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‘They are holding on to a dream’: the last bohemians at New York’s Chelsea Hotel | Documentary films

A young Patti Smith playfully leans over a rooftop wall, her raven-black hair tangling with the wind as she points towards the stiletto nib of the Empire State Building in the distance. “Dylan Thomas used to hang out on this very roof!” says the singer. “I’m sure he threw up one too many rums.” She laughs, then turns to face the camera. “I’ve always wanted to be where the big guys were, you know?”

This is the opening of Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel, a film about the famous New York landmark. In the course of its 138-year history, this 12-storey Victorian gothic building on West 23rd Street has meant many things to many people. For Smith, who lived there in the early 70s, its wrought iron floral balconies and spiralling grand staircase signified something ecclesiastical – “like a doll’s house in the twilight zone”, she would later write in her evocative memoir, Just Kids.

The hotel has 250 rooms, each imbued with its own mythology. Edie Sedgwick, the actor, model and Warhol superstar, accidentally set fire to a mattress in hers. Bob Dylan wrote Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands in his. Robert Mapplethorpe got his nipple pierced in room 1017. Writers have written here, artists have composed – but for Belgian film-makers Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, the Chelsea’s story is as much about the lesser known long-term tenants who, some may be surprised to learn, still live there, wandering its halls.

“History remembers the big names, the success stories,” Van Elmbt says of the impressionistic documentary made over two and a half years. “Nobody remembers the ones who were in the shadows but created this fertile soil.” In 2018, she and Duverdier randomly drifted into the Chelsea, after she’d presented her first feature film down the road and bumped into Merle Lister, an elderly choreographer, dancer and permanent Chelsea resident. “We wanted to see if we could find our own stories here,” Duverdier says.

And they did, with a Bolex camera and 16mm film: not the stories we already know but the ones we are yet to encounter, the beatniks who are “still dreaming of their idolised lives” as Van Elmbt puts it. “The concept of the film is that the Chelsea exists much more in the minds of those who invented it,” she explains. This means windswept characters such as conceptual artist and oldest resident Bettina Grossman, who at the time of filming was still exhibiting photography in her 90s. And Lister, whose frail mambo dancing with a young construction worker against a backdrop of wires and scaffolding comes to symbolise the joy and conflict at the heart of this film.

‘We could feel the tension but weren’t sure what was going on’ … directors Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

The first time we see the Chelsea, its brickwork is caged and its insides have been ripped out; a kind of cultural ablation – one that takes on a haunting quality when juxtaposed with the echoing “Holy! Holy!” of Allen Ginsberg’s voice as the camera pans through the skeletal wreckage. “At the beginning,” Van Elmbt recalls of the construction site they encountered, “we could feel the tension but weren’t sure what was going on. Every resident had their own story about the renovations, a seemingly endless revamp that began in 2011 when the hotel was sold to a real estate developer – then another, then another.” Flitting back and forth in time, splicing archival footage with new, Van Elmbt and Duverdier quietly document a housing crisis without a clear resolution. To cut a long story short, the luxury developers have moved in and the bohemians who created the property’s value are being pushed out.

Halfway through the film, Rose Cory, a performance artist who has been living at the Chelsea since 1987, calls the remaining residents “holdouts”. These tenants, Duverdier explains, live in cheap rooms they were originally given – a philanthropic tradition nurtured by eccentric manager and part-owner Stanley Bard from the late-1960s onwards. Where would these ageing artists go if they couldn’t live at the Chelsea for $300 a month? To compare, the smallest rooms at the Chelsea are now being rented out for over $300 a night.

“They are holding on to a dream,” Duverdier says. Susan Kleinsinger is one of these dreamers. Skye Ferrante, an acclaimed sculptor and former resident of the Chelsea, recently did a portrait of Kleinsinger in the spruced-up lobby bar. “She goes down there at least twice a week to have a coffee with her walker,” he tells me. The staff always give her a seat in the middle of the day. She draws art on her napkin, he says, “before the fancy crowd arrives”.

Artist and hotel resident Bettina Grossman.
Artist and hotel resident Bettina Grossman. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Ferrante adds: “I think this film captures the sense of nostalgia in the tenants and residents. But the Chelsea represents New York – and New York has changed. It’s not what it was.” Ferrante recently stayed in one of the newly furbished suites. “It wasn’t cheap, but it was beautiful,” he says measuredly. It was a far cry from the draughty room he stayed in from 2018 to 2020. “I had multiple electric heaters surrounding my nude models,” he recalls, “and there were a lot of mice.”

Ferrante’s reminiscences bring to mind a prescient essay the playwright Arthur Miller wrote about his sixth-floor stay in the early 1960s in which he paid tribute to the grit ground into the carpet. He called it “The Chelsea Affect” and summed up the hotel’s two sides with the words: “A scary and optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future, and at the same time the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family.”

Ferrante regrets the loss of the Chelsea’s communal origins. “You don’t have a chaotic community of artists passing through, both long-term and short. Is it possible that it could be reborn at the Chelsea? It would take keeping a couple of rooms unrenovated for artist residencies. But I don’t think it’s possible. The new Chelsea might have to be in Mexico City or something, I don’t know.” His voice trails off and then he adds: “It would have to be a little less than clean – and cheap.”

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel is in UK cinemas and on demand from 20 January

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash