Insights into the gentrification of Somerville

On April 9, 2014, in Latest News, by The News Staff

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“Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel”

I have often called my hometown Somerville, Mass., a burg just outside  Boston and Cambridge, the “Paris of New England.” And what I mean by  this is not that it remotely resembles Paris physically, but that it  harbors that same creative energy and that molten core of poets,  writers, and artists, all in close proximity. And of course with  encroaching gentrification of our town–the new developers, and the  desire to attract the upscale folks–rents rise, and the artists will  look to cheaper environs that are more inviting to a bohemian  sensibility. This may or may not happen here in Somerville, but if we  look at history, we will see that it is more or less inevitable. And in  some ways the artistic community of the Chelsea Hotel and its fate  reminds me of my hometown.

Lobby--Chelsea Hotel- In Better Days

Lobby, Chelsea Hotel, in better days

The Chelsea Hotel in New York City has always been a source of  fascination for me. This Victorian-era building, in the Chelsea section  of New York City has housed some of the great names of music, literature and the arts since 1884. There was a great cross- fertilization going  on here, musicians and poets and painters all influenced each other.  Folks like the author Thomas Wolfe, composer Virgil Thomson, playwright  Arthur Miller, rocker Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, poet Dylan Thomas, all  have walked the dark, melancholy halls that were once peppered with  artwork by many famous and not so famous denizens over the many decades.

The hotel is now a shell of its former self. With the gentrification of  New York City, and the ousting of the benevolent Bard family who  nurtured and protected the many artists who lived here over the years,  the hotel is in rapid decline. Ed Hamilton, the author of “The Legends  of the Chelsea Hotel” told me in a recent interview that many of the  residents have been evicted, the artwork that graced the lobby and halls has been removed to places unknown, and many of the rooms in the hotel  have been gutted. History is second to the bottom line.

Recently I had the pleasure to interview Sherill Tippins, author of the  book: “Inside the Dream Palace…” The book is a comprehensive history  of the hotel and a record of its influence with the arts in New York  City and far beyond. The days of rooming houses and affordable housing  in our major cities is a distant dream in our collective past. The  artists who came to the Chelsea and the vicinity and other gone-to-seed  backwaters in many other cities, often revitalized the areas and then  ironically they were forced to move on. The Chelsea may well become  another boutique hotel surrounded by trendy Thai restaurants, and the  prerequisite Starbucks–but I think its legacy will live on because of  all the creative tendrils it spread across New York, the country and the world.

Doug Holder: Sherill–you wrote a previous history about the communal Brooklyn  home that poets and authors like W.H. Auden, Richard Wright, Carson McCullers and others  shared. What is it about this shared space among creative people that  attracts you?

Sherill Tippins: I’m interested in looking at artists and  their work in the context of their environment – the relationships,  working conditions, and activities that affect their work in all kinds  of ways. I find it so helpful in terms of understanding, say, Carson  McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, to know that as she began working  on the book she was eating breakfast each morning with W. H. Auden, who  informed her that she needed to work on developing her intellectual side (as opposed to her intuition), and whose love, Chester Kallman, had as a child actually experienced the central event that McCullers’ protagonist, Frankie, undergoes. Likewise, I gained  a new outlook on  Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall, knowing that he wrote it while  irritated by what he considered the irresponsible moral relativity of  his pop-artist neighbors at the Chelsea Hotel.

I’m also  fascinated by the delicate dynamics of these kinds of group creative  life – that fact that even a slight shift in the balance between  structure and spontaneity can poison the atmosphere so that the work  fails to satisfy or the group disbands. What are the specific  requirements for creative cohabitation? How can privacy be protected  while also leaving room for others’ creative input? Who should do the  housework? Should the household be run on a democratic or autocratic  basis? How high can the rent be before earning it takes up too much of  each resident’s time? These nuts-and-bolts issues are not only  interesting as practical experiments from which others can benefit, but  they can make for high comedy which makes learning about them enjoyable.

DH: Have you ever lived in an environment — a bohemian retreat–like the Hotel Chelsea?

ST: Like many of us, I lived in a group house while in college, where I learned  how possessive some people can be about their groceries, how important  it is to specify who does which chores, how creatively stimulating it  can be to stay up until the early morning hours discussing books and  playing music together, and so on. Since college, though, I’ve lived a  traditional life as part of nuclear family. Documenting bohemian  retreats has become a secret fantasy life for me – my real life may be  predictable and even dull at times, but in my head I’m dining with  Virgil Thomson at the Chelsea or chasing fire engines through the  streets of Brooklyn with Gypsy Rose Lee.

DH: A lot of the artists in the  Chelsea lived under the benevolent hand of Stanley Bard–whose family  owned the building for years. He in essence subsidized many artists–did you ever feel that there was a sense of entitlement among the residents there–that they should receive special treatment because they were  “artists?”

