Chasing Chelsea’s Past
Seeking the remnants of the countercultural art scene of 20th century New York.
By Andrea Contreras
Late this summer, the Chelsea Hotel will fully reopen its gilded doors for the first time in over a decade. Besides plaques from the National Register of Historic Places on its miniature Corinthian columns, its scaffolded façade is unassuming given its lore. Commemorated in every artistic medium available, the Chelsea was the underground haven of the late 20th century, a perpetual haunt for all the queer-subversive-beatnik-punk-philosopher-junkie journalist-egomaniacs of the time. Residents ranging from Warhol to Kerouac, Hendrix to Kubrick would exchange portfolios of work with the landlord, Mr. Bard, for a night’s rest on one of the Hotel’s moth-infested mattresses. The Chelsea’s walls promised conceptual artistic inspiration, passionate love affairs, and if you’re lucky, a Shakespearian stabbing. Arthur Miller, author of “Death of the Salesman” famously coined the phrase the “Chelsea Effect” to describe the avant-garde imagination born in the Hotel that became inextricable from New York itself—scroungy, unapologetic, countercultural, and rife with marijuana-fueled interdisciplinary dialogue.
Legendary owner Stanley Bard’s persistent romanticism for the Chelsea Hotel’s artistic project was not enough to save him from being ousted by the building’s board of directors in 2007. The Chelsea’s revolving door of icons closed to hotel guests in 2011, leaving approximately 80 tenants in precarious positions. As guests and their artwork were cleared to prepare for renovations, residents were wary that the new owner, a commercial developer, was trying to remove them from the prime real estate in the increasingly trendy neighborhood. Zoe Pappas, longtime resident and founder of the Chelsea Hotel Tenant Association, sued the Hotel over the renovations and attempted eviction. A settlement which stabilized rent and promised permanent residence temporarily assuaged fears of the Tenant Association. However, two more management changes resulted in three more lawsuits alleging harassment and extortion, and clashes between residents emerged within the Chelsea’s walls. Some tenants, like plaintiff Susan Berg, argue that the management should prioritize current inhabitants over renovations. Others, like the Bergs’ downstairs neighbors, don’t mind a little gentrification if it means that they get to “live in a nice place.”
After 11 years, the Chelsea’s 2022 reopening comes quietly. It remains to be seen what role it will hold—for New Yorkers, for artists, for future enigmatic guests. Despite debates over how much the hotel should change with the times, the nostalgia factor has taken precedence (at least aesthetically). Renovations have kept the gothic-style fixtures, reinstated the original artwork, and uncovered the original floor. Everything that had been updated has been painted over to restore the old Chelsea Hotel ambiance. The lack of a grand opening commits to this theme: The Chelsea is for the old-timers—and those who can book a room at a rate of $625 a night.
The sparkling new Chelsea Hotel would be particularly anticipated given the resurgence of fascination with avant-garde à la New Yorkaise. The last few months have brought a slew of promotions for Netflix’s “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” the immersive theater experience “Chasing Andy Warhol,” Fotografiska’s “Andy Warhol: Photo Factory” exhibition, Patti Smith’s New York shows, and Basquiat’s King Pleasure exhibition. A warm spring day on Columbia’s lawns isn’t complete without spotting an undergraduate immersed in Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her time at the Chelsea Hotel and other artistic breeding grounds of the ’60s and ’70s. Even the recent Manhattan implants among us harbor nostalgia for old New York and its gritty subversive intimacy.
But how can we reconcile this nostalgia with the city’s unflagging tempo? Change is ubiquitous, yet New Yorkers still constantly pine over their esoteric enclaves that have long since been boarded up. Who gets to decide how these historic spaces are commemorated and how to polish or demolish what remains? When it comes to the landmarks of countercultural New York, the remnants can only be found if you know where to look.
Embracing this nostalgia myself, I set off on a pilgrimage with my friend and resident Pretentious New Yorker in search of its iconic past.
