Here at Open Culture, we can’t get enough of the Chelsea Hotel, which means we can’t get enough of the Chelsea Hotel in a certain era, at the height of a certain cultural moment in New York history. Though it struggled as a business for years after it first opened as an apartment building in 1884 and changed hands left and right until the 1970s, it hit its stride as an icon when a certain critical mass of well-known (or soon to be well known) musicians, writers, artists, filmmakers, and otherwise colorful personalities had put in time there. One such musician, writer, artist in other media, and colorful personality indeed has an especially strong association with the Chelsea: Patti Smith.
You may remember our post back in 2012 featuring Smith reading her final letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, which she included in Just Kids, her acclaimed memoir of her friendship with the controversial photographer. For a time, Smith and Mapplethorpe lived in the Chelsea together, and in the footage above, shot in 1970 by a German documentary film crew, you can see them there in their natural habitat. “The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in The Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe,” Smith writes in Just Kids. “Everyone had something to offer and nobody seemed to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums.”
These fifteen minutes of film also includes glimpses into a variety of other lives lived at the Chelsea as the 1970s began. If you’d like to see more of the place at its cultural zenith — made possible by the state of 70s New York itself, which had infamously hit something of a nadir — have a look at the clip we featured in 2013 of the Velvet Underground’s Nico singing “Chelsea Girls” there. Just after the 70s had gone, BBC’s Arena turned up to shoot a documentary of their own, which we featured last year. Smith has long since left the Chelsea, and Mapplethorpe has long since left this world, but even now, as the hotel undergoes extensive renovations that began in 2011, some of those “extravagant bums” remain.
via Please Kill Me
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.