CHELSEA — After years writing about the heydays of the Hotel Chelsea, author Ed Hamilton needed a break.
He and his wife still live in the infamous hotel — which was once home to artists such as Bob Dylan, Sid Vicious and Arthur Miller — but Hamilton, 55, felt it time to shift his literary focus away from the landmark building on West 23rd Street.
“The Chintz Age,” his latest collection of “tales of love and loss for a new New York,” offers fictional accounts of New Yorkers dealing with the ramifications of gentrification.
“[The stories are] inspired by things that took place at the hotel, but I had to kind of ‘move out’ of it, because of all the disruption and the construction, and everything that’s going on in the place,” said Hamilton.
Since it was purchased by a developer in 2011, the hotel no longer accepts guests and has been in a constant state of construction.
Many of its longtime residents either moved away or were forced out, Hamilton said.
“I wanted to look into the individual struggles of people who had to deal with gentrification, which is often presented as more of an abstract issue, but it affects people on a micro, individual level,” he said.
“Some of the characters in 'The Chintz Age' may be based more or less on people I’ve met in the hotel, but it’s more of the general artistic sensibility, I think, that inspired them,” he added.
One story, about an East Village bookshop owner forced to close up shop after his rent triples overnight, seems almost to have foreshadowed the fate of St. Mark’s Bookshop, which closed on Sunday after nearly 40 years in business.
“It’s just a real disaster,” Hamilton said of the closure. “The city’s not going to be a center for the arts or literature anymore if you don’t have bookstores you can go to anymore.”
The demise of the fictional East Village business leaves the owner questioning his sense of personhood and self worth, Hamilton explained.
“He’s devoted his whole life to this sort of Bohemian ideal of existing without much money, and devoted his life to literature and that sort of thing,” he said. “When he finds that society is no longer interested in that, what does that say about his life?”
Another story follows a man who finds living in a glass high-rise along the High Line is not as luxurious as it seems.
“[The character] thinks he’s going to be king of the city, but then he finds people are looking into his apartment 24 hours a day, and so it finally drives him nuts,” Hamilton said. “That’s kind of my anti-High Line story.”
Many Chelsea residents, including Hamilton himself, have blamed developments like the High Line for rising rents and rapid gentrification in Chelsea.
But the author has tried to paint unbiased portraits of the issue, he said.
“I mean to take seriously the ideas of these people that say, ‘Well, if you don’t have enough money, you should just get out — this is our property and we control it,’” Hamilton said.
“People don’t want to just be living in the past. There’s a tension between honoring the past and living in the past … and that’s kind of what the book is about,” he added.
Hamilton’s own work has been inspired by past Hotel Chelsea residents and guests such as Thomas Wolfe, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac, who wrote about “ordinary human beings,” he said.
He and his wife landed at the hotel serendipitously in the 1990s, when a Village Voice sublet ad he inquired about turned out to be for a room there.
It has been difficult for him to watch as the former artists’ haven has altered and emptied out over the years, he said.
“There was no place on earth like it,” he said of the hotel. “It was just some weird social experiment that came together through nobody’s real planning, and it lasted 125 years. It was great.”
Nevertheless, the hotel of yore has prepared him for the noisy construction and sense of upheaval inside the building.
“The strange thing is, it’s really horrible now ... but in some ways, it’s not so horrible … because we learned to tolerate junkies in the hallways and noise from bands, and all kinds of craziness, that we’d already been through,” he said.
“A little bit of racket’s not going to deter the people that are left.”