Originally the country, bluegrass, and blues music venue, CBGB became the birthplace of New York City punk in 1973 when its owner was introduced to Terry Ork, the manager of the band Television. Complete with a record canteen, and later, an art gallery, the CBGB offered a delicious space for debauchery on then-dingy Bowery. The club popularized street rock and famed artists like the Ramones, Blondie, Joan Jett, the New York City Dolls, and Patti Smith. Naturally, Warhol and his ensemble got in on the action, quickly making it home to iconic artistic cross-pollination. The club closed in 2006 after around a decade of financial woes. Its skeleton lies on Bowery, now a John Varvatos store for luxury men’s fashion, across the street from a Shepard Fairey mural of Blondie.
There’s no explicit mention of CBGB in John Varvatos in 2022, but its remains are everywhere. Layers of yellowing stickers, fliers, posters, setlists, signatures, and spray paint cake the walls, sheathed by protective glass. The paint is cracked, seemingly untouched since its heyday. But don’t let the performative shabbiness fool you: Signed electric guitars line the cash register, with pricey Pink Floyd capsule collections just opposite; nearby, racks of luscious leather jackets and $118 DeeDee Ramone tees revolve around a makeshift stage with a display drumset. A neon sign reads in glowing cyan: “LONG LIVE ROCK.” It’s CBGB’s punk past on steroids, imbued with hyper-commercialized opulence.
Skye, an employee at the cash register, sports a look that evokes Debbie Harry circa 1978, with a bottle-blonde shag and black winged eyeliner. A recent Parsons grad and musician, Skye’s rocker chic immediately sets her apart from the middle-aged men in suits who are perusing the clothes. She tells us that her employment at John Varvatos was inspired by its location in the old CBGB. Entering the place where her old idols started fuels inspiration for her own music, which is a ’90s girl-rock revival, she says. Skye, who is 23, has also noticed many people around her age coming in to look at the space and ask questions. An older crowd that comes by is equally enthusiastic and eager to share stories about their riotous past playing and partying at the venue.
Although Yelp reviews frequently disparage the store with comments that would make Joey Ramone literally vomit, Skye thinks the company has done a good job maintaining the place. Restorations occur if there’s a leak or a hole in the wall, but purely aesthetic renovations are uncommon. “They saved the old CBGBs. I mean, if it wasn’t us, it was going to be a bank,” she says. But she confides that she’s the only current employee who is a musician and who earnestly cares about the place and its history. The people who shop there are often “super rich white guys,” many of whom probably never would have gone to the real CBGBs. But every once and a while, she says, people come in and just sob, wishing they were 24 again, snorting a line with Sid Vicious in a graffitied bathroom.
Max’s Kansas City
Max’s Kansas City was the watering hole of many artists, poets, musicians, and politicians of the ’60s and ’70s. Max’s was a glamorous, campy, amphetamine-glazed heaven—part music venue, part restaurant (with free food for the starving artists at cocktail hour). The walls were bright red, the busboys were often in drag, and queer sexual politics created the hierarchical ladder. As legendary music manager Danny Fields once remarked, “At Max’s you could fuck anyone in the room, and that was what was sweet about it.” In the infamous “Back Room,” Max’s set the stage for art world cross-pollination—glam rock met punk, haute couture met activist, porn star met beatnik. Everyone was distinctly flamboyant, ravishingly eccentric. Popularized by Andy Warhol and his entourage due to its proximity to his studio and residence (“the Factory”), Max’s soon became a favorite stop for Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the Bowies, Allen Ginsberg, and Salvador Dalí until its closure in 1981.
Now it’s a health food deli: Fraiche Maxx, just off of Union Square on Park Avenue. The name Maxx, unfortunately, is a coincidence rather than an homage to its history. The wraps and smoothies look decent, and it’s pretty big as far as delis go. It is completely remodeled and streamlined, made efficient and clean. Next to Fraiche Maxx is the W Hotel, which has been there for 25 years according to the doorman, Eduardo. Eduardo’s face lights up in recognition and surprise when I ask him about Max’s. He tells me that he never went to Max’s when he was young—he was never that crazy—but he remembers hearing the stories. He laughs and shakes his head. In the 16 years he’s worked next door to the deli, he says, I’m the first person to ask about Max’s Kansas City.
