Yesterday, the floods arrived again at the Chelsea Hotel. A pipe burst sending water throughout the 10th and 9th floors of the building. Some tenant's apartments were damaged by the water. The picture below shows the water flowing from a light fixture on the 10th floor. Meanwhile, by our count, a quarter of the Chelsea Hotel's tenants continue to fight evictions in Housing and Supreme Court.
Below is the first 2:42 of Gene Kaufman's presentation at Community Board 4's public hearing on April 4, 2012. (You will need to turn up the volume on your speakers.) Here is a draft of the resolution which CB4 will send to the Landmarks Preservation Committee, which plans to hold a hearing about the Hotel on Tuesday, April 10, at 9:30 A.M., Conference Room at 1 Centre Street, 9th Floor. Additionally, CB4 will send a second letter requesting that LPC delay the process until there is a clearer understanding of the overall plans for the Hotel.
Here’s what remains of Beat writer Herbert Huncke’s room. Huncke, who inspired characters in Ginsberg’s Howl, Kerouac’s On the Road, and Burrough’s Junky, lived a hand-to-mouth existence in this rent stabilized room until his death. He could have never afforded to live in NYC if the Chetrits of the world had had their way. Underpaid, non-union demolition crews working with Joe and Meyer Chetrit, Jonathan Chetrit, Gene Kaufman, and Ed Scheetz, just to name a few of the characters involved , are taking rent-stabilized rooms off the books and destroying important chapters in New York history as they do so.
Union workers erected a large rat in front of the Chelsea Hotel today to protest Joseph Chetrit's use of non-union labor to demolish the interior of the hotel. Former Hotel workers had long been union members but in August when the Chelsea Hotel was in the process of changing ownership, the union workers arrived at the Hotel to find they had been locked out. Then they were given a one day notice and fired. Though promised a severance package, the maids, clerks, engineers, and bellmen of the Chelsea, many of whom had worked at the Hotel for decades have to this date, received nothing. Actually, it was not one but two tenants who were assaulted. Additionally, we have received several reports of tenants being verbally harassed by the non-union demolition workers.
The present, illegitimate, management this week began demolition/“renovation” in room 614 of the National and City Landmark Chelsea Hotel. This is the room where the great Arthur Miller lived in the 1960s, and where he penned his play “After the Fall.”The room is virtually unchanged from the time when Miller lived there, and contains many original features.It has most recently been the home and work space of Dr. Peter Ferro, a dentist who was evicted from the hotel last year. We feel that Miller’s room is a valuable resource for present and future generations of writers and playwrights, and that it should be preserved.Unfortunately, due to the present management’s utter contempt for history, tradition, and the arts, we have every reason to fear that this room will end up much like Bob Dylan’s room—that is, unceremoniously gutted.
As was the case with the demolition of Dylan’s room, we feel that the hotel has fraudulently obtained the permits for work on room 614.In their applications for flooring, kitchen, and bathroom renovations, they falsely state that the Chelsea is not an SRO building, when in fact it is.They further falsely state that the hotel does not contain rent stabilized units, when infact it does.This allows the hotel to avoid the requirement that they obtain a Certificate of No Harassment—which, due to ongoing harassment, they’ll never get in a million years.
We thought we had cleared up this matter of permit falsification with the DOB in connection with the work on Dylan's room -- for which they issued a Stop Work Order which is still in effect -- but apparently they can't be bothered to read their own paperwork.
In a recently published article, Sherill Tippins traces the origins of the ChelseaHotel’s role as nexus of the artistic community to the French utopian socialist philosopher Charles Fourier’s influence upon architect Phillip Hubert. It’s Tippins contention that when Hubert completed the building in 1884 it encapsulated Fourier’s notion of art social – a philosophical ideal whereby artists have the role of “unifying a diverse population and guiding it forward in its evolution.”Tippins history of the ChelseaHotel, which will be published later this year, will show how Fourier’s ideas have anchored the Hotel throughout its many incarnations. Below is an excerpt from the article.
