September 16, 2007

Diane Arbus and the Hotel Chelsea Walk: No Freaks, No Punks


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Based on its reputation, I expected the Hotel Chelsea (or Chelsea Hotel) to be charmingly worn and tattered, populated by romantic drunk poets, eccentric artists and punks shooting up in the hallways. When I visited the hotel on Friday I found instead well-dressed and well-behaved tourists, attractive furniture and appealing colorful art. With many of the rooms starting at $250 a night, I suppose I would expect some level of decorum, but then again I didn't go into any actual rooms. While the hotel still houses long-term residents, artists among them, its new corporate managers may impose a more orthodox style and attract a more bourgeois crowd. Too bad. An excellent blog that keeps abreast of the hotel's history and alarming attempts at gentrification may be found here.

My immediate reason for the walk was to visit the building in the West Village where Diane Arbus died. The Westbeth building on West and Bethune Streets, the former home of BellLabs, was converted into an artists colony in the late 1960s, and Arbus moved there in January 1970. According to Patricia Bosworth's biography, Arbus was happy living in the Westbeth. I guess that mood was short lived. Anyway, in March of 1970 Arbus made her way over to the Chelsea Hotel to photograph feminist Germaine Greer. During the shoot, Arbus crawled on Greer's bed, pinning her down to get the best shot. See Wrestling with Diane Arbus by Greer (The Guardian, Oct. 8, 2005) here.

This walk, annotated above, took three hours to accomplish, because I lingered, chatted with people, stopped to eat, and bought a plant. Along the way I found some other hotels to recommend.

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