The Factory (Decker Building location)
Andy Warhol had three major studios, each dubbed “the Factory,” a nod to the art world’s criticism of the reproducibility and uniformity of Warhol’s pop art pieces. The sixth floor of the Decker Building was Warhol’s lair from 1969 to 1974, when rent was still cheap downtown. The space came alive as a campy, chrome spaceship with walls wrapped completely in silver foil. This was where Warhol screenprinted his Marilyns, filmed his avant-garde erotica, managed the Velvet Underground, and staged glittering disco parties for New York’s artistic elite, whom he dubbed his “Superstars.” On the famous red cocoon couch in the middle of the studio, Fran Lebowitz could be seen chatting with André Leon Talley and Susan Sontag. The Factory was a “medieval court of lunatics” seeking to sanctify Warhol and his renowned white wig. And sanctified he was, as tales of the Factory remain an integral part of New York lore.
The parties at the Factory slowed after Warhol was shot by radical feminist Valerie Solanas, writer of the SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men). She had aimed for his testicles, naturally. After that, Warhol became more selective with his entourage, driving the bourgeois art kids from the Factory. The Decker Building location became more private, returning to its primary function as the studio where some of Warhol’s most influential work was created.
These days, the Decker Building is concealed by scaffolding and residential modesty. The glass storefront on the bottom floor is vacant: FOR RENT. As a construction worker enters to fix the elevator, I run up behind him and walk up the stairs to the sixth floor. It’s the epitome of liminal space: a long, shabby hallway where my footsteps echo. The terrazzo floor reveals the building’s age, as does the peeling, flaking, and pale wallpaper. It’s coated with dust and dullness—a ’70s gold door knocker is the only object that still shines. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to imagine the space embellished by Warholism. But admittedly, in 2022, there isn’t a trace of Andy.
The Mudd Club
“This ain’t no Mudd Club! Or CBGB! I ain’t got time for that now.”
That’s what David Byrne shouts in his 1979 song “Life During Wartime.” The Talking Heads’ referential familiarity with the Mudd Club came from attending and performing many parties at the venue. Inspired by Max’s Kansas City, Mudd Club was an art-bar-cabaret nightclub in Tribeca meant to serve as a respite from the tired commercial glamor of Studio 54. Instead of disco, the Mudd Club promised something new—usually punk, new wave, and experimental music. It was frequented by much of the same crowd as CBGB and Max’s, with the addition of some younger cult celebrities from the late ’70s and early ’80s such as Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Madonna. The crowd was important for the Mudd Club. In trying to preserve an alternative image, it committed to a staunch bouncer-driven culture: Look edgy, cool, and underground, or forget it. Despite the Mudd Club only lasting an ephemeral five years, the half-decade was replete with artistic rawness and indulgence. These qualities are commemorated both in urban memory and in a plaque on the building with a black-and-white photo and a paragraph describing its revolutionary role.
The Mudd Club’s former location at 77 White Street is now the apex of Lower East Side gentrification. It’s an apartment complex, admittedly in much better condition than the Factory, boasting a frosted glass exterior and a fancy buzzer system. On the other side of the street is a sleek building of luxury rentals. In an almost poetic contradiction, the building next to the Mudd Club is quite literally falling apart, a rotting fire escape barely clinging to its façade. Just up in front of the Mudd Club is a warehouse covered in Spotify ads for the new Basquiat exhibit. No one lingers outside of the former venue, although there is a lone skateboarder wearing headphones cruising down the alley. He could very well have been listening to the Talking Heads.