“…. the Chelsea’s physical and economic design resembled in many ways those of a standard phalanstery, so the social makeup of its Association echoed that recommended by Fourier for a phalanx in its infancy : a central core of cultivators and manufacturers, a smaller population of capitalists, scholars, and artists for the sake of economic survival, psychological balance, and spiritual growth ; and a Board of Directors manned by the wealthiest and most knowledgeable members of the cooperative.  At the Chelsea, located not in the country but in the midst of an urban environment then under massive construction, the “cultivators and manufacturers” were represented by real estate developers, builders, and contractors then involved in the creative process of “growing” the city -in this case including most of the people who literally built, equipped, and decorated the Chelsea itself. The “capitalists, scholars, and artists” included not only by the painters and sculptors in the fifteen top-floor studios, but by a number of musicians, actors, authors, professors, bibliophiles, financiers, and wealthy philanthropists who lived downstairs. And with a founding Board of Directors that included a well-known stockbroker, a former president of the Merchants and Traders’ Exchange, a future governor of Virginia, and the president of the company that installed the Chelsea’s innovative, patented roof, the call for a wealthy and knowledgeable leadership had been answered as well.
With an eighty-family building and a reasonably diverse population, the Chelsea stood poised to take its place, as John Noyes had recommended, “at the front of the general march of improvement.” But the question remained : how would it go about doing this ? What kind of work was to be accomplished here ?
The answer seems to lie in the Fourierist notion of art social -the importance assigned to the role of artists in unifying a diverse population and guiding it forward in its evolution. Hints of this intention lie not only in the provision of fifteen art studios occupying the Chelsea’s entire top floor, but also in the pronounced presence of nature themes in its décor-stained-glass transoms displaying images of seashells and flowers, etched-glass door panels featuring forest scenes, hand-carved wood fireplace mantels and hand-painted tiles, a lobby hung with paintings of the Hudson River school, and exquisite wrought-iron sunflowers adorning its exterior balconies and central stairway -the latter evoking a dream of the liberated American artist as vividly as Fourier’s Crown Imperial flower represented the downtrodden artist in “civilization.”
For more of Sherill's writings about the Chelsea Hotel read the "History of Activism" section of this blog.
I own Capitol Fishing Tackle Co. I went to work at the store in 1973 and bought it in 1974.The Bards treated me fairly. The space wasn't cheap, but I made a living and it was fun.Stanley and his family are wonderful people. We were all in tears when we found out that Capitol Fishing could no longer remain at the Hotel Chelsea. I moved the store for two reasons. I couldn't think about closing a business that was 109 years old at that time, and, more importantly, our son wouldn't let me. Fishing is his passion and he loves working in the store that will some day be his. Our famous sign is at 132 W 36th St. We have a great landlord and a very long lease. I didn't let Marlene Krauss and David Elders win. Believe it or not, Marlene Krauss's father was a gentleman. If he was alive today, he wouldn't be proud of his daughter. -- Richard Collins
Abbie and Jerry Rubin began planning a "celebration of life" for Chicago, as an alternative to Democrats' "celebration of death." After a meeting with them in his Chelsea Hotel room, Country Joe MacDonald agreed to sing his "Vietnam Rag" there without pay--but, like many other musicians and social activists, he started to back out when Chicago started to look like a potential bloodbath.
In the end, the celebration of life failed to prevent Mayor Daley from unleashing his police on the demonstrators. As Arthur Miller wrote, "Chicago, 1968, buried the Democratic Party and the nearly forty years of what was euphemistically called its philosophy." Humphrey might as well have read his concession speech to Richard Nixon then. Chelsea alumnus Phil Ochs expressed the general Chelsea Hotel sentiment on the cover of his 1969 album, "Rehearsals for Retirement." It portrayed a tombstone with the words, "Phil Ochs (American), Born: El Paso Texas, 1940, Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968."
Abbie Hoffman and seven others were charged under the new Interstate Riot Act with crossing state lines with the intention of inciting a riot, but the Chicago courtroom became Abbie's greatest stage. In fact the trial was later adapted for stage and film, with William Burroughs playing the judge in one production. Country Joe MacDonald's description at the trial of his meeting with Abbie at the Chelsea provided some great entertainment as well.