ST:  Stanley Bard, and his father David Bard before him, served  the residents of the Chelsea with such care and respect that, naturally, they tended to believe over time that they deserved that respect. (It  helped, too, that a constant stream of tourists passing through the Chelsea were even more awed by the artists’ presence.) I don’t believe, however, that the artists felt entitled to “special” treatment if that  means better treatment than non-artists should receive. What they felt  grateful for, at the Chelsea, was the Bards’ understanding that as  artists they required had certain needs (privacy, tolerance, connection) and lived under certain conditions (erratic income, erratic hours) that differed from others living in the mainstream. Stanley Bard might allow a filmmaker to go for months or years without paying rent, for example, but he did expect to be repaid eventually – because he understood that a director’s income may be enormous one year and completely nil the next. Any artist knows how difficult it is to manage this fact of life in a  society that expects bills to be paid regularly each month. Naturally,  once the Chelsea residents had found partial relief from this hardship  they didn’t want to give it up – so I’d say their response to losing it  was more a case of grief or even panic than a sense of entitlement.

DH:  In your research did you find any similar hotels, etc.. like the Chelsea.. that existed in this country?

ST: As far as I have been able to discern, the Chelsea Hotel is the largest  and longest-live artists’ community in the world – and in history, in  fact, it would seem. There are other bohemian hotels in the world, of  course – such as the former Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles before it got its makeover. And there were other Fourier-influenced cooperatives in  the United States – in Boston, for instance, not to mention the earlier  Brook Farm and other rural communities. But I know of no other hotel  that was intentionally designed as a creative community and that  continued to function as one year after year. If one ever did exist, I  would love to know about it!

DH: Why do you think Europe is much more receptive to these type of living situations?

ST: The idea of creative community is an integral part of Europe’s social  history, and the idea got a huge boost with the advent of the  nineteenth-century utopian philosophers. Philip Gengembre Hubert, the  Chelsea’s creator and himself a Frenchman who came directly out of this  proto-socialist climate and helped transfer its ideas to New York, wrote that Europeans were more comfortable with a communal,  economically-mixed climate because they could rely on a rigid social  structure to define their social status. Americans, on the other hand,  lived in a supposedly classless society where money was the only measure by which they could define their social position. Maintaining one’s  social status in America therefore almost requires one to set oneself  apart from others of lower economic standing, hoard one’s financial  assets, and focus on individual advancement rather than achieving  synergy as a group.

DH: There were many eras to the Chelsea–which one do  you think cemented its reputation, as an outpost of bohemia and the  avant-garde?

ST: It was an outpost of bohemia and the avant-garde from the  very beginning, as evidenced by the novelist William Dean Howells’ portrait of it in his 1893 novel The Coast ofBohemia. The  American landscape artists who first occupied the Chelsea’s top-floor  lofts were as poor, free-living, and artistically adventurous as the  artists who live there now. Trying to pinpoint the moment that the  building’s bohemian reputation for bohemianism cemented is exactly like  trying to pinpoint the moment at which cement hardens – but I guess I  would say that by the Depression era the hotel’s reputation was widely  known. By this time, for instance, Thomas Wolfe’s editor Maxwell Perkins knew enough to send the author to the Chelsea when Wolfe needed an  inexpensive, private, tolerant environment.  There, Wolfe found a  welcoming community of iconic but impoverished artists and writers,  including Edgar Lee Masters and John Sloan (not to mention the  slightly-less-impoverished Virgil Thomson). The W.P.A. subsidies greatly enhanced this atmosphere, allowing the residents to worry less about  the rent and more about where art was going in America. The richness and excitement of this period carried forward into the 1950s and 1960s – which wouldn’t have been the same without the underlying layer created  by the W.P.A. artists.

DH: Residents like the musicologist Harry Smith,  Arthur C. Clarke believed that art can change the world. And they tried  to do it from their rooms in the Chelsea. Now–looking at the Chelsea  –it is a gutted shell of its former self. Is the dream dead? Do you see  other bohemian enclaves coming around? Or is it just college graduates  posturing in Williamsburg until they get real jobs?

ST: I’m  afraid I do feel, personally, that that particular dream is dead for the time being – at least in New York. As I implied in my treatment of  Harry Smith’s experience, I feel that in the battle between the bohemian vision of creative community and the capitalist ideals for a  market-based society, capitalism won. Commodification kills truth in  art; a high cost of living kills artistic productivity. However, there  will always be artists and bohemians (just as there will also always be  posturers). As Patti Smith herself suggested in a recent interview, the  place to find creative communities is now more likely to be in smaller  towns near big cities – say, in New Paltz, New York, now nicknamed “the  new Brooklyn,” or in failed cities such as Detroit, where the most  important element for creative life – a low cost of living – and the  second-most-important one – stimulating neighbors — still exist.

As for the Chelsea, I’m interested in following the current owner’s stated desire to recreate an “artistic climate” at the hotel. Can it be forced into existence, with free rooms for visiting artists, exhibition and  performance space downstairs, and expensive rooms to subsidize cheaper  ones? One would tend to say no, but on the other hand the original  Chelsea was itself an artificial construct. It’s unlikely, but still  remotely possible in my opinion, that the Chelsea will reassert its  traditional purpose despite the hostile climate in the city surrounding  it. And who knows – as New York mayors come and go and the economy  continues on its erratic path, this city may hit the skids once again,  allowing the bohemians to come rushing in to inhabit the places no one  else wants, “like cockroaches,” as the artist and Chelsea Hotel denizen  John Sloan once memorably said.

 

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