Single Room Occupancy
My first apartment in New York could be described as Flushing – 3BR, EIK, balcony, walk 7 & LIRR, clean nonsmkrs only, refcs reqd, $900 + utils. It was the middle slice of one of those tens of thousands of identical brick triple-deckers in Queens that are now being referred to as townhomes. I shared it with roommates, both secretaries who took the 7 train to the city, while I rode the Long Island Rail Road out to Great Neck where I wrote for a computer magazine. It was 1986 and the graffiti-covered, piss-smelling subways were still occasionally patrolled by the Guardian Angels. The three of us had no money and fought about things like who bought the last light bulb. Gloria and Maryanne wanted to get more furnishings on credit to make a fully equipped starter apartment. I wanted to treat the place as a way station and was camping out, a habit I’ve never broken.
Gloria took a weekend job as an aerobics instructor and promptly hard-sold me and Maryanne three-year memberships in her gym, a downscale chain called LivingWell Lady. It was my first experience with joining a gym and feeling guilty about not going. Later, when I lived in Manhattan and worked in an Upper East Side townhouse (which would never be referred to as a quadruple-decker), I managed to depreciate the last months of that membership at the LivingWell Lady branch in the Allerton Hotel on East 57th Street.
The Allerton was one of those genteel women-only boarding houses like the Barbizon – Sylvia Plath’s Amazon from The Bell Jar – only it was no longer so genteel. The machines were battered, and the carpet was damp and smelly. There was graffiti (YOU GOD DAMNED SON-OF-A-BITCH YOU’RE GOING TO REGRET LEAVING ME ONCE I GET INTO ASS-KICKING SHAPE!) in defiance of the polite notice saying, “Ladies: Please do not write on the wall. We have coloring books at the front desk.” Another notice said, “Ladies: Hangers are provided for your convenience. Please do not take them home.”
My other workout place was the pool at the 53rd Street Y, where they would not let you swim sidestroke. Space is tight in midtown.
In 2011 I returned to New York on a work trip. The company travel agency put me in a hotel called the Renaissance whose location on 57th Street seemed familiar. The first night I asked at the desk what it was before and was told “Habitat,” which made no sense since when I lived in the city, Conrans Habitat furnishing store was in Citicorp Center on 53rd. I used to stop there and drool over simple board furniture of the sort now sold by Ikea. Habitat turned out to be the hotel’s predecessor name.
The second night at the hotel I got into the elevator with an older woman with a stylish long down coat, trolley bag, round glasses, slightly mussed thick hair. Human looking, not a bot like most people in business hotels. When the lift stuck going up she said something about how these were the old elevators, and I asked if the hotel used to be the Allerton and she said yes.
She was one of the last remaining residents from the old days of the women’s hotel who had fought to remain there. The Allerton had been a Single Room Occupancy Hotel, a special class of residence that housed young strivers in the mid-twentieth century. An SRO was a cross between a hotel room and a furnished studio apartment. Rent was charged by the week and increased according to a schedule even more gentle than rent stabilization (2 percent annually iirc). SRO rooms were not meant to be permanent housing, but in some cases they became so, and why not? New Yorkers of other classes also lived in hotels – the Chelsea, the Carlyle. In 1999, the New York Times reported that 48 residents from the Allerton’s SRO era remained in the property including a “red-haired secretary who retired from NASA soon after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,” a woman who’d worked for a New Deal think tank, and a milliner to Garbo and Dietrich, as well as my elevator companion, a retired nurse.
Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls (the Sex and the City of its day), started out in an SRO in lower east midtown. I liked to imagine it was the George Washington Hotel at 23 Lexington Avenue, where I lived in an 8 by 12-foot room from 1987 to 1990 (East Side studios, elev, drmn, rent stabilized, $450 – plus the $1200 broker fee to get in). The space was further narrowed by a structural pillar, a radiator, and several doors including a microscopic closet, but it was all mine. I slept with books and issues of The Village Voice piled on the bed, stored clothes on the shower rail, shifted milk crates out of the bath onto the toilet seat when I took a shower, once or twice knocked a cassette tape into the water boiling on the illegal hotplate.
The room was 15 floors up, at the back of a three-sided air shaft, with no fire escape. Between the cube fridge, the radiator under the single window, and the dripping hot tap, it was always warm, and, thanks to a neighbor who smoked ganja and burned incense, often smoky. There was only one real fright in my time there. One August Sunday there was a noise like a jet landing a few blocks away, getting louder and not stopping. I went downstairs to find people watching a white cloud issuing from Gramercy Park a few blocks away and speculating that a plane must have crashed or a building exploded. 1010 WINS Radio had the explanation half an hour later: a steam pipe at Third and 20th had burst, ripping through yards of blacktop, shattering windows and searing apartments as high as six stories up. A woman napping in her front room was boiled alive.