By 1970, the Yippies had branches in at least 70 cities, all dedicated to cultural disruption. Abbie, in his long-time role as caretaker to the outsider community in New York, regularly referred people in need of shelter to the Chelsea Hotel--such as the artist Vali Myers--and after 1972 often stayed there himself with his wife and their son, america.
Law enforcement never stopped pursuing Abbie, though, and the Rockefeller Drug Laws finally got him. Two weeks before they went into effect, he'd been involved in a lawsuit that forced the NYC Police Department to destroy intelligence files on a million people. The evening that the new drug laws went into effect, Abbie was charged with intent to sell and distribute cocaine--a charge that now carried a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life. After six weeks in the Tombs, he was released on bail, and spent a quiet, happy Christmas Eve at the Chelsea. A few weeks later, he skipped bail and went underground, where he would stay for the next six years.
Back at the Chelsea, Abbie's family waited, supported by a sympathetic Stanley Bard. Even while underground, Abbie continued to agitate on behalf of the environment and other social issues whenever he could. But in 1989, depression overtook him. He died from a massive dose of phenobarbitol and alcohol and was found, alone in bed, his hands tightly clasped around his face. He was 52 years old. -- Sherill Tippins
Dear blog readers, I am still collecting stories about Abbie Hoffman at the Chelsea Hotel, so if you have a story, or have any corrections to what follows, I'd appreciate hearing from you via the Comments to this post. -- Sherill
If it's true that certain buildings can communicate their character and something of their past to their current occupants, it was hardly surprising that Abbie Hoffman found himself drawn to the Chelsea in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Norman Mailer's words, the grandson of Lower East Side Russian-Jewish immigrants was "a bona-fide nineteenth-century revolutionary...a true socialist--a believer in progress," just like the people who created the hotel.
Abbie discovered politics at the University of Californiaat Berkeley in 1960. But, like Chelsea Hotel alumni Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Harry Smith, Phil Ochs,and Bob Dylan he was more fully galvanized by the music of America's outsiders--in his case, the social and political power of the gospel songs sung in a Negro church where he attended weekly political meetings in Worcester, Massachusetts. "There was something about singing freedom songs in a black church..." Hoffman wrote, "that summoned a spirit never to be recaptured."
The power of the music took Hoffman to Mississippiin 1964, where he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--teaching,registering voters,and helping create a Poor People's Corporation for selling hand-crafted goods. Increasingly alienated by a too-conservative Democratic Party, he learned from Stokely Carmichael's "spoken R&B" how to set aside his college-educated intellectualism and speak out in a way that "let people experience feelings as well as thought."
Moving to the Lower East Side in 1966, he met his future wife, Anita,as well as Chelsea habitués Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs, Jerry Rubin, Timothy Leary, and Country Joe MacDonald. Out of the conversations and debates he enjoyed with them, he realized that there was an opportunity here to harness the power of the youth movement and perhaps finally break the stranglehold of the corporate ruling class."Like freaked-out Wobblies," he wrote, "we would build a new culture smack-dab in the burned-out shell of the old dinosaur."
Unlike the Wobblies, though, Abbie and his conspirators could do this by drawing on a decade's worth of communication techniques developed by the artists, musicians, writers and actors of the Fifties and Sixties, many of them at the Chelsea. Abbie could see that artists like Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Harry Smith, and others had already proved Marshall McLuhan's claim that information was culture, and change in society would occur as the flow of information changed.
Abbie's means of attack would be through theater. Theatrical techniques, he wrote, would "allow players to connect directly, viscerally" with the public. He and his co-conspirators would "organize a movement around art," as the Chelsea's "founding philosopher" Charles Fourier had recommended--using the potent symbols developed by artists to draw people in and make social change fun.
