I stood outside the Chelsea Hotel on New Year’s Day celebrating that residence of radical artistic inspiration while bemoaning Manhattan’s loss of cultural cross-pollination to the gods of capital.
At $1,574 a month for the cheapest one-bedroom in Harlem, Manhattan has long since priced itself out of the market for budding artists, writers, musicians and other visionaries to live and work side-by-side.
The plaques at the Chelsea’s front door testify to a bit of its history. Dylan Thomas drank himself to death on 18 whiskeys in a row there in 1953; Arthur Miller “witnessed how a new time, the sixties, stumbled into the Chelsea with young, bloodshot eyes”; Janis Joplin swigged down Southern Comfort as Kris Kristofferson serenaded her with “Me and Bobby McGee,” while an unknown poet and songwriter, Patti Smith, slouched on the floor of Joplin’s suite, too young and preoccupied with her own thoughts, as Smith recounts, that she hardly recognized these vignettes as moments.
I was never a devoté of Patti Smith or her lover-confidante-BFF, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, but Smith’s memoir Just Kids is as much about Manhattan’s cultural ferment of the late sixties and early seventies as about the two of them.
Before Finance, Insurance and Real Estate—appropriately and literally known as F.I.R.E.—consumed Manhattan’s economy, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones and Jackson Pollack could hole up at the Chelsea for $55 a week. Or if folks were short of cash, as Smith and Mapplethorpe were, you could leave your portfolio with the proprietor as collateral.
Reading Just Kids a few days after finishing Richard Price’s modern-day hipster drama, Lush Life, it was impossible not to conclude that the ultimate consumer society consumes even its own counterculture. The Village and Chelsea Hotel drew generations of the offbeat toward places where they could meet fellow travelers who wanted to push the edges of politics and culture and live somewhat more freely than what they saw elsewhere. Today, these places have been hollowed out by the market, their history sold back to us as retro fashion. Synthetic, pricey and covered in white tablecloths all the way to Avenue D.
Price, who famously co-wrote HBO’s magnificent Baltimore ghetto drama, The Wire, folds that same cop vernacular and street flair into Lush Life‘s accounting of frustrated artistic dreams on today’s Lower East Side—from the projects to the velvet-roped clubs with $12 cocktails made by tattooed mixologists.
Whatever one might make of the chaotic rhythms and visuals of the Chelsea crowd, they expressed the hopes and struggles of their time. They were fortunate to live in an era when a Mapplethorpe, a white boy from a strict Catholic middle-class home, and a Hendrix, a Black child of an alcoholic mom who died when he was just 15, could interact with each other daily and learn and debate among a vast circle of cultural strivers. They’d even get visits from Salvador Dali, whose dripping clocks have come to symbolize surrealism at its best.
The characters in Lush Life lead alienated lives of joyless sex, anesthetized by alcohol and drugs, which for them are not social elixirs that unleash creative juices, but gateways to deeper despair, isolation and violence.
As a former denizen of the East Village, from 1988 to 2000, I was eyewitness to that bohemia’s twentieth-century grand finale. I moved in the week of the Tompkins Square riot that seems, in retrospect, to have signaled the gentrifiers’ victory over a sanctuary of counterculture.
I could still chat on the street back then with The Naked Civil Servant‘s Quentin Crisp and Howl‘s Allen Ginsberg or catch a $5 show with Sandra Bernhard, Penny Arcade or John Leguizamo around the corner. But the writing was on the wall as my own rent-stabilized haunt across from the Russian and Turkish Baths on 10th St. slowly drifted toward $1,000 a month.
About the only cultural activity you can still enjoy in Manhattan for no money is people watching—at least that remains one of the most spectacular circuses of humanity on earth.
And of course, artists will always find ways of meeting and mixing with each other in any city, no matter how hard the market tries to homogenize, synchronize and sterilize us all. There’s always Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and dare I say, even Staten Island.