Once upon a time all the apartments in the George Washington Hotel had been rented on a single-room occupancy basis: furnished, weekly rent, 2 percent increments. There were still dozens of SRO tenants left from the old days but whenever a vacancy occurred, the room would be cleared and painted and go on the regular market to people like me, newly arrived or broken up with their last roommates and looking for a foothold in Manhattan. There were students, actors, a drag queen. I knew about the building partly because an editor from my college paper had lived there the year before. (That was Bill G, then at Aviation Week.) MFY Legal Services, a public interest law firm on the Lower East Side, was trying to protect the old-timers from eviction and withholding of services, and reverse the past room conversions. The building was still classed as an SRO. Our apartment leases and 7 percent annual rent increases were illegal, as were the $1200 broker fees; the MFY lawyers pointed out we would have lower rents and more rights as SRO tenants. The landlord was rumored to be selling the building and seeking settlement of any disputes, but I didn’t wait to see what happened, since after three and a half years I’d saved up money for the fee on E 28 – studio sublet, unf, wood flrs, sep kitchn, no drmn, no pets, $625, broker.
The George Washington was eventually sold and spruced up to become a college residence for the School of Visual Arts, with loft beds, air conditioners, and $1300 monthly rent. According to the Internet, the place has a more glamorous history than we knew. Christopher Isherwood stayed there. Another guest, W.H. Auden, wrote an ode to the place and recommended it to Benjamin Britten. In 1961 planners and architects pulled all-nighters designing the World Trade Center in a George Washington “suite.” As of this writing, an unsourced and undated Wikipedia statement claimed some apartments are “still occupied by original (nonstudent) tenants who pay stabilized rent, and are still protected under NYC rent laws.“
Around the corner on 23rd Street was another SRO, the Kenmore, which also had short-stay guests and looked absolutely filthy. It housed a swimming pool in the basement, but I could never bring myself to go in; in fact, I usually speeded up when I walked past the place, as if its squalor were catching. The groups of European youth hostelers who arrived on its doorstep always looked like they couldn’t wait to go home and murder their travel agent. According to crowdsources it too had a secret history: Nathanael West once worked at the Kenmore as a night manager and Dashiell Hammett finished the Maltese Falcon there. The building is now a carpet store at street level (implying a local market of people with actual floor space), with a “supportive living” facility for New York’s most vulnerable in the high rise behind it. A real youth hostel, the American Dream Hostel, has opened on the 24th Street side of the block, with dorms for those 30 and under, singles starting at $84.50 per night for others, and a 3-week maximum stay.
I still don’t know which SRO Jacqueline Susann lived in. The Internet thinks it was the Martha Washington on 29th Street which appeared in a film of Valley of the Dolls. Or it could have been the Salvation Army’s Parkside Evangeline residence for women on Gramercy Park, now a luxury apartment house. There were a lot of SROs in Manhattan, many of them impossible to glamorize: nobody who stayed there became famous, and a lot of poor residents went on being poor. Together with boardinghouses, which faded earlier, they formed an invisible buffer in the housing market, particularly for single and jobless people, as well as those with other problems. In 1992, my journalism school year, I reported on an SRO at 222 East 13th Street, where the city abruptly evicted all the residents, citing housing code violations. The building was neglected, true, but its reputation as a crack house was said to be behind the decision. MFY Legal Services took on the illegal eviction case but wasn’t able to get the people back into the building; the city took it over. The unspoken logic was that any possible contact with drugs meant people had no rights, individually or collectively. I wrote an extra story on the eviction for my reporting class and tried to get a professor to tell me how to develop it, but I asked the wrong professor, one who agreed with the unspoken logic. “They probably were using drugs … You’re not a social worker.”
When I started at Columbia I went flat-sharing again, in Morningside Heights: 122/Bway – F seeks same for 2br, safe block, clean, resp, nonsmkr, must like cats, $450. A year later, after the F with cat got married. She was a spectacularly good roommate, I was less of one but tried to make up for it by keeping the cat box clean. I shifted to Claremont/123 – room in apartment for clean nonsmoker, share with Manhattan School of Music students, must tolerate practicing, $500, and then in 1994 I left New York. When I visited New York again, the so-called crack hotel at 222 East 13th became the Bea Arthur Residence for LGBT Youth. At least one former SRO was not absorbed into the high-rent market.
As of November 2011 there were still 13 women living on an SRO basis at the Renaissance New York Hotel 57 (by Marriott), formerly the Habitat Hotel, formerly the Allerton Hotel, according to my companion in the elevator. She told me the owners of the Allerton let the building fall apart to try to get everyone out – rats and mold, she went into details for about half an hour as we stood in the second-floor lobby, how she engaged tenant lawyers – MFY Legal Services, of course – went and sat in offices of politicians until they would see her – “I said, I’m from India, we waited 160 years for the British to leave India, and I will wait hours or days if I have to” – and eventually they would see her and make promises and nothing would be done. The building was sold, the new owners renovated the hotel around the women and shifted them to new rooms as they became available, and are now waiting for them to check out in ambulances or hearses, one by one.
(Rejected by Hobart Pulp for the Hotel Living issue, 2013)