Beginning in 1967, Abbie--with Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg, The Fugs, The Bread and Puppet Theater, and many other fellow travelers--staged guerrilla-theater events designed for maximum political impact: dropping dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; plastering the Times Square recruiting center with stickers reading, "See Canada Now"; throwing plastic bags full of cow's blood at visiting Secretary of State Dean Rusk; and simply declaring the war over and celebrating it in the streets, shouting, "Hip-hip-hurray!...If you don't like the news...make up your own." Then, in October, Abbie and 100,000 demonstrators "exorcised" the Pentagon, relying on exorcism techniques provided by the Chelsea's Harry Smith. The iconic image of one of them placing a flower in the barrel of a policeman's gun made that demonstration "the perfect theatrical event." "We were light-years ahead of the Living Theater," Abbie claimed. "We had taken it off the stage. We were not trying to represent it in art, we were trying to live it." Probably because of this demonstration, Johnson saw his power slipping and decided not to run again.(To Be Continued….) (Video -- Abbie Hoffman Makes Geflite Fish at the Chelsea Hotel, Christmas 1973)
The inimitable hotelier Stanley Bard provided a place where dozens of truely original and iconclastic artists of the Sixties could challenge the status quo. And in so doing, Stanley came closest in this period to fulfilling the ideals of the 19th Century utopian socialist Charles Fourier, whose philosophy inspired the hotel in the first place. Historian Sherill Tippins, author of the upcoming Dream Palace, covers a lot of ground here in bringing us up through a turbulent decade of activism at the Chelsea.
Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, Chelsea resident Harry Smith'sAnthology of Folk Musictouched a forgotten chord in the consciousness of American listeners, reminding them of who they were before the dividing wall of enormous wealth descended on American society--and thus sparked the folk-music tradition that had once inspired Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the I.W.W. movement and now laid the groundwork for the civil rights movements and anti-war protests of the 1960s. Smith's brilliant, hand-painted films and meticulous artwork spurred the liberating underground film community forward, and his encouragement and recording of the poet-comprised rock band, The Fugs, used satire and comedy to undermine the complacency and ignorance of mainstream America. As Smith's multimedia film-art-and-music experiments developed into multimedia happenings at the Cinematheque, which in turn evolved into such explosive experiments as the Velvet Underground's Exploding Plastic Inevitable events and Warhol's Chelsea Girls, New Yorkers found a way to recover their own true identities and lives from the delusional value system of the larger society--to break the hold placed on them by mainstream media and the pressures of business and governmental control.
Other Chelsea residents and guests contributed to this effort in other ways. William Burroughs' "cut-ups"--phrases and words cut out of such mainstream publications as Time and Life, rearranged to create an often revelatory new message--undermined the power of traditional media just as Warhol's films called into question the assumptions and machinery supporting the Hollywood system. Terry Southern attacked the status quo through satire in Candy and Dr. Strangelove. Larry Rivers shocked the art world with nude portraits of his mother-in-law, Birdie, and his "pornographic" sculpture, "Lampman Loves It" (title contributed by Terry Southern). Maurice Girodias published "forbidden" books despite constant efforts at censorship. Timothy Leary passed out hallucinogens in his effort to enable individuals to access their own true selves without having to rely on psychiatrists or other intermediaries. Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and other rock musicians drew on the musical roots and ideas supplied by Harry Smith to create a new, genuinely American musical tradition. Allen Ginsberg moved from Harry Smith to Bob Dylan to William Burroughs to Timothy Leary to Larry Rivers to Abbie Hoffman to Stanley Bard, spreading the "pollen" of guerrilla-warfare tactics and ideas from one group to another in an effort to resist the power of wealth, self-interest, and government control.
During the Sixties, Chelsea residents showed the world how individuals could fight the system, and how artists could use their words, images, music, and theatrical techniques to create social change. At the same time--even as the ideas of the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier were enjoying a renaissance in 1960s Paris--the Chelsea under young Stanley Bard's care more closely resembled that utopian ideal than at any other time in its history. The Chelsea truly had become a haven for every kind of individual, in which creative work was encouraged and facilitated to the point at which resident artists could realize their responsibility to help move society forward. If some aspects of building maintenance were neglected in the chaos of this never-equaled intensity of creative living, at least the Chelsea's original intent was finally being realized to the extent possible within the larger culture that surrounded it. Thus, Stanley--often chided and sometimes even ridiculed by neighboring businessmen, some reporters, and even his own partners on occasion--became one of the guerrilla warriors helping in the fight to fight the co-opting of American energy and talent by the mainstream powers.
