The 'New' New York: Still Mine?

Andrei Codrescu returns to a once-downtrodden part of New York City to discover that an old flophouse is now a tourist mecca. He ponders what the times have done to his old haunts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

According to a cost of living surgery from Mercer Human Resource consulting, Tokyo is now the most expensive city in the world. Osaka comes in second and London is third. Way down the list at Number 13 is New York City. The survey for the year 2005 measures the comparative cost of over 200 items in each location, including housing, transportation, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment.

On his recent trip to New York, commentator Andrei Codrescu had his own way of measuring expense. His baseline was his own past.

ANDREI CODRESCU reporting:

I entered the room in what used to be one of New York's sleaziest flophouses. This place used to be so nasty, I walked a little faster when I lived in the neighborhood. Wasted drug addicts used to hang out in the entryways, spewing infections out of open sores. The notorious bathhouse next door was a place of such debauchery, someone once described it as Gomorrah, the way it should have been.

I only knew one guy who'd ever stayed at this hotel in the 70s and he said his room had eight holes into the next room and some weird colored cockroaches fed on spilled drugs and body effluvia. He mentioned the bed bugs, too, as an afterthought, as the least offensive thing about the place. This was a place that like a few other New York inns, mostly on the Bowery, had suicides and ODs carted out of it regularly.

A quarter of a century has passed since then and I thought I would give it a try because it was the cheapest place I could find on the internet. The place where I'd stayed last time was one of a string of midtown residential hotels being renovated in a Nouveau Deco splendor. It listed at $950 a night for a single room. Yep, you heard that right. My publisher had some special deal and it had to have been very, very special because they don't like me that much.

The room itself still had that residential hotel feeling of lonely old bachelors dawdling about in yellow pajamas, until it was time for lunch at the corner diner and the nightly visit to an old porn cinema in Times Square. The place had history, but $950 worth of it?

The price for one night here might be shocking to a rube like myself but it's hardly news to New Yorkers, who now pay $500 for a ticket to a Broadway show. Yep, you heard that right, too. You and your love can spend two grand a night for a bed and a slick piece of uptown tinsel. On the other hand, you can eat cheap and walking is free.

Compared to that, the $110 a night downtown felt like forgiveness. For what, I don't know. Maybe for the sin of being poor, which in New York might now be punishable by law. When I got to the tiny reception desk at the top of the stairs, some of the old horror was still ticking. The desk guy, a cigar-chomper with an east of Damascus accent, laughed at me when I asked about credit cards. Cash only, he shouted. In fact, he was holding a large wad of cash as I handed up mine.

The miniature room I was granted was so small that any wrong move could have landed me next door. For all that, it was clean. There were no holes anywhere and there were new Venetian blinds on the small window looking out. There were also clean towels, soap, shampoo and a TV that worked. Two of the channels showed hardcore porn. Later, when I was certain that the clientele consisted mostly of foreign travelers and families on a budget who'd found the place on the internet, I wondered how the porn struck them. Very downtown, I would think.

And, true to the old days, the hotel had a $40 rate for day use. That must have been mostly for show, because the place was booked to the gills. The new New York can't afford any slack, even if it wants to.

BLOCK: Andrei Codrescu teaches at Louisiana State University.

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