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  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 15, 2023


Featuring Merle Lister Levine, Zoe Serac Pappas, Nicolas Pappas, Rose Cory, Susan Kleinsinger, Joe Corey, Gerald Busby, Skye Ferrante, Eugenie Sappho, Steve Willis, Bettina Grossman, Gina Healy and Pablo Martinez.

Directed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 80 minutes. Not Rated.

The Chelsea Hotel (now called The Hotel Chelsea) is on 23rd Street in Manhattan (in the funky neighborhood the place is named after). The place is a legend in the hospitality industry, once a grand meeting place for the rich and influential which turned into a slightly squalid, but still famous colony for artists. Countless famous writers and musicians and artists have stayed in these walls since the 1884 opening, including Mark Twain, Arthur C. Clarke, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller and Gregory Corso. Dylan Thomas was staying there when he grew ill and died days later in a local hospital.

Dozens of songs have been written about the hotel, including Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2,” Nico’s “Chelsea Girl,” Jon Bon Jovi’s ‘Midnight in Chelsea,” Phoebe Bridgers’ “Chelsea” and Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” (there is some debate about whether the song is about the hotel, or an apartment Mitchell briefly had on nearby 16th Street in the same neighborhood.) Cohen, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan stayed there for months at a time.

Punk rocker Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in one of these rooms. There were many other deaths in the hotel, including Japanese artist Hiroya who finished a mural in the hotel in 2007 and then promptly jumped down the hotel’s famous staircase. Eventually so many people died in the hotel that it got a reputation for being haunted.

It is a New York City landmark, but long ago had fallen into disrepair. In 2011, the hotel was essentially closed for a long-term renovation plan – which ended up lasting over a decade. The hotel finally quietly reopened in February 2022, a fact which happened too late to be included in this documentary.

However, while the wholesale renovations took place and the Chelsea was often just a shell of itself, a certain number of long-time residents stayed – many of whom had rent-controlled apartments and could not be evicted. (One of the interviewees here gave her rent as an insanely affordable $315 a month, for which you couldn’t even get a parking spot in Manhattan normally.) Some loved the place. Some had just been there forever and didn’t want to find someplace new to live. For some it was the history of the place. For others it was money. Whatever the reason, 10-20 hardcore tenants decided to ride out the renovations – often having to move to other units, just to save their homes.

The new owners of the hotel (and the ownership of the place changed three times during the 11 years of renovations) couldn’t be bothered to make things easier for the last tenants. In fact they’d prefer they leave so the rooms could be rented out at more expensive rates.

Dreaming Walls is not so much about the storied history of the building (although it does touch on it, periodically). It is more about these last holdouts, the tenants who lived amongst the dust and the rubble and the noise as the Chelsea was fitfully trying to be brought back to life – a life which many of these long-time tenants could not afford. One man pointed out that the hotel had built a back service elevator for the live-in tenants, because the owners didn’t want them to be seen by the tourists when the hotel reopened.

Not surprisingly with the history of the place, most of these survivors are arty types – musicians, sculptors, dancers, writers, painters. Most of them are well past their primes but still trying to create art on a regular basis. Many of them are eccentric, but most all have interesting life stories which revolve around the Chelsea.

Their love for the place is obvious and their willingness to deal with many hardships to keep their own little spot in the world is touching. Dreaming Walls tells their story and tells it well. However, I wish it told more of the story of the Chelsea itself. That is an even more fascinating narrative.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: July 9, 2022.


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