Day of Reckoning at the Hotel Chelsea

551125083_cc7b468057.jpgPhoto: Matthew Krautheim via flickr

It hasn’t taken long for the new management of the Hotel Chelsea to lay down the law with the landmark's longtime residents. Days after ousting the hotel’s longtime manager, part-owner and lifeblood, Stanley Bard, the new guard sent a short letter to long-term residents this week asking them to make sure they’ve paid all “outstanding balances.”

It’s the first time in 50 years that the hotel has sent such a note. Many residents see it as the precursor toward demolishing the novel payment system Bard instituted to nurture both artists and the hotel’s bohemian environment before the Chelsea is converted into a pricey boutique hotel or condos.

For many residents, it’s not merely about the destruction of yet another unique cultural institution as the rising tide of real estate prices homogenizes New York. It's a question of survival.

“We were always on a pay-as-you-can basis,” said Mia Hanson, a photographer who has lived in the West 23rd Street hotel with her husband, Hawk Alfredson, a painter, since 2001. “That’s the only way we could live in the hotel or in Manhattan for that matter or anywhere, period. We always fell behind but always paid up too. Sometime we pay $10,000 at once. We’d sell a painting and give Stanley a $10,000 check.”

Completed in 1885, the 12-story Queen Anne-style building has been a temporary home to luminaries in all fields of artistic endeavor. It’s famous because Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen wrote songs there, Arthur Miller worked on “A View from the Bridge” there, and Dylan Thomas got wasted there. It’s infamous because Sid Vicious fatally stabbed Nancy Spungen there.

The new management, BD Hotels, which operates the Maritime Hotel among many other luxury properties, said in a press release that it seeks to burnish and build upon the hotels artistic history. Longtime residents who occupy about 60 percent of the hotel's 250 rooms see that so-called burnishing as a pretense for tossing them out.

The residents' worst fears seemed to be confirmed today by a Page Six item, which reported that renowned hotelier Andre Balazs -- the man responsible for the renovations at the Chateau Marmont, the famed Sunset Strip hotel where John Belushi shot his last speedball -- will have a role in the renovations and new management of the Chelsea.

“Now all he has to do is figure out how to entice people who have long lived there for little to no rent to vacate,” the Page Six item concluded.

The new guard is unapologetic about acknowledging the need for renovations. "We don't come to places like this to wreck them," Ira Drucker, the hotel heavyweight who is taking over management, told the England’s Independent newspaper. "That's not what we do. But if the toilet flushes better I don't think we will have any complaints."

The Chelsea was designated a landmark in 1966, but that protects the building’s façade and not its interior and certainly not its residents. It’s for that reason that the bohemian air of the musty old hotel is tinged with fear, rumor, and worry, said Ed Hamilton, a resident who writes the Living With Legends blog about life at the old hotel.

“Many of the people here have no problems paying,” he said. “But there are some people whose work hasn’t sold in a while. I’m not sure how those people are going to pay. And those are the people that I’m worried about. Without Stanley, what’s going to happen to them?”

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