Renters: Calling the Chelsea Hotel Home

Renters: Calling the Chelsea Hotel Home

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They were living in Washington, D.C., at the time, but Ms. Martin had just landed a job at a nonprofit in Manhattan. The plan was that Mr. Hamilton, a philosophy Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland who dreamed of being a writer, would join her once he was done teaching that semester.

The room they moved into was barely 100 square feet, and they had to sneak around so the hotel’s then-manager, Stanley Bard, wouldn’t find out they were subletting (though he did soon enough). They also had to leave every few months when the musician came back to maintain his tenancy.

“We were so happy to get in this place,” said Mr. Hamilton. “Everyone was an artist or a writer or a musician of some sort. When we moved in, we lived next to a punk rocker, an old blues guy and a violinist. There was an unspoken rule that you could just wander into whatever party you wanted to. It was a very accepting place.”

The couple’s room has no kitchen and there is a shared bathroom.

Credit
David Handschuh for The New York Times

A year and a half later, Mr. Bard offered them an upgrade to a 220-square-foot room on the eighth-floor, also an S.R.O. They have lived there ever since — their stabilized rent now runs $1,100 a month.

The room, which has high ceilings, two large wood-framed windows and tatty wall-to-wall carpeting, is densely packed with books and papers and clothes. Mr. Hamilton sold his philosophy collection — hundreds of volumes — when he moved to New York, but they both admit to a weakness for book buying.

“I really regret having to sell my philosophy books,” said Mr. Hamilton. He did, however, get to keep his foosball table, though he gave up competitive foosball some years ago.

Names: Ed Hamilton and Debbie Martin

Ages: 56 and 57. Rent: $1,100 a month, plus an additional $200 a month for an off-site storage locker. Occupation: Writer and nonprofit researcher. Kitchen facilities: A sink, an electric teakettle and a mini-fridge. The first room they sublet had “more of a cooking setup: an electric skillet and a toaster,” Ms. Martin said. Favorite places to eat: Whole Foods salad bar, the Lime Jungle, Rocco’s Pizza, Lucky Burger. The bodega around the corner for sandwiches. Why they love living in the hotel: “It allowed us to live the bohemian life. The whole time I’ve lived here, I’ve been filled with ideas,” Mr. Hamilton said. Regrets: “I’d get a cat if we had more indoor space, but it feels too confining,” he said. What they’d like to see happen to the Chelsea: “The best case for the hotel is that they would in some sense open it as a hotel again, even if it was a fancy hotel for the rich. Maybe it would be a theme hotel, but they’d see who wanted to stay here and maybe it would revert back to what it was,” Mr. Hamilton said.

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Maybe we could sell the foosball table?’” Ms. Martin said. “But you can see his blood pressure go up.”

Their room is now one of only two S.R.O.s left in the building, which has been undergoing interior demolition for the past decade, following Mr. Bard’s 2007 ouster by the hotel’s board of directors. Since then, the Chelsea has traded hands a number of times, shifting between various partnerships — there’s been talk of a boutique hotel, luxury condos and some combination of the two.

Only some 50 rent-regulated rooms remain in the building — there were about 150 rentals and 100 hotel rooms in 2007. Many tenants have taken up temporary residence elsewhere as construction drags on, frustrated by the plastic sheeting they must pass to get to their apartments and the omnipresent dust that seeps in from cracks in the walls. It’s noisy during the day and eerily quiet at night when workers go home.

Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Martin peer through plastic construction sheathing in the hallway outside their apartment.

Credit
David Handschuh for The New York Times

“It feels like a tomb,” said Mr. Hamilton, who, along with Ms. Martin, has chronicled the saga of the Chelsea’s latest chapter on their blog “Living with Legends.”

Mr. Hamilton, who credits the Chelsea Hotel with inspiring his fiction, has also written a book about the hotel’s history, “Legends of the Chelsea Hotel.” His recent book of short stories, “The Chintz Age,” deals with artists and hyper-gentrification.

Much as they miss their neighbors, there is one silver lining to the current state of affairs: Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Martin have the bathroom they once shared with four other rooms all to themselves.

The densely packed room has high ceilings and two large wood-framed windows and is home to Mr. Hamilton’s foosball table.

Credit
David Handschuh for The New York Times

They’re perfectly content without an en-suite: Besides the convenience of having the bathroom stocked and cleaned by someone else, they believe in the S.R.O. model.

“It’s a matter of principle,” said Mr. Hamilton. “It’s an affordable way to live.”

It has, however, become less affordable living without a kitchen in a neighborhood where the inexpensive dining options have all but disappeared.

“There used to be a lot of places where we could both eat for under $10,” Ms. Martin said. “There was a place called Donuts Sandwiches where you could get a burger and fries for $2.95.”

They have, they admitted, considered leaving at times.

“But what do you do if you leave?” Mr. Hamilton asked. “It’s such a beautiful building, like a sanctuary from the real world. It would be very hard to let go of the dream. That it would be what it was, rather than a regular apartment building.”

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