Washington Didn’t Sleep Here

The most schizophrenic hotel in New York

Meyer Muschel was afraid to get out of the car the first time he visited the Whitehouse Hotel, one of the last of the Bowery’s once numerous flophouses. This was 1998, near the height of the city’s prosperous rising tide of which Muschel, an Ivy-educated lawyer at a prominent corporate firm, was a part. The Bowery was on the mend as well, except in those last bastions like the Whitehouse where the old disorder — the drug dealing, the violence, the sex on sale — held out against the martini bars and handbag stores. But Muschel was different from the rest of the well-heeled passersby scared of the daytime crowd drinking in front of the dilapidated brick building at the corner near Bond Street. He owned the place.

Muschel took over day-to-day management of the hotel, which had originally just been a silent investment, when it became clear to him that his partner in the venture had gotten them in over their heads. He left his job and found himself presiding over a four-story building composed of long corridors filled with 4-by-6 ceilingless cubicles, in several of which he discovered handguns, bags of feces and bottles of what appeared to be three or four years’ worth of urine. But he also found himself responsible for the domestic well-being of about 200 men, several of whom were crazy and criminal but many of whom were kind and talented and most of whom were just plain poor. “I swore when I bought the building that my interest in financial success wouldn’t prevent me from doing what I think is right,” he said.

On a weekday not long ago, Muschel, who was wearing a baseball hat that said “Still Bullish at 40″, pointed out some of the many changes that have made his establishment both a cleaner, safer place for its permanent residents, and at the same time, the most schizophrenic hotel in New York.

“I guarantee you this is the only flophouse with a Fava gourmet coffee machine,” he said, standing in the lobby of the new Whitehouse, half lodging house, half European youth hostel.

The room could indeed be some kind of fashionably grungy café — stainless steel circular tables perfect for quiet conversations, white walls covered with art and album covers created by the permanent residents — except for the cage-like office at the back where permanents and guests pick up and drop off their keys each time they come and go. It’s easy to tell the two groups of residents apart: the regulars are often older black and Latino men, while the visitors skew female and Nordic. “Interaction with young people is good for these guys,” said Muschel. “You’ll see a beautiful 20 year-old come in with a bunch of bags and three guys will jump up to help.”

A woman of just such a description minus luggage entered the hotel and headed towards the desk.

“See, who’s going to complain about that?” he said, as other conversations stopped and all eyes followed the tight pair of jeans until its Brit-girly owner started to blush. “Oops, she heard us.”

The hotel was literally divided after Muschel paid all the permanent residents to move into the south side of the building, which has been tidied up. The cubicles are now covered with chicken wire, to prevent the curious or the criminal from jumping over the partitions while still allowing water to spray through from the sprinklers in case of a fire. Bathrooms were cleaned and a few showers installed. Still, it’s dark and close compared to the hostel just on the other side of the stairwell, on the north of the building, which received the lion’s share of the renovation. Its walls are bright yellow with white latticework, the halls are carpeted, the ceilings have fans, and though the cubicles remain, some have been combined to make double rooms. Most importantly, the character of the whole place has changed. Muschel, whose days in corporate law gave him a taste for litigation, spent considerable time and money evicting the drug dealers and deadbeats who had driven the previous owners (the family that had built the Whitehouse in 1918) and so many other flophouses out of business.

Both permanent residents and hostel guests come to the Whitehouse for the same reason: cheap digs in a great location. (Bowery and Bond is about as close to the cultural epicenter of downtown Manhattan as you can get without turning into an NYU student.) Their relationship is symbiotic if fragile. Hostel guests pay $30 per night, which subsidizes the almost $10-a-night rent-controlled fee that the permanent residents pay. In turn, the permanent residents give the place the authenticity that young travelers crave and that is rapidly disappearing from the rest of the area.

Authenticity, however, isn’t always charming. On that same day, Muschel headed up to the second floor to tell one of the permanent residents, Sammy, whose densely arranged cubicle contained a Puerto Rican flag, mountain bike, and TV/VCR that’s been playing the Godfather series, that he may have found him a job moving cars at a nearby parking lot. On the way back, he stopped to check in on an elderly resident who he hadn’t seen in several days.

“Mr. N., are you there?,” Muschel shouted. The door opened and white-haired Mr. N. stood defiant, at least partially deaf and totally shoeless on the dusty floor, with nothing visible in the room but a wool vest and cockroaches. His feet were swollen and blackened, with open sores and hammertoes crooked in all directions like bad teeth. “Mr. N., I think we need to get you to the hospital,” Muschel shouted.

“Who the hell are you? What are they going to do in a hospital? Bunch of damn white coats,” Mr. N. replied and slammed the door.

When the ambulance arrived, Muschel followed the two paramedics from St. Vincent’s Hospital up the stairs, apologizing along the way for calling them to a non-emergency.

“The last time I wanted to call 911 was for a guy who had a swollen leg. He convinced me not to and a week later he was dead,” he said. “So I’m living with the guilt.”

As soon as the crew saw Mr. N.’s feet they needed no convincing that he should get medical and perhaps mental health attention at Bellevue. That is, if he would agree to go, which, since Mr. N. was busy cursing at them, didn’t seem likely. They were ready to have the police declare Mr. N. a danger to himself and others, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, he stopped shouting and put on his slippers to leave. At that moment, another resident, a huge man in boots and olive drab clothes walked up the stairs and glowered at Muschel.

“Talk about belligerent and crazy,” said Muschel. “Can’t you declare that guy a danger to others?”

“Brother,” replied one of the paramedics, “You’re talking about 50 percent of Manhattan.”

Back downstairs Muschel bumped into Michael Powell, a tall black man dressed in painter’s pants and a flannel shirt. Powell is an enthusiast of rare penmanship styles and Japanese fencing, and he practices the latter with an edgeless blade in the basement on most mornings. There was some dispute over the appropriate place for him to do this.

“First time I saw him with the sword, he scared the shit out of me,” said Muschel before returning to the office.

Powell smiled serenely. He is a master of forgotten arts, and his elaborate notes to the landlord are written in any number of styles that at various points in Western history were signs of accomplishment and cultivation. But he too is worried about being forgotten. He’s lived at the Whitehouse for 12 years, ever since a he went bust making a social documentary in Iowa, he said, and he likes the neighborhood, likes living near a university, likes being reminded of New Haven where he grew up. He knows that the Whitehouse can’t stay half-hostel half-flophouse forever, and he knows which side will win.

A statuesque Aryan woman with a backpack, denim skirt and clogs walked into the lobby and over to the desk to sign in. “Hey Miss Germany,” Muschel called out. “Where are you from?” She’s from Berlin, a graduate student stopping off for a visit in New York after attending a conference in Texas on African urban spaces. “You’re kidding me,” said Muschel. “You want African urban spaces? Just stick around here. We’ve got plenty of African urban spaces.”

Muschel repeated the joke to Powell, and the two of them laughed at these naïve Europeans. They laughed as if to pretend for a moment that of all the great divides in this divided town, between white and black, rich and poor, landlord and tenant, none looms so large as that between local and tourist.