Without these individuals' efforts, the American voice that had nearly died in the Gilded Age, struggled through the Roaring Twenties, and flourished during the Depression thanks to WPA subsidies, might have finally been crushed beneath the sheer weight of the triumphant, mainstream American Century. As it was, these much-reviled artists laid the groundwork for more direct political activism aimed at combating racism and at ending the war in Vietnam. In those efforts, Chelsea residents would play a major role as well.
With the onset of World War II, the forces aligned against unfettered capitalism, dog-eat-dog individualism, and American imperialism--forces with which most Chelsea residents had traditionally sided--had fallen into disarray. American Socialists, Communists, and liberals had divided into bitterly-opposed pro- and anti-Soviet factions. Some Chelsea residents and guests, including Mary McCarthy, Nicholas Nabokov, Benjamin Stolberg, and James Farrell, were persuaded by such Soviet abuses as the show trials in Moscow to work with the U.S. government in opposition to the Communist cause--even to the point of writing for CIA-sponsored publications in many cases. Others, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynnand future resident Arthur Miller, continued to hope that the old American dream of social community and fairness could be resurrected from the ashes of the Soviet experiment.
But even as Chelsea (and other) intellectuals and artists tried to find a foothold in the new, post-WWII world order, American capitalists--with the help of well-intended government agencies that Chelsea idealist Herbert Croly had helped inspire--were consolidating their power to a stunning degree. Jackson Pollockfound himself face-to-face with the reality of this new economic and political power at a Chelsea Hotel luncheon arranged by gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim. During the Depression, Pollock had practically been rescued from starvation by the WPA's Federal Arts Project, which drew on the Chelsea-style Enlightenment tradition in treating artists, for the first time in America, as legitimate workers just as deserving of work and pay subsidies as construction workers, factory laborers, bureaucrats, and everyone else in society. Like Virgil Thomson, Joseph Losey, Paul Bowles, Arthur Miller, and other current or future Chelsea residents, Pollock had been able to develop his art free of the need to please individual patrons or consider the pressures of the marketplace. With $23.86 a week in their pockets, he and other FAP artists could afford the studio space, supplies, food, and whiskey required to move forward productively with their work.
Now, in 1943, however, Pollock found himself breaking bread with the wives and friends of the very capitalists who had forced Roosevelt to cut the Federal Arts Project in 1939--aided by conservative Republican Congressman and stockbroker John Parnell Thomas, who attacked the W.P.A. arts programs for providing "propaganda for Communism"--leaving artists again dependent on the passing whims and tastes of the wealthy for their survival.
Pollock's response to this situation was to drink too much at the luncheon until he vomited on the carpet, causing the other guests to instantly disperse (although one of them, Hazel Guggenheim McKinley, advised the hotel staff to cut out the square of carpet with Pollock's vomit on it and frame it, as it would likely prove an excellent investment someday). Other Chelsea residents and visitors, however, began to use the tools of their trade to identify the truths of American society in the face of a monolithic mainstream culture, thus undermining and attacking the means and methods of social control.
Historian Sherill Tippins, author of the upcoming Dream Palace, a history of the Chelsea Hotel, continues her series on the lives and struggles of the Chelsea's great social activists with a portrait of painter and hotel resident John Sloan:
In 1905, the painter John Sloan was sufficiently captivated by the look of the Chelsea cooperative to paint it in half-silhouette against the New York sunset. Having arrived in New York only recently from Philadelphia, Sloan knew nothing about the Chelsea or the philosophical ideas behind its creation. Nevertheless, the painting communicates a sense of longing as the working-class woman in the foreground--Sloan's wife, Dolly--pauses in the midst of her dreary domestic chores to take in the beauty of the building and the sky.
It would be thirty years before Sloan and Dolly themselves moved into the Chelsea. Now, in 1905, they lived in obscurity in a shabby, unheated top-floor loft at 165 W. 23rd Street--the same loft, about a block from the Chelsea, that Stephen Crane and his friends had occupied a decade before. In those days, Sloan was drawn to paint the city's factory workers, immigrants, and unemployed people merely by instinct--and because as a poor man himself, married to an alcoholic and former prostitute, the working-class life was all he knew. He didn't realize that paintings of bread lines and tenement children conveyed a political message until a critic referred in print to the "socialist" content of his paintings. To figure out what the critic meant, Sloan started reading the Socialist newspaper, The Call--and grew increasingly excited as he found credible explanations there for so much of the unfairness and cruelty he had only intuited as an artist. By 1910, he and Dolly had joined the Socialist Party, and Sloan began contributing scathing political cartoons to the Call and the Coming Nation.
