Hotel Hells

Why disgusting hotels are existentially upsetting.

Hotel Carter near Times Square in New York City, NY, June 2012.
Regularly ranked as one of the worst hotels on Earth, the Hotel Carter is a study in contrast.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Elvert Barnes Photography/Flickr.

Excerpted from Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen by Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl. Out now from the University of North Carolina Press.

In their utopian guise, hotels present themselves as a rationally organized space, designed for maximum comfort and profit, attentive and nurturing. Such a presentation depends on the containment of the unusual, the unexpected, and even the frightening. This containment manifests itself through efficiency studies, employee time clocks, hospitality best practices, and the rituals of cleaning, laundering, and room service. It is coded in the very language of hospitality studies, now an academic discipline. It is personified by the overbearing concierge, the surveilling security staff, the snore patrol, the roving eyes of the cleaning staff, and the nosy neighbor, who enlists these forces in the service of much-desired private comfort.

But this effort at containment is always on the very edge of spectacular failure. The utopian hotel is always on the threshold of becoming something different and always haunted by its past as a reckless, ungoverned association of travelers and ne’er-do-wells. When that failure happens, and when its once-upon past and inevitable future rips through the scripted presentation of order, the hotel, as the Hotel Carter and Ford Hotel suggest, can become hell on earth.

The spare website for the Hotel Carter, for instance, presents a modest hotel in a big city, a stopping point for thrifty visitors to New York City. “The pleasures of budgeting” is the slogan of the day. Offering “warm hospitality and service,” the site generously describes an overnight stay at the modernist structure as “a unique, inviting departure from traditional hotels in Manhattan.” The few dark, amateurish pictures of available rooms suggest a plain, Spartan interior, with a tiny DIY snack bar and a soda machine in the lobby instead of room service, and a boxy, smallish television pressed up against the bed instead of a giant flat screen. On the website, the only representations of the exterior of the hotel are an old print taken from an antique postcard and a more recent aerial view. Images of the interior spaces are—comparatively speaking—lackluster and tired.

Regularly ranked as one of the worst hotels on Earth, the Hotel Carter is a study in contrast. A midrange hotel in the middle of New York’s theater district, its tan brick facade attracts and holds the city’s dirt as if it were a disguise. Deteriorating window air conditioners suggest interior conditions that are less than idyllic. The exterior aesthetic of the structure is simplest and plainest near the street level, which makes the building easily forgettable. And the once outsize architecture of the whole, with a few minor art deco flourishes in the upper half, is now eclipsed by neighboring skyscrapers, too removed to be seen and too minuscule to be appreciated. Old and getting older, the Hotel Carter looks blank rather than dramatic, boring and sad rather than creepy or shifting or absurd. But there, seducing tourists in search of a cheap rate in the middle of the street-level scrum, is the one glittering bauble meant to catch the public’s eye: the neon overhang, offering in flashing red an invitation to enter. “Hotel Carter,” it reads, in regal cursive, “Welcome to Times Square!”

The gruesome reputation of the interior life of the Hotel Carter is wildly circulated as fact, with abundant accompanying testimonials. Populist demagogue Glenn Beck singled out the hotel on his radio program. TripAdvisor, the online hotel review site, routinely puts it at the top of its list of the “10 Dirtiest Hotels in the U.S.” Some recall that it was once used as lower-income housing, that it is perennially in financial distress, that its early history was pockmarked with suicides, and that it seems, by and large, to provide more service to local prostitutes than to guests in search of a retreat from the noise of traffic and construction. “Only stay in this hotel if you are a biologist looking for new diseases,” one report begins. “The lobby of the Carter,” another concludes, “is festooned with mirrors and strings of red lights that remind you of a terrible 1970s disco palace.” Reviewers regularly report televisions that are antiquated, the finding of dead mice and cockroaches, confrontations with staff that are unruly or downright unhelpful, the rental of rooms without towels, without clean sheets, without anything. Even those who recommend the hotel do so with gritted teeth, suggesting that a cheap rate is more important than a clean room and urging their fellow travelers to simply shut their eyes tightly, stay on the bed, and get out quickly. “Preparing for a stay in such circumstances requires planning,” one intrepid USA Today reporter indicated in a January 2009 profile, “Silk sleeping bag liner to help thwart bed bugs? Check. Bottled water and towel brought from home? Check. Pajamas? Uh, no. At the Hotel Carter, where reports of vermin and questionable characters are legion, it’s probably best to sleep in your clothes in case a quick exit is required.” Brave sojourners to the Hotel Carter describe a hell on Earth, where their petitions for clean towels and the absence of vermin are regularly refused.

