Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Inside the Elk

Mark Schulte has been a lease-holding tenant at the Elk Hotel for the past 5 years, moving in permanently after 15 years of being a transient guest at the 87-year-old flophouse off Times Square.

On February 7, he tells me, he and the rest of the Elk's tenants arrived home to find new staff working the front desk and two days' notice to vacate the premises. Without warning, the building had been sold in a purchase that nearly completes the acquisition of an entire block of tenements along 9th Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets.

all photos: my Flickr

As Mark walks me down the Elk's murky hallways, I step carefully across checkerboard linoleum floors so mushy it feels like my feet will break right through. Here and there, we pass over the litter of syringe wrappers, cigarette butts, and beer bottles. We peer into abandoned rooms, miserable warrens of cracked walls and moldy ceilings, some just big enough for nothing more than a twin-sized mattress. In one room, a dead mouse swells on the carpet.

"The new landlord picked off the low-hanging fruit," Mark says, by offering small buyouts of $2,000, then $5,000. The drug addicts and many of the elderly took the cash and left. About a dozen lease-holding tenants remain.

One who might have taken the buyout, but didn't get the chance, was a woman whose body was found by Mark and a neighbor on February 10 in Room 211. It had been decomposing in bed for two weeks. As we stand in front of the NYPD-sealed door, the smell of human decay is still pungent.

"I wasn't sure what I was looking at," Mark says, "It was not recognizable as a body." It looked like a pile of blackened rags with a hot-pink wig lying on top of it. A friend down the hall who just happens to work as an embalmer identified the body as a well-known tenant who had recently dyed her hair pink. She used to sit outside Port Authority and panhandle with a sign that said "Times have been tough." This is how the woman paid her $180 monthly rent at the Elk.

Another tenant, called "Pops," isn't budging. An 85-year-old war veteran, Pops can only hobble from his room to the shared bathroom and back. He can't walk down the stairs, so he sends his neighbors out for coffee and sandwiches. His window looks out on the well-known Pepsi sign--his view for many years.

Then there's the tenant that Mark and his neighbors "affectionately refer to as Coo-Coo." Suffering from some unknown mental illness, Coo-Coo roams the halls in dirty underwear, picking through the garbage to take items back to his room--empty tuna cans are a favorite--where he hoards them in a kind of nest. He begs the neighbors for cigarettes, and carries a thick bankroll of Guyanese dollars--worth almost nothing. Coo-Coo's response to the buyout is: "I'm staying."

While the Elk was known for being a holdout of Times Square seediness, with rooms on the first floor renting by the hour and filled with the dramatic moaning of prostitutes, most of the permanent residents who remain are like Mark--"average guys," he says, who found themselves couch-surfing on one couch too many, and discovered cheap rent and privacy at the Elk Hotel. They make their living as cooks, musicians, performers.

Retired, Mark spends his time writing and doing volunteer work, mostly for LGBT causes. He's a veteran of ACT UP and Queer Nation, he says, "So I'm not afraid of getting in people's faces." He has a lawyer and is fighting for his rights, as life at the Elk has deteriorated fast in the past few weeks.

"On Saturday, February 11 at 8:30 A.M.," Mark tells me, "a demolition crew came in, removed all the doors from vacant rooms, and carried out everything but the sinks." On the night of February 13, with about a dozen holdouts remaining after the buyout deadline, "the heat and hot water was turned off... We spent a very cold night," says Mark. The next day, the tenants went to court and got their heat back.

"Now we're just waiting to see what the landlord's next move will be," Mark tells me. "I'm going to ride this out. They're probably going to demolish the building and I'm willing to leave, but I need more than $5,000. That's not even enough for a deposit with first and last month's rent someplace."

And what will happen to Pops and Coo-Coo, he wonders, and to other tenants like them who cannot advocate for themselves and have even fewer resources? $5,000 won't help them find and keep a new home. It will, however, pay one month's rent on a two-bedroom at the Elk's high-end new neighbor, the Orion.

A 58-story glass shaft of luxury condos and rentals, the Orion towers over the Elk. It also used the Elk's air rights, so nothing tall can be built on that corner. According to online records, the Elk's new landlord now owns almost the entire block, from 568 - 578 9th Avenue, minus 572.