In 1912, during the groundbreaking I.W.W. strike at the American Woolen Company in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Dolly helped temporarily transfer the half-starved strikers' children to the homes of sympathetic New Yorkers, while a few months later Sloan became art director of The Masses, helping Max Eastman make the case for the working class through powerful images and sharp, often satirical captions.
In 1913, when the I.W.W. organized another millworkers' strike in Paterson, New Jersey, Sloan joined with "Wobbly princess" Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and playwright Percy MacKaye (son of Steele MacKaye, the first director of Chelsea architect Philip Hubert's Lyceum Theater), Big Bill Haywood, John Reed, and others to stage a giant pageant in Madison Square Garden depicting the millworkers' desperate struggle to secure fair working conditions.
Flynn had learned the value of a dramatic presentation as a teenager giving soapbox speeches on 125th Street; she had seen the power of Joe Hill's and others' working-class songs while touring the mining and logging towns of America. She and Haywood were experts by now at grabbing press attention by turning politics into theater. While they helped the millworkers create such scenes as "The Mills Alive, The Workers Dead" and "The Workers Begin to Think," and John Reed composed songs for the strikers to sing, Sloan painted a giant backdrop for the Madison Square stage--an enormous image of the silk factory where the strikers had spent most of their adult lives. On June 7th, 1,200 millworkers marched across the bridge over the Hudson River and through Manhattan to Madison Square Garden to perform their show to an audience of more than 15,000. The pageant succeeded in helping the workers feel the spirit of community action, even though the strike itself failed shortly afterwards. (Paterson Pageant poster attributed to John Sloan)
Sloan would continue to agitate in support of New York's working poor for the rest of his life, though he would drop out of the Socialist Party for its refusal to "strike" against the First World War. He joined the ACLU and signed petitions against the "disgrace to the nation," the House Un-American Activities Committee. When he moved to the Chelsea in 1935, he found a kindred spirit in the poet Edgar Lee Masters, who had passionately supported the populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and had personally berated Theodore Roosevelt for his imperialist leanings. The two aging curmudgeons liked to get together to drink cocktails, play old gospel and fiddle tunes on Masters' Victrola, and talk politics.
By 1950, Sloan's outspoken resistance to the HUAC hearings and other activities had caused the FBI to reactivate his file. Plans were made to include him in the next wave of attacks in Congress on "communistic" artists who were "corrupting" American life--but Sloan died before he could be summoned. "It's a fight, isn't it?" he said to his wife on his deathbed in a Delaware hospital in 1951. For Sloan, it had been--but he eagerly fought every battle, motivated by the human goodness he had observed in ordinary New Yorkers as he had painted them throughout his life. (Photo: "Sunbathers on the Roof" John SLoan, 1941)
The Croly Family, David, Jane, and their son Herbert, crusaded for social justice and fought to extend the utiopian ideas of the Chelsea to the nation as a whole. Historian Sherill Tippins, author of the forthcoming Dream Palace, a history of the Chelsea hotel, fills us in on the details:
In 1884, when the Chelsea was built, the writer David Croly praised the new cooperative as a "living temple of humanity" that offered limitless possibilities for improving urban life. "We are clearly in the beginning of a new era," he wrote in his journal, Real Estate Record, in which he tried demonstrate the close link between the city's real estate issues and its larger social aims. He urged other architects to join in Hubert's idealist mission--to "build tremendous stairs for [the] brave one hundred; splendid cities with pillars and arcades; front doors as wide as those of a cathedral and as rich in carved tracery." After all, he wrote, "Is not this what architects have long been looking for, this material and spiritual need for a new kind of building?"
