Luxury Restored, Squalor Remembered

The Martinique is, again, one of New York City’s most luxurious hotels. After being acquired by Radisson Hotels and Resorts the hotel has regained its former prestige and has buried a very unfortunate period in its history. Situated on 32nd Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, the 19-story hotel is a restored Beaux Arts Landmark. Built in 1898 by Henry J. Hardenbergh (creator of the original Waldorf-Astoria and Plaza hotels), it sat in the heart of the city’s former Uptown and Theatre District sections. The hotel was a favorite gathering spot for luminaries and patrons of the world of theatre and popular entertainment. However, by the 1970s it was very far from being posh and elegant…it was a nightmare.

As the theatre district moved further north in the mid-twentieth century, the Martinique started to lose its glitzy clientage along with its theatrically propitious setting. The neighborhood was quickly transformed into a commercial cynosure, more a venue for shoppers and merchants than for hotel guests. The move of theatres to streets above 42nd Street also led to a severe decline in real estate values that further plummeted as the 1960s rolled in. Burlesque parlors and strip shows were fast becoming the “new theatre” of depressed conditions with porno shops, peep show joints and various other exotic establishments popping up everywhere…ladies of the night (and of the day) walked the streets in abundance.

Poverty rose in the 1970s and 1980s as the quality of life declined for most people amidst a city foundering in recession. A lack of affordable housing resulted in an ever-growing homeless population that sought refuge in community housing. Those who didn’t have this option found themselves in the city’s homeless shelter system, usually in hotels and apartment buildings that were no longer profitable: welfare hotels.

The Martinique was designated a welfare hotel in the 70s but quickly disintegrated into an overcrowded storehouse of fear and human misery instead of welfare; an absurdist cross between a flophouse and a maximum security prison. The hotel’s spacious beaux arts ceiling loomed above in silent mockery to the threadbare hordes of castaways beneath its enduring elegance. Imposing steel doors, alongside French Renaissance decor, echoed with the sounds of crammed chaos and imminent violence that arose from hallways and adjoining rooms. However, it was the stench of destitution and hopelessness that laid claim to the entire setting: a distinct and pungent odor that clung to everything around it, including clothing.

Barely enough room was to be found for the approximately 440 large families of which 1,000 residents were children. They were huddled into once snug and cozy rooms that were now makeshift apartments that couldn’t contain the bedraggled beds, cribs and dressers essential to family life. Kitchens were nonexistent and hot plates were forbidden; yet, even though it was grounds for eviction, nearly every resident used one. Security guards (most were billy club-wielding thugs who exercised their authority with abandon) often demanded sexual favors from women caught using hot plates to keep from reporting them. Of course, there were other welfare hotels, in New York and in other cities, but the Martinique was the most notable and infamous of them all.

Even if the news media contrived or sensationalized many of their reports of brutal conditions at the Martinique, a fraction of these stories would be more than enough to outrage a rational person. Rarely has opulence and indigence, ambition and despair, been set in such stark and incongruous juxtaposition…Charles Dickens would have had a field day.

The Martinique Hotel’s shameful career as a welfare hotel ended in 1988. City-run vans that used to arrive and take people to look for apartments, maybe once or twice a week, were suddenly cluttered outside the hotel in September of that year; a new urgency to suitably relocate every beleaguered inhabitant of the Martinique was given top priority. Strangely, many were reluctant, even afraid, to leave the ramshackle security of the Martinique. Unused to life on their own, they, like prison inmates, could hardly imagine a life of freedom…and the responsibilities that reward a person with independence.

Sources: No Place to Call Home by Roy Grant, Outreach Project; Leaving a Welfare Hotel by Suzanne Daley, NY Times

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