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Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel Review – What Makes a Hotel Grand?

Artists endure amid gentrification of iconic landmark

6 mins read

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel
(Belgium/France/The Netherlands/Sweden/USA, 80 min.)
Dir. Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt


“When people walk, they’ll see ghosts,” says dancer/choreographer Merle Lister in Dreaming Walls. “We aren’t people,” she then whispers. “We are ghosts.”

Lister directs dancer Gina Healy to haunt the statuesque spiral staircase of the Chelsea Hotel by resurrecting a piece they performed years ago. The choreographer is one of the remaining veteran residents of the fabled New York City haven for starving artists. As Healy floats and thrashes upon the stairs that once saw the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Andy Warhol, and other icons pass through, she and Lister pay tribute to the artists dear and departed who gave the landmark its spirit. Moreover, Lister sombrely underscores a sad fact about the Chelsea’s incoming occupants: they don’t really care about the people or history that made the Hotel famous.

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel goes inside the landmark to explore the ghosts of history that reside in iconic sites. Directors Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt offer a walking tour through the Chelsea during its renovation. The project is years in the making. It’s a mess and the building barely resembles the iconic bohemia that appears in archival snippets. Yet the long-time residents who remain ensure that there’s still life in Chelsea’s old bones. A posh guest might enter the doors and declare “What a dump!”, but this doc observes what makes a house a home.


Those Who Stayed

The film salutes all who stayed in the Chelsea Hotel in the good fight against gentrification. Lister is among the key subjects whom the filmmakers observe. She glides through the halls on her walker, treated like an inconvenience by the workers who let her pass. Zoe Serac Pappas and Nicholas Pappas, meanwhile, let the cameras into their ornately decorated apartment. It’s a lived-in abode and a handsome home no artist could afford today. Moreover, as Zoe serves as an intermediary between the rankled tenants and the building’s new brass, the film observes the multi-year headache they’ve endured. Noisy work hammers at all hours while a construction elevator makes their living room a peeping Tom’s delight. It’s clear in every frame that the property owners don’t welcome the residents who call the Chelsea home.

While residents observe the renovations, and humorously deduce that a new service elevator is really a “back door” for them to enter away from the eyes of preferred guests, Dreaming Walls excavates the artistic presence that defines the Chelsea—and defies its renovation. Dancer Rose Cory holds strong for the community spirit with which artists’ thrive. Skye Ferrante, meanwhile, crafts unique wire portraits of the residents to ensure their presence will linger long after they depart. A tenant shows off the toothbrush holder and soap tray that once adorned the bathroom where Janis Joplin stayed. (He laughs that she probably didn’t use them much.) Photographer Bettina Grossman, finally, resides amid stacks of bric-a-brac—proud markers of her tenure as the Chelsea’s longest-serving tenant.


People Come and People Go

Dreaming Walls doesn’t mire itself in nostalgia though as it tours the Chelsea’s gutted remains. The past is the past. However, the film illustrates how one can’t derive cultural cachet from a historic site while dispensing with the character that defines it legacy. Meanwhile, ethereal projections of Marilyn Monroe and flicks by the Warhol gang float on the scarred walls to bring the past into the present. Archival elements imbue the film with images of prior residents, former gaiety, and a raucous spirit that resonates in the walls. On the other hand, archival footage shows the Chelsea amid previous restorations, including new elevators that could replace the magic of the spiral stairs. This facelift is just another phase of reconstruction, but the film suggests the spirit of the revamp has changed.

Dreaming observes through the changing landscape of the Chelsea Hotel the ways in which gentrification drives artists out of the city and, in turn, robs the urban core of the pulse that inspires travellers and transients to check into such unique places. It’s a poignant study of a creative hub that preserves in film what developers discard to the dumpster. Duverdier and van Elmbt therefore offer a fond ode to this gathering site of a once-thriving arts scene Dreaming Walls astutely considers how sites of history are defined not by the bricks, girders, and drywall that comprise them, but by the lives that pass through them and the experiences created within. People come and people go in grand hotels, but the ones who stay ultimately define them.


Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel opens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on July 8.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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