Life in the Chelsea Hotel During Pandemic

AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett

Writer Amanda Chemeche lives with her aging father in an apartment in New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Dylan Thomas to the Velvet Underground lived, stayed, jammed, and wrote songs there. Sid Viscious murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen there. Opened in 1884, rennovations began in 2011, but only 50 of the building’s 300 units are occupied. The building’s history is her history. “I spent time with Gabby and Viva Hoffman,” Chemeche writes in Popula, “Arthur Miller played with me and Dee Dee Ramone pelted me with quarters on Halloween nights when I dared to ring his doorbell for candy. The Hotel closed when I was 24 —which was when I learned the importance of safeguarding the histories of elderly people. When I learned how quickly they can disappear.” The pandemic has made life here stranger than it always was.

Empty apartments are marked by a red duct-tape X. Occupied units have plastic over their front doors to protect residents from the dust that construction kicks up. Outside, streets are quiet, businesses closed. “Suddenly,“ Chemeche writes, “the outside world matches the interior of the Chelsea.” But inside, paintings from her immigrant father’s 60-year career cover their unit’s walls. As COVID-19 ravages the City, she and her father keep their distance, mostly emailing to communicate. She fears for his life, and shelter-in-place has put her so close to the material artifacts of their lives that it both stings and soothes. Chemeche takes us inside her life with her father, and the other residents who protect their history, celebrate their city, and endure the worst of times.

Man-lai Liang, the former model turned event producer, is still here; so is Tony Notarberardino, the photographer whose brilliant collection of Chelsea Hotel portraits of residents, guest and staff capture the spirit of the building, in a mesmeric, otherworldly way. There’s the Rips family—a writer/lawyer father, an actress/model mother, and a daughter who wrote a book, Trying to Float, Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel, when she was only 17; Michelle Zalopany, whose rich charcoal drawings are like living photographs of the past; Rita Barros, the Portugese photographer, who’s decorated the outside door of her flat on the tenth floor, making it an illuminated, ever-expanding art installation.

And then there is my father, George Chemeche, an 87 year old, Iraqi-Israeli artist and author; according to him, he took the taxi from JFK to the Hotel and never left. Our flat is on the fourth floor. My bedroom has an ensuite bathroom. The bathroom is made of glass. Father built it to illuminate the whole flat—like an enormous lantern—through the rippled glass bricks that make up its walls. Nevermind that anyone hoping to use the loo will be put on display for all to see.

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