New York’s infamous W. 23rd St. Chelsea Hotel, ‘a rest stop for rare individuals’, reopened earlier this year, completely refurbished into yet another luxury hotel. About 40 of the rooms are still occupied by its original artist/creative tenants, who are protected, rent-stabilized long-term residents. The controversial stop-start remodeling work took about 11 years to complete, as the existing tenants battled amongst each other and with the various developers to save their homes. Dreaming Walls is Amelie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier’s interesting fly-on-the-wall documentary about the lives of these creative tenants as they lived through the decade-long building works. Martin Scorsese is the Executive Producer.
Almost anyone who was anyone lived in or passed through the Chelsea Hotel. Originally opened in the 1880s, at that time, and for decades afterward, almost 25% of Americans lived permanently in hotels. The Chelsea Hotel over time established itself as the home of artists, writers, actors, musicians and other creatives. Many of the apartments were tiny, some only 100 sq feet. Famously run for over 40 years, (and part-owned) by eccentric manager Stanley Bard, ‘the Robin Hood of Inn-keepers’, artists sometimes could pay their rent with art and many favored tenants paid very little rent. Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith lived there; Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001, A Space Odyssey there; Dylan Thomas spent his last days there, as did Nancy Spungen, in the room she was sharing with Sid Vicious. Allen Ginsburg spent time there, as did Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock and Oscar Wilde. The roll-call of talent is endless.
Sadly the areas around the world where creatives and queers once reigned supreme have now been ransacked by property developers, and they have been priced out of the areas they made popular. Luckily, many of the Chelsea Hotel tenants have protected status, although as we see in the documentary, they had a battle on their hands to survive.
Dreaming Walls combines some fascinating archive footage from 1970s and 80s life in the hotel with interviews with many of the tenants shot in years 9 and 10 of the renovation work. At this point nerves were fraying at the length of the upheaval in the building. Amongst the tenants we meet are trans artist Rose Cory; former choreographer Merle Lister Levine, a tenant since the 1960s; Japanese artist Hiroya, artist Susan Kleinsinger – still only paying $317 rent a month for her apartment; wire artist Skye Ferrante and eccentric couple Zoe and Nicholas Pappas who run the Chelsea Tenants Association. We also meet the oldest tenant, conceptual artist Bettina Grossman, who famously slept in the hallway outside her apartment as her space was too full of art to house a bed. She sadly dies aged 94 during the production of the film.
There is no voiceover or interviewer in the documentary, so the tenants are really the stars of the show, as they should be. The contrast between the rich tapestry of the tenants’ dwellings to the dusty blank construction site of the common areas in the building really sums up the battle to preserve old ways of life from new unwelcome encroachments. The tenants’ voices are enhanced by a beautiful poetic score by Michael Andrews. Other tracks used include Chelsea Girls by Nico. There is also an interesting use of images of famous past guests such as Salvador Dali and Marilyn Monroe projected onto the bare walls of the current construction site. More archive footage and information on the history of the hotel would have been welcome, although the importance of this film is that it reflects what’s happening to creative pockets around the world. Once these communities are lost, they are lost forever, so much more effort needs to be made to preserve them.
P.S. Dreaming Walls is being screened at Provincetown Film Festival and then on July 8th will be released by Magnolia Pictures to US movie theaters
Review: Ris Fatah
Queerguru’s Contributing Editor Ris Fatah is a successful fashion/luxury business consultant (when he can be bothered) who divides and wastes his time between London and Ibiza. He is a lover of all things queer, feminist, and human rights in general. @ris.fatah
Labels: 2022, Chelsea Hotel, documentary, Dreaming Walls, Ris Fatah