These buildings house a simple, but motley collection of first-floor businesses, like Dave's Tavern, the New Panda Chinese restaurant, a bodega, a barber shop, and Papaya Dog.

How long will this block remain standing?

Orion--right next to the Elk's entrance

Over drinks at the 9th Avenue Saloon, Mark recalls his years at the Elk, remembering when the first-floor business belonged to LaFleur's, a transgender hustler bar run by locally famous drag queen John LaFleur. That was the 1990s and the neighborhood was a much different place.

"But I knew this was coming," Mark says of the hotel's demise. "Because it didn't make sense that the Elk was still there, being what it was. It used to be there were a number of hotels like the Elk. It's a way of life that's disappearing. You could come to New York with nothing, arrive on a bus at Port Authority, and get a cheap room around the corner, so at least you had a place to stay. And that's all vanishing."

"How do you think people without money come to New York today," I asked.

"They don't," Mark said.

Mark looking up at Pops' window

See more:
Elk Hotel vanished
Elk Hotel
More photos inside the Elk on my Flickr


Tricia said...

Riveting and heartbreaking. The remaining tenants need an attorney to help them get a fair settlement and an advocate to find them another place to live. I hope someone who reads this is professionally qualified for the job and will volunteer

Karen said...

Excellent article and peek into the Elk and it's remaining tenants.Thank you, theirs are important stories to hear.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Last voices of dying New York, or is it already dead and they're just sweeping up? From one who spent time and survived at the Elk Hotel in the 1970s, and doesn't miss it at all.

VisuaLingual said...

An excellent, depressing read.

Joe Bonomo said...

Great piece, J.

EV Grieve said...

+1 with Tricia.

I hope that Mark stays in touch. I'm curious how all this will turn out...

Anonymous said...

J, great piece. In the 70's, they began eliminating resident hotels (SRO's?) on the Upper West Side. Many residents weren't junkies or ho's; they were people who weren't rich and couldn't afford the asking rents. As I read this, I wondered about those people. I also thought of the young; NYC is beyond their reach they're rich.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

For a more detailed view of the Elk Hotel in operation in the 70s you can see my novellas "Times Queer" and "Murder in Times Queer."

Marty Wombacher said...

Great reporting! I agree with Tricia and hope the remaining tenants can get legal help. The last quote from Mark says it all.

Claribel said...

I agree. Excellent post. Thanks Jeremiah, and thanks very much to Mark for sharing your experiences and insights. When the Elk Hotel goes, I won’t be mourning over aesthetics. I, too, will be concerned about the Elk tenants who have one less affordable haven in the City.

Related to this story is one triumph over the Bloomberg administration’s apathy towards the rising homelessness resulting from its own failed policies:

Also, while I bow down to Mark’s experienced activism, for the tenants who may need assistance, can the Coalition for the Homeless be of any help here? Their web site states:

Coalition for the Homeless will fight to protect your rights. If you receive a discharge or sanction notice, are threatened with loss of shelter, or are denied shelter when you seek it, contact us immediately:
Shelter Specialist Hotline: 1-855-NYC-CFTH (1-855-692-2384)

Caleo said...

One of your best posts Jeremiah. Outstanding work.
As someone who lived in an SRO, the old George Washington, until 1996, when it was turned into a dorm for SVA students, this really hits home.
I'm proud to be one of those folks who was able to enjoy the charms ( and pains ) of SRO living in NYC during the 80's and 90's. Truly a vanished way of life.
I feel genuinely sorry for young folks out there who will never be able to experience that world, or be denied the chance to move to NYC because this type of cheap housing no longer exists. And for all of it's ugliness, it was a rich environment.
Does anyone know if any other SRO's even exist ?
I fear this might be the last in all of Manhattan.
Please keep in touch with Mark and let us all know how this progresses.
Again, heartbreaking to read about, but great post.

Katrini said...

I wonder what it looked like when it was new. I wonder if it ever *was* new? Great piece.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Sad in so many ways. Thank you for sharing this.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

@Caleo - the Providence down on Bowery still exists. I have a friend who lives there, but his tales of daily life are pretty dire. There are times when he's too afraid to return at night.

