Chelsea for the ambience, not the opulence. And in that regard it did not chelsea2disappoint. The hotel is an art lover’s paradise, with murals, abstract paintings, modernist sculpture and photographs lined along the majestic brass-railed staircase that dominates the centre of the building.

My fellow guests were equally colourful: birds chirped excitedly from the room across the hall, while the smoke that crept underneath my neighbour’s door was unlike that from any tobacco I’ve ever smelt.

Location is the Chelsea’s other great selling point. Best known for its art galleries, the area is one of Manhattan’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, and the theatres of midtown and the Meatpacking District’s trendy bars are all within easy walking distance.

The Chelsea does not serve breakfast, but the Empire Diner – once popular with Bette Davis – is just one of a number of great places to eat within a few blocks of the hotel.

Unfortunately, owing to a paucity of sleep, I found myself in constant need of a cup of strong coffee during my short stay. The bed was of reasonable quality, but its starchy sheets were as uncomfortable as they were ancient.

I left the Chelsea longing for a night in a conventional, well-run hotel. They say you should never meet your idols. Perhaps the adage holds true for hotels, too.

Manhattan Transfer: the Jane

Last month I checked into the New York hotel that has gone from seamen’s flophouse to celebrity hangout for the List. Here’s my take on it:

‘Hey, can you get me in?’ a woman with a brash New England accent squawks at me as I approach the entrance to the Jane hotel in New York’s West Village. Friday night is turning into Saturday morning, and what was a quiet residential street hours earlier is choc-a-block with yellow cabs, burly bouncers in high-vis jackets, and what looks disarmingly like a trope of frustrated extras from MTV’s The Hills.

Rooms cost less than 100 bucks a night, but with recent celebrity guests such as Kirsten Dunst and the Untitled-1Olsen twins, the Jane hotel’s stylish bar is just about the hottest spot in NYC right now. To make it past the imposing doorman it helps to be famous or know somebody who is: I shrug half-heartedly and the imperious bottle blonde in the designer dress moves on to the next guy. ‘Hey, can you get me in?’

Residents at the Jane may not be given preferential access to the bar, but they do get to stay in one of the most unusual and best value for money hotels in Manhattan. The bulk of the hotel’s 200-plus rooms are wood-panelled single-berth cabins, festooned in pink and gold wallpaper. Despite measuring little over 50 square feet, a $99 standard room comes equipped with all mod cons: flat screen television, air conditioner, wireless internet access. There’s even storage space beneath the bed and on a brass rail running above a mirrored wall.

Modelled on ships’ cabins, the surprisingly comfortable sleeping quarters are a definite nod to the hotel’s maritime heritage. The neo-classical red brick Jane began life in 1908 as the Seaman’s Institute and, before
reopening last year, was best known for giving shelter to sailors who survived the Titanic in 1912.

As New York’s docks declined, so did the Institute’s trade. In 1944 the hotel was taken over by the YMCA, becoming a flophouse for the poor and homeless.

So it remained until hip New York’s hoteliers Sean McPherson and Eric Goode bought the establishment in 2007. After renaming it in honour of the street it sits on, they set about transforming it into one of the city’s funkiest hotels. Refurbishment work is still on-going – the entire second floor is closed during my visit – but thankfully the Jane has managed to retain some of its original character(s). Over 60 permanent residents remain from the flophouse days, and with most bathrooms communal and uni-sex, you’re bound to bump into at least one or two long-term guests.

With the bar effectively off limits to the hoi polloi after dark, I head along early to sample its high-art meets low-kitsch vibe. It’s 6pm and virtually deserted; though in the cavernous cocktail room reserved signs are laid out across the chintz sofas. In the gorgeous lounge, modernist sculpture, paintings of Kaiser Wilhelm and a stuffed monkey with a fez number among my drinking companions – it’s not hard to see why A-listers and their entourage flock to the Jane.

You might not get a night-cap but for regular Joes, like me, the Jane is everything you could want from a New York hotel – cheap, central and consistently charming.

The Jane, 113 Jane Street, New York, NY 10014, 001-212-924-6700.
www.thejanenyc.com

Couchsurfing in NYC

I’ve written and spoken about Couchsurfing before in the Irish media and now I’m having my tuppence worth on the other side of the pond. To be honest, I love the idea of meeting random strangers and exchanging cultural what-nots but it can be seriously hit and miss…in this feature in NYC’s hip L Magazine I reflect on a fairly hairy experience couchsurfing in Brooklyn last year. Still was an experience I guess…

A Traveler’s Nightmare: Couchsurfing in NYC
Tourists, like neo-liberals, are all for doing more with less. It’s a natural human impulse to want to see the world, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Parsimonious traveler that I am, New York’s vertiginous hotel prices long kept me away — that is until I heard about a new travel craze that puts would-be visitors in touch with like-minded people and their spare beds (or, more precisely, couches).

‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I wondered as I got online and found a couple in Brooklyn willing to house a struggling arts journalist and his girlfriend for a weekend. Random strangers, an air mattress in Williamsburg, no private space — in retrospect the danger signs should have been flashing bright amber, but I was too excited about CouchSurfing in New York to notice, or care.
L Magazine
Set up five years ago by Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old from Hawaii, CouchSurfing has a simple concept: instead of paying a packet for holiday lodgings, enjoy free hospitality from one of the 780,000 CouchSurfers registered in more than 180 countries.

Underpinning the system is a philosophy reaching well beyond free accommodation. ‘Surfers’ can bring their host gifts, cook dinner or offer to help around the house in return for a bed and expert local knowledge, but the most valuable reward most users seem to get from the site is the exchange of ideas and cultures, and the creation of international friendships.

Joining is straightforward. Sign up, create a profile, populate it with witty aphorisms and photographs of yourself looking friendly and you’re ready to begin contacting members in places you want to visit. (Although some hosts prefer that a friend who’s also a member vouches for you, so they know they’re not getting a psychopath.)

The basic house rules are easy, too. Be a respectful guest (a gift often goes down well but is not obligatory), clean up after yourself and, if other surfers are coming to your area, and it suits you, reciprocate.

It might all sound a bit too rough and ready, but if you don’t have a phobia about staying with strangers, then CouchSurfing can be a great way to travel – and to save money. In the past year I’ve slept on floors and couches and made friends in Germany, Spain and the UK.

I soon realize, however, that New York poses quite unique problems for would-be CouchSurfers. First off there are just so many couches to choose from. Iceland has less than 500 registered hosts, in New York there are well over 6,000 putatively willing to have a guest.

I say putatively as when I start searching for a suitable host for my girlfriend and I a different story emerges. As befits the city itself, New York hosts display plenty of quirks and peculiarities — not least typing ‘be clean’ in upper case and surrounded by exclamation marks. Others include strange requests about background and ethnic origin and levels of education in their profiles. I may be a graduate but I would never make a university education a sine qua non for sleeping on my couch — unlike some New York CouchSurfers.

Click here to read the rest of this feature