Obviously, Croly understood the the Chelsea was more than an apartment building. It was an idea. If residents could share the costs of land, fuel, food preparation, domestic service, and home maintenance, they would have to work fewer hours to pay for these necessities and thus could spend more time on creative pursuits. If they also dined together daily, entertained one another with concerts and parties in their rooftop garden, and met for conversation in the lobby and on the stairs, their exchange of ideas might stimulate their thinking and improve the quality of their chosen work.
By 1900, many residents of the Chelsea cooperative had been persuaded by such books as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwardand Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, promoted by former Chelsea guest William Dean Howells,that their creative energy could best be put to use helping the poor. Chelsea resident Charles G. Wilson, President of the new Board of Health, helped Jacob Riis research his shocking expose of Lower East Side poverty, How the Other Half Lives. George Iles, a writer and book collector, agitated for the creation of public libraries, and left his enormous book collection to the public library across the street when he died. The glamorous Baroness de Bazus, newspaper publisher and former sister-in-law of Oscar Wilde, donated millions to the suffragist movement. The sculptor John Sanford Saltus established prizes and other funds for deserving artists (before dying in London after drinking a glass of poison that he thought was ginger ale). Daniel Greenleaf Thompson wrote such books as Social Progressand The Problem of Evil. And William Howland, publisher of the progressive Outlook, helped create the League for Social Service, the American Civic Association, and the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants.
After David Croly died, his widow, the crusading journalist Jane Croly, moved into the Chelsea. A quasi-utopian cooperative suited her, since she and her husband had hosted one of New York's first idealist philosophical salons in the 1850s, inspired by the writings of utopian philosopher Auguste Comte. The Crolys were so committed to the idea of social justice that they christened their son, Herbert, in Comte's Religion of Humanity and dedicated his life "to the good of the human community." When Herbert was a child, his father used to take the shy, stammering boy on walks through Central Park, explaining to him man-to-man his responsibility to help achieve "the solidarity of mankind" and advance civilization by applying scientific principles to social problems.
Herbert Croly did his best to meet his parents' expectations by writing The Promise of American Life, which advocated progressive taxation, formal recognition of labor unions, and a centralized federal government, and Progressive Democracy, which favored replacing America's "live-and-let-live" political approach to a "live-and- help-live" attitude. He co-founded the progressive journal,The New Republic. And he became an advisor first to Theodore Roosevelt and then President Woodrow Wilson. If he ultimately failed in his well-intentioned efforts to inject Chelsea-style utopian theory into American government, as the centralized government served business interests more than the people's and the nation slid into World War I, at least he had helped establish an argument for a society based on "the religion of human brotherhood" and the "ardent and intelligent cultivation of the essential art of living."
The Chelsea's utopian dream would live again. (Photo: Herbert Croly, via Wikipedia)
William Dean Howells, former editor of Boston's prestigious Atlantic Monthly, stayed at the Chelsea as he was moving to New York in order to write for Harper's magazines and lead the development of American literature in New York. At the Chelsea in 1888, he read Looking Backward, the utopian novel by his Massachusetts protege, Edward Bellamy. Bellamy's vision of a Henry-George-type society in which all natural resources are owned by the state, reducing the waste of private enterprise and freeing citizens from penury, covetousness, and neglected talents, changed Howells's life. Previously a comfortable armchair liberal, Howells became an angry activist for social justice--pushing the cause of literary realism as a tool for creating social change, writing his own realistic novels addressing the damaging issue of real estate prices in New York; the plight of factory workers in Massachusetts; the rising anger of the working class in downtown Manhattan, etc. He embarrassed his upper-class friends with his sarcastic columns in Harper's criticizing American imperialism in Cuba and the Philippines, railing against the executions of the alleged conspirators in Chicago's Haymarket riot, and praising Tolstoy's socialist ideas. (In 1892 he also wrote a novel titled The Coast of Bohemiathat captures the atmosphere of the Chelsea, and of the city's social and artistic changes, in the late 1880s.) But in the end, Howells was unable to venture fully out of his fastidious middle-class worldview. It would take years for another shabby young protege, Stephen Crane, to persuade Howells to actually venture inside some of the miserable tenement apartments on the Lower East Side--and to show the older writer how a truly realistic New York novel like Crane's own Maggie: A Girl of the Streets really could create social change.