Here's an interesting article on the place:

Little Earthquake said...

Fascinating read, Jeremiah. And sad.

I'll bet there was a time when this hotel opened that it was the epitome of gentrification. Today's boutique hotel has the potential to be tomorrow's flophouse. A lot of people seem to think that New York's history began in the Lindsay era. I'd love to know what the Elk looked like in 1925 - and who or what might have been displaced by it then.

Brendan said...

Caleo, I believe there are still SROs in Harlem.

I think people who now come to NYC without money are mostly from Latin America and Asia, and they have their own networks that help them with housing. But of course that's all outside my direct experience.

Perry Brass said...

thanks for doing this story on my friend Mark Schulte. He is so right about how do people without money come to NY: "They don't." This has become a city only for investment bankers and their ilk. The important thing is to make sure that there are no alternatives to the cut-throat business culture epitomized by a Starbucks on every block alternating with either a Chase bank or a Capital One. The exciting, engaged, vibrant city that New York was is still trying to survive, and needs to survive—but it will take a big fight for that to happen. We need to get rid of our billionaire mayor, and then there may be a change and a chance. Perry Brass

Anonymous said...

"I think people who now come to NYC without money are mostly from Latin America and Asiia"

Racist much?

Most immigrants, from all continents except Antarctica, have always come in NYC with no money to better their lives and escape their homelands from poverty, religious or political persecution, etc. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. But in Bloomberg's NYC, it's give me your rich, white, huddled parent's and investor's money, yearning to make more money without having to lift a finger to do so. Great to be white and rich and insulated in today's NYC. Please stay within your inside experience.

Anonymous said...

Fine piece. Thank you.

JakeGould said...

I think people mix up the grittiness and dirtiness of this place—and similar—with the larger issue: Places like this gave people choices when they had none. Sure most “bums” will never leave those places, but what’s so wrong with that? They are off the street, have a place to live & actually are less of a burden on the rest of us.

Now in NYC you either have money or you are poor. Simple as that. I grew up in a rent controlled full apartment in a tenement that turned into “pre-war co-ops” in the early 1990s. My parents worked in working class jobs & was able to send three children to college have a decent life and even have some savings. 100% no credit cards!

Now what do folks have? You can't rent, you have to "own." And if you "own" you are basically in debt. I don't understand the economy we live in nowadays.

And SROs that are formal hotels are mostly gone, but go to the outer boroughs or up to the north side of Manhattan and tons of folks are renting rooms in what were formerly single family homes. Head down to Sheepshead Bay and see for yourself. If you see one house with like 10 satellite dishes on the roof, guess where the SRO is? ;)

Also this was a great piece of reporting. Deserves a larger audience. Should sell it to someone or get a radio show produced.

Brendan said...

@Anonymous at 6:48

I agree with you, I'm not sure how you're misunderstanding my post. I think the fact that lots of immigrants still manage to come here with nothing and make a decent life, despite how the high cost and hostile administration, is great.

mch said...

Yes, a heartbreaking story, but also one of great and beautiful courage. The fine people in the Elk.

Got me thinking about my father, who came to NYC in the late 1930's from Montana/Minnesota to do graduate study at NYU. Got "a room" in some sort of Elk-like place in his first year, till he learned his way around a bit. Also got bedbug bites. Also got an education in life and the world -- not that Montana and Minnesota didn't provide an education, and not that he didn't enrich NYC with what he brought to it from those places. All that mixing it up that NYC was, and still is, and I hope will be, despite what's happening to the Elk and others.

Caleo said...

Anon 6:48, although Brendan responded to your comment himself, I found nothing in his initial comment to be racist or prejudiced.
Throwing out an accusation of racism before understanding what the poster was saying ( which seemed clear enough to me ) may seem empowering to you, but makes the accuser look hypersensitive and ultimately foolish.
It was totally uncalled for considering the content of his comment.

Anonymous said...

Sure there's nothing racist about Brendan's comment. But if the comment was about Midwesterners moving into Harlem, he'd been up and arms about it and creating little earthquake on it. Not hypersensitive, just being factual on how the white transplants see the immigrants. As I had commented, please stay within your own experience, and great to be white in Bloomberg's NYC. The unerlying tone of his comment is racist.