Limelight was a nightclub in Chelsea. In many ways, it was just a later iteration of previous venues—it opened in ’83, played decadent disco and punk, and housed New York City’s celebrity elite: Warhol, Grace Jones, Madonna, Blondie. Yet what was fascinating about Limelight was not its entourage, but its historic location inside of a gothic church. The sacrilegious empowered the subversive, creating unprecedented debauchery inside the church’s walls. After all, there’s nothing like sporting a BDSM harness on an altar. In the ’90s, the club became famous for the dissemination of rave culture in its buttressed halls. However, Limelight’s multiple locations, growing commercialization, and increasingly mainstream crowd marked the end of 20th century New York’s Warholism craze and its particular brand of counterculture.
A Grimaldi’s Pizzeria now resides in those hallowed halls. A disco ball in the middle of the restaurant sheds flecks of light on glitzy portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Kitschy furniture abounds in the form of cheetah-print chairs and stools shaped like cowboy jeans. The booths retain the gothic stained glass backboards. There’s an open kitchen, and the chefs wolf whistle and catcall as the owner, Victor, shows us the back room where the real Limelight action occurred—now it’s studded with random light fixtures and plastic palm trees acquired by Victor’s uncle over the years. Grimaldi’s is a family business, Victor explains. They have been trying to expand the place for a while, but since the church is a landmark, it’s been difficult to get past all of the red tape. They were fined for green lighting on the church’s exterior, and Victor says it was a challenge to get a license to serve beer.
“Are you going to Slate later?” he asks. Apparently, Grimaldi’s has become a late-night munchies spot for frequenters of the new Chelsea clubs.
Outside the pizzeria is a man named John, who paints the gate on the outside of the church. John grew up in Queens. An honors student in high school, he would have never dreamed of going to Limelight in its prime. “Some crazy shit happened there, I can tell you that much.” He tells me and my friend that people come all the time to see the old location: those who used to come to Limelight in its prime, as well as young people who are hearing the stories now. A girl visiting New York from Australia exits Grimaldi’s. She excitedly details to us how her parents met in Limelight when her dad was a pilot and her mom was a flight attendant. She had to visit the place, although she didn’t want to imagine what her parents did inside.
El Quijote/The Chelsea Hotel
El Quijote is the only place that exists in nearly the exact form now that it did in its prime. Located on the bottom floor of the Chelsea Hotel, the Spanish restaurant was the best place for famed residents to discuss a new avant-garde photo series over drinks and a cigarette. Every poet had their little table. After being closed for five years, the restaurant opened back up in February with a new, young staff. There is a single black-and-white photo of Andy Warhol near the bar, but references to this history are understated as the rest of the restaurant remains committed to its Basque appearance. It’s not overwhelmingly trendy; it draws an older audience with expensive plates and vintage nostalgia. A waitress tells us that the linoleum floors were removed to unveil the original 1930s tile. She says that a lot of people who eat there tell her that they used to come in the ’70s. One man told her that he was drafted into the military while having dinner.
Our waitress explains that interested buyers wanted to turn the place into a club, but that the owner wanted to keep El Quijote as it was. Although the restaurant would be less profitable, and more of a risk after its five-year closure, the owners felt that the restaurant was inextricable from the Hotel, and committed to keeping it.
She offers a tour of the renovated rooms of the Chelsea Hotel that are just behind the restaurant. They’ll soon be available as event spaces. All of the decor from the renovation has been made to look old—columns painted to appear rusty, ceilings unpainted to remain dingy, a wall featuring a retro mirror. Round tables cluster inside of the elegant hall, conjuring images of bygone literary cliques.
The Chelsea is the only landmark that intends to operate in the same way it once did, the only monument to emerge from the 21st century rubble. It’s clinging to its history for dear life, engulfed by the pressure of being one of the last testaments to its time. As guests begin to fill its deified halls, it’s unclear how the Chelsea will reconcile its past with its present. How will it shrug off the allure of construction and development, and how will it satisfy residents as it embarks on this new venture? How will it stand its ground as new forms of New York City’s counterculture relegate it to the sidelines? How might it feed the imagination of youthful romantic nostalgia while also commemorating the residents that lived through its past?
One thing is for certain: New York City is not letting go of Chelsea just yet.