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New York's Hotel Chelsea recalls gritty era

Some hardened New Yorkers yearn for the New York of the 1970s and '80s, when the Smiths and the Ramones played in underground bars, and crack ruled parts of the city. They complain that New York has lost its soul, its grit.

And they might have a point. Crime is down, but rents are up, and Manhattan neighborhoods that used to be havens for artists and writers are being built up with glittering condo developments. The artists and musicians are still here, but many of the youngest are struggling and have been pushed to the fringes of Queens and Brooklyn.

It can leave an intrepid visitor who has a desire for the authentic unsatisfied. The Hotel Chelsea, or the Chelsea Hotel -- it doesn't matter, says general manager David Elder -- can fulfill that desire. It's a rare holdover from the grittier New York of yore.

The building is as grand as they come, with a prime location in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. It was originally built with 40 apartments, each replete with the architectural details one would expect to find in a building from the mid-19th century: wide hallways, crown molding, carved fireplaces and balconies. The building now has 240 rooms, with the hotel taking up about half of those and long-term residents taking up the other half. Hotel rooms and residences are interspersed, so the hallways, stairwell and elevators are a continuous mix of out-of-towners and old-school New Yorkers.

The Waldorf this is not. Some of the rooms don't have private bathrooms. (These, oddly enough, tend to be the most popular and book up first.) The public spaces are a cross between an artsy, slightly grungy university residence hall and a buzzing neighborhood stoop. The people-watching can be fascinating, and if a guest is amenable, making friendly acquaintances is fairly easy.

Residents and guests are prone to hanging out in the lobby with laptops or a book, while tourists toting cameras stop in steadily to take pictures. Crew members from an independent film being shot on location might be seen mingling on any of the hotel's floors with guests who have just arrived (bellboy with luggage in tow) and a resident taking her bichon frise out for its evening stroll.

The rooms tend to be spacious and decorated in a style that combines the avant-garde with the historic. No two are alike, so be precise about your expectations and desired amenities when you book. The hotel staff and service are friendly and prompt but also relaxed.

The building is regularly used for photo and film shoots and art events, and has been declared a source of inspiration for many artists, dozens of whom have left behind paintings as a sign of gratitude and a form of payment. Some litter Elder's wood-paneled office, while the rest hang at regularly spaced intervals throughout the 10-floor hotel stairwell.

A laundry list of the most famous guests would impress even the most jaded traveler: Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns. Cohen's song honoring Joplin's memory is called "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" and has since been covered by other contemporary artists such as Rufus Wainwright and Regina Spektor. (Cohen is scheduled to perform Thursday in the Chicago area at the Rosemont Theatre.)

In Bob Dylan's "Sara," the songwriter refers to other songs he has written while in the hotel: "staying up for days at the Chelsea Hotel writin' 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you." Perhaps most infamously, the hotel was the scene of the 1978 stabbing of Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious. (Vicious was charged in the killing but died of a drug overdose before the case could go to trial.)

Some New Yorkers whisper that the Chelsea is haunted, but Elder doesn't believe in ghosts. If the spirit of New York's -- and America's -- cultural touchstones could haunt a building, however, this would be the place.

If you go

General information

The Hotel Chelsea, 222 W. 23rd St., New York; 212-243-3700;

Rooms are available with double or king beds. Some have kitchenettes and seating areas. Be specific about what you're looking for. The entire hotel is clean and well-maintained; some rooms are recently renovated.

Rates Rooms with a shared bathroom start at $109; a standard room with a double bed starts at $179; junior suites, with seating areas and kitchenettes, start at $249; two-bedroom suites start at $399.

Dining If you need your daily caffeine before pounding some Manhattan pavement, Cafe Grumpy is an excellent choice. The cafe is small but a favorite for locals and coffee snobs. Open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday; 224 W. 20th St.; 212-255-5511;

At Chelsea Papaya, which is open 24 hours, prices can't have changed much since the 1970s: A hot dog is $1.35. Loyal fans rave about the fresh fruit juices, and it's a stone's throw from the Hotel Chelsea. 171 W. 23rd St.

The Red Cat recently won The 2009 International Five Star Diamond Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, and for good reason. The food is consistently excellent, fresh and inventive. 227 10th Ave.; 212-242-1122;

-- A.J.,0,488737.story

reg wasn't bold in the article so I had to post it here to make that modification Wink

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