Over the course of its long history, the Chelsea Hotel has been primarily associated with the arts.But the hotel also boasts a proud tradition of social activism.From Philip Hubert and William Dean Howells to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Abbie Hoffman and beyond, Chelsea Hotel residents have refused to knuckle under to the forces of oppression, choosing instead to refuse and resist, to fight back, and to struggle for the betterment of the human race.Those of you who want the full story will have to read Sherill Tippins’ upcoming history of the Chelsea, Dream Palace.(Fun Fact: the Chelsea may have been designed to encourage celebratory orgies!)But in the meantime, she has been good enough to give us a preview:
First up: Philip Gengembre Hubert, Chelsea architect, child of the socialist uprisings in Paris and supporter of many of utopian proto-socialist philosopher Charles Fourier's ideas. Fourier believed that it is society's duty to adapt itself to the desires and needs of human nature of all kinds--as opposed to the current state of affairs in which individuals are forced to conform to society's commercial and industrial requirements. Fourier designed large palaces, called phalansteries, in which residents would choose their own work--changing their activities every two hours or so to prevent boredom--while enjoying five elegant, stimulating meals per day together, working together on elaborate opera productions, eschewing marriage, domestic chores, and individual child-raising in favor of free love, a communal kitchen and laundry, and nurseries for the children, and marking their group successes with celebratory orgies. For a phalanstery to work in harmony, Fourier believed, it must include at least 1620 people. (He later decided that 810, or even 400, people would so in a pinch if necessary.) A group this size was likely to contain at least one of each basic type of human being. In Fourier's philansteries, every type was welcome and each type given work and an environment suitable to his or her nature--no matter what his or her age, social background, talents or interests, sexual proclivities, or moral makeup. Only by refusing to restrict any expression of the true self could a society remain healthy and fully productive, Fourier claimed. Artists in particular needed such an enviornment in order to perform their role as members of the avant-garde, seeking out new directions for society to go.
The Chelsea's dimensions are remarkably similar, if not identical, to those of Fourier's phalansteries. (Though Fourier's were shaped like a squared-off letter "U," like traditional palaces, New York lot sizes required a folding in of the two wings toward the center, resulting in a central wing of double thickness, with an eight-foot-wide corridor running through the center.) The building is large enough to hold the minimum number of 400 people. Shared dining rooms and roof promenade were provided. The purpose was to create an atmosphere of freedom in which an American culture could begin to form. At the same time, down the street at 23rd and Park, he also built the original Lyceum, then a community theater (that is, non-commercial)--probably the first ever built in the city. Along with it, he created the Lyceum School of Drama, later to evolve into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts--the first successful drama school in the city open to all students, male and female, regardless of their ability to pay. The theater and school stood in for Fourier's opera house, where citizens of the phalanstery worked out the stories that would define their life together.
Because Philip Hubert's cooperatives made housing so inexpensive, New Yorkers stood in line to get an apartment in one of his buildings. He made a fortune from what he called his Home Clubs. In 1886, when the socialist reformer Henry George ran for New York mayor--backed by some of the city's wealthiest former abolitionists and other old activists--Hubert (a resident of the Chelsea at the time) became George's largest financial backer. Henry George's demand that New York's (and America's) increasingly valuable real estate and natural resources be taxed at nearly 100% as a "single tax," freeing Americans from having to pay income tax, sales tax, or any other fees that discouraged productivity, increased poverty, and encouraged damaging speculation through real estate warehousing, evictions, etc., inspired huge marches through the streets of the city in support of his plan. He nearly won the election, but the Tammany machine managed to slip in enough votes to snatch power out of the socialists' hands.
Meanwhile, large apartment houses including Hubert's cooperatives were banned in New York--ostensibly from fear of fires or the spread of disease in such large buildings. But since hotels were not similarly restricted, the ban appeared to be at least partly designed to target the "socialist" cooperatives. In any case, even after the ban was lifted, the true communal purpose of the cooperatives was forgotten over the decades and just the financial advantages were retained. Hubert himself, frustrated by his inability to see his program through after 1895, moved to California, where he spent the rest of his life designing small homes and labor-saving devices for the working poor. To the end, he considered The Chelsea his greatest creation.