To find one of my all time favorite signs in Times Square, you have to go a few blocks from the neon lights and hi-def LCD screens of New York’s bustling epicenter…
…to the corner of 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue, an intersection that has remained defiantly seedy despite literally existing in the shadows of encroaching tear-it-down-and-rebuild-with-glass gentrification.
There, forgotten above a new Papaya Dog, is a sign that almost definitely dates to a time when the entire area was down and out, crime-ridden, dangerous…
A time when the glamor of your average Times Square hotel amounted to a cheap plastic sign shared with a Pepsi ad:
Seriously, how great is that? Though I have no solid proof, I’d be willing to make a bet that this wonderful grime-covered, faded sign was up when Taxi Driver was shot, and possibly before. It’s an artifact for an era long gone, for better or for worse, and every time I see it, I wonder how much longer it’ll be up.
Of course, it raises the question: is there still an entrance to a hotel on 42nd Street as the sign proclaims?
…And they’ve spared no expense for the sign over the door either!
If you look overhead, there’s actually a proper hotel sign identifying it as The Elk, though this is a very recent addition; for years, only a red neon sign simply reading HOTEL gave any indication that the establishment existed. And, at just $60 a night or so, The Elk is easily one of the cheapest lodging options in Manhattan. Hourly rates of just $5 were around as recently as 1999, though rumor has it those have been phased out.
The Elk is one of the last remaining old school roach motels in Times Square, which used to count flophouses like the The Evans and Woodstock among its ilk, according to this 2004 NY Times article. History on the establishment is scarce, but The Elk seems to have been in business for at least 100 years. According to a commenter on this Vanishing NY post, The Elk was owned in the early part of the 20th century by an Irish family, the Coens, and served as a first home to numerous immigrants coming to New York through Ellis Island.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to ask for a tour (and I’m virtually certain I was only getting into the building by renting a room). However, I did walk up the stairs to the double glass door entrance, which was locked (a good sign of a reputable place: when directing firemen is clearly more important than directing patrons).
Ellis island immigrants were replaced by drug addicts and prostitutes, though apparently, the hotel has gotten a bit more strict about visitors:
A bit of classic NY tile peeking through the rotting linoleum floor.
The NY Times offers this description of a typical room:
There’s usually no TV, no phone and, beyond a nightstand and a bed, no furniture. There’s also no air-conditioning, making the summers brutal. The bathrooms, two per floor, are communal, which tends to scare off most American tourists.
The Observer fills in the gritty details:
A twin-size bed dominates Room 109-precisely what one would expect from a place charging $25 for a two-hour stay. The ratty, bumpy, mattress features a concave crater directly beneath the semen stains on the once white sheets. With only a little imagination, one can discern the subtle outline of the human form on its surface, where countless numbers of women must have lain, usually paid for the inconvenience of staring at the mold-covered ceiling. Pressed in one corner stands a chipped faux-wood table and underneath it a plastic container with one crumpled napkin, one crusty tissue and one used condom inside.
Are you one of those people who pines for the Times Square of old? I can only recommend that you spend the night at The Elk before it disappears, which will probably be in the next ten years or so (the owner is waiting for the right price). A few choice reviews from Yahoo Travel from recent Elk guests:
September 2010: I open my $59 a night hotel room to find vermin and feces. I saw a mouse scamper under the dresser and proceeded to hear rats for the rest of my stay…I open the bathroom door to the smell of feces. I thought I was in a sewer hole like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption.
July 2010: The mattress was disgusting…there are no fans or ACs so the rooms get ridiculously hot we had a front facing room on what has to be the noisiest block of new york city. The owner barged into our room, while we were undressed, without reason.
September 2008: Apart from the king size rats, giant roaches, disgusting bathrooms and mean staff, this place could possible be the best hotel in all NYC
September 2006: This is by far the most dreadful hotel I’ve ever stayed at in New York City. I stayed at room 8 at the first floor. Obviously, someone had peed in the sink. The smell was awful. The bed was dirty, the noise was terrible… This hotel should be closed immediately.
Finally, though many claim The Elk to be the last of Times Square’s infamous flophouses, be sure to check out the New York Inn, a fleabag hotel at 47th & 8th Ave…
…notable only for the fantastic ghost ad from when it was a more reputable establishment, offering steam (!), hot & cold water (!), and housekeeping (!).
One wonders if those amenities can still be found today.
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