Of course, the Hotel Carter is not a one-off, the inevitable outcome of Gotham’s darker sides. On the West Coast, the Ford Hotel has earned the dubious title “hotel hell” for an entirely different set of reasons. Originally built in 1925, this Los Angeles hotel was long the worst drug-trafficking spot in the city and home to off-their-meds psychiatric patients, addicts, gang members, and domestic abusers before being purchased in 2008 by SRO Housing Corp. as part of a larger plan to redevelop the neighborhood and offer affordable housing to people with mental health issues. So legendary had the Ford become that its legal history has been described as reading like a skid-row crack dealer’s rap sheet.

Recollections of life in the Ford Hotel in a 2011 L.A. Weekly post by two 19-year-old former residents, one of whom raised himself in the hotel, include eerily nostalgic tales of bloodshed, violence, and suicide. The two swap stories about life in the Ford that include seeing a woman who was like a mother to the orphaned boy stabbed to death and hearing the commotion caused by a woman who killed her abusive husband by chopping off his genitals. Seeing a balcony reminds them of the woman who dropped her 9-month-old daughter off the sixth floor balcony before jumping to her death and another man who jumped out of an adjoining window only to get caught in barbed wire halfway to the ground. Finally, a walk up to his old room reminds one visitor of the man next door who blew his brains out only to remain undiscovered for a week, until bodily fluids from the corpse leaked out from under the hotel room door. This hellish rap sheet finally motivated the city to take action against the hotel owner—action that resulted in transforming the “hotel hell,” as it was commonly called, into a newly renovated, orderly, and highly sanitized haven for those down on their luck but suddenly rendered optimistic about their futures by the orderliness of the Ford’s new environs.

At its very worst, the hellish hotel is a playful reversal of the sovereign reign of rationality and order. Rooms that are meant to be clean become dirty, foul, unholy. Safe spaces become dangerous, even murderous. The rational architecture of the space becomes, sometimes literally, a house of horrors. In these moments of carnivalesque absurdity and breathtakingly complete reversal, we enter a threatening landscape that might have been drawn by Hieronymus Bosch.

Horror films and certain narrative genres like the murder mystery, cop show, or spy thriller trade in the hotel’s precarious teetering between order and disorder—its seemingly infinite capacity to offer both solace and a safe haven for the fugitive from justice and a rich field for sadistic experimentation to those seemingly upstanding citizens who register at the front desk. In the hands of the deranged, desperate, or depraved, the hotel can quickly become re-envisioned as a playground for nefarious practices that need to be hidden from the more licit public and private spaces graphing contemporary life. The hotel room as scene of unexpected bloody carnage has therefore become a stock-in-trade for popular novels and movies, and these moments of horrific disclosure are meant to jolt the witness into an altered relationship to his or her surroundings—to highlight, in a heartbeat, the capacity of the world as we know it to fall apart. The elevator that suddenly stops midfloor, the chase scenes up and down emergency staircases, and the ominous click of a closing hotel room door are all part and parcel of this narrative arc, leading the witness from order to disorder and, usually, back to the world as we like to know it.

But these abrupt tears in the social fabric that the modern subject depends on and takes for granted in order to move seamlessly through the urban landscape are not solely the stuff of fiction. In the same fashion, the low-intensity carnage of the Carter highlights a similar set of disruptions: the brown water in the bathroom sink, the mysterious stains on the mattresses and the walls, and the constant sound of rats in the walls, clawing and scratching; the bedbugs and cockroaches; the broken phones, the absent room service, and the cold showers. In these manifestations of daily combat, too, we see the hotel rising up in arms against the bourgeois guest, laying waste to the rights of the typically pampered patron. In the myriad lamentations of the anonymous traveler, we find the shock of recognition, and the discomforting awareness that there are places—awful places—where we should fear to go.

Excerpted from Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen by Caroline Field Levander and Matthew Pratt Guterl. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.