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Inside the Last Occupied Apartments of the Chelsea Hotel

Few spaces inspire nostalgia for New York’s free-spirited past like the red-brick Beaux-Arts Chelsea Hotel. Yet, on his first visit to this fabled enclave of creativity, where Jack Kerouac wrote “On The Road” (1957) and Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin famously met in 1968, the New Jersey-based photographer Colin Miller admits to being unfazed. “It wasn’t that meaningful to me at the time,” he says of touring the space in 2001. “It just seemed like a grungy, rundown hotel.” It was only on his return visit to the building more than a decade later — on commission to document its latest round of renovations (the 250-room hotel has been under construction since its legendary former manager Sidney Bard was ousted in 2007) — that he first felt its significance. “As I was shooting, I could see right into one of the apartments and it was wildly colorful,” he says. “That’s when I realized that there’s still something really interesting going on at the Chelsea.”

That kaleidoscopic rooftop studio, which belongs to the artist and hair stylist Gerald DeCock, and was previously inhabited by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, became the starting point for a series of photographs and essays that spotlight some of the hotel’s remaining residents and their often wildly eccentric dwellings. Initially conceived as a housing cooperative, the Chelsea first opened its doors in 1884 but was later reimagined as a hotel; a new owner evicted many longstanding residents in 2008 and the hotel stopped welcoming guests in 2011. What Miller imagined would be a 10-month undertaking became a four-year mission to track down and win over some two dozen remaining inhabitants. His efforts are compiled in the sprawling new book “Hotel Chelsea: Living in the Last Bohemian Haven” (The Monacelli Press), out next week.

Rather than a swan song for a vanishing community, the project is intended as a heartfelt celebration of the Chelsea as it is today. “It’s not a eulogy,” says the German-born writer Ray Mock, whose detailed biographies of residents accompany the pictures. “It’s a document of a living building and the people who are making it their own.” Those inhabitants include the artist Sheila Berger, the renowned event producer Susanne Bartsch and Zoe Pappas, the head of the hotel’s tenant’s association who successfully fought off efforts by a previous owner, Joseph Chetrit, to conduct a complete eviction and interior demolition in 2014. In fact, surprisingly little has visibly changed about the building since Miller embarked on the project in the summer of 2015. Plans to turn the site into a boutique hotel and restaurant have stalled. (“There are so many issues,” says Miller. “The plans seem to keep changing.”) That the Chelsea fails to yield to expectations comes as no surprise to the filmmaker and photographer Tony Notarberardino, who has lived on the sixth floor since 1994: “The Chelsea’s bigger than anybody,” he says. “It’s going to outlive everybody.”

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