Caleo said...

Anon. 5:12- You said-"Sure there's nothing racist about Brendan's comment."
And finished with "The unerlying tone of his comment is racist."
Not to belabor the point, but If you blatantly contradict yourself in one paragraph, I don't think you know what you're talking about. In other words, you completely missed Brendan's point, and then replicated his exact point after calling him a racist.Ridiculous.
And after all that, this is still one of the best posts Jeremiah has ever done. I actually went for a long walk and checked the ELK out. Amazing history, and how many unknown story's.

Brendan said...

These are sensitive topics these days, for good reason.

To be clear, I think it's much harder for people to come here with no money now than it used to be, and that's a shame.

Anonymous said...

Midwesterners move into Brooklyn and have their own network to rent or only hire to fellow Midwesterners. Just look at that new bar Brew ha ha in Williamsbug, not to mention Stulman's Wisconization of the Village. But I'm not a Midwesterner, so that's outside of my own experience. Whatever hotel takes place over Elk Hotel would be catering to the Midwesterners, tourists or transplants.

Anonymous said...

i wish i could send you a picture of my irish grandmother, mary ellen gunning, who lived and worked so hard in this hotel elk. this was before 1932!!!!!!!prior to her being in charge of this hotel, with her husband Patrick COEN SHE WAS HEAD COOK FOR THE VANDERBILTS!!! THESE ARE ALL REAL FACTS> MY IRISH GRANDMOTHER WAS FROM THE LINE OF GUNNING QUEENS IN CONNAUGHT COUNTY< IRELAND> THE FAMOUS AUTHOR MARY COLUM WAS HER COCUSIN>

Anonymous said...

"after 87 YEARS THIS HEAVENLY IS VANISHED" NOT SO!!!!!! IN GOD's time.....HE REMEMBERS ALL THE ROSARIES PRAYED IN THAT HOTEL HE remembers all the prayers to the Sacred Heart said there by my grandmother as she dutifully kept the place clean, offered all that hard work to GOD. what you don't see is more real than what you do see. we need to be spiritual again in the right way. and THAN shall justice be seen, and joy and peace. modern isms have destroyed all traces of the FAITH> JAMES P COEN WAS A CHILD IN THAT HOTEL AND DIED WITH PRAYERS ON HIS LIPS IN THE LEOPOLDVILLE THAT KILLED OVER %)) NEY YORK CITY YOUNG MEN< AND THAT WAS KEPT A GOVT SECRET FOR DECADES>

Anonymous said...

what is the update? has the elk building been raised? today is the anniversary date of a former resident of the old elk dying in the bermuda triangle. indeed the elk has stories galore. modernism with all that glitters is not gold.

Anonymous said...

Another tragic and disturbing storyline that deeply distressed me.

Who are these people who come to New York City to inhabit ultra-luxury condos? Who are they? Are they coming here for the shopping and the "mind-blowing dining experiences?"

What art and culture do they bring to this city?

Will Jayroe said...

Racist against native Antarticans much?

I've always hated it when people put much with a question mark after it.

It is lazy, abhorrent and frankly, pretty fucking stupid.

Mark Schulte said...

Hey, Mark Schulte here. A friend brought to my attention that this post is still up. Here's how the story ended. Martin Sanders eventually agreed to buy us all out. I can't reveal exactly how much but it was a sizeable sum. We all negotiated our $$$ & the dates we would leave. As it happens, I couldn't move into my new place right away so I wound up being the last to go. I lived in the Elk by myself for months. It was quite an experience! The day I left was in mid-August 2012. Just as I was leaving they came in & removed my door 204 from its hinges, slammed & locked the front door behind me. Guess they weren't sorry to see me go. Nearly 4 years later the building still sits empty though someone removed the Pepsi sign. Not sure why Mr. Sanders was so anxious to get us all out so quickly to just do nothing but I guess he has his reasons. Maybe some day I'll run into him & ask.

Unknown said...

I'm thinking about making a documentary on the Elk Hotel and its former residents.
Does anyone here know how to get in contact with Mark Schulte, or anyone from the Coen family in Ireland who sold the building/air rights?
Thank you-