Suffragette City

Hello everyone, and welcome new readers. I’ve finally updated the title here to “Notes from the Field”, which was always my blog title, so has some continuity….

Today a piece of mine for City Journal went online, about the women’s hotels that once dotted major cities. I was resident in one for a time, and the experience was not quite what I expected (it was NOT the sassy gals of Stage Door).

There were rules, which seemed to mostly be broken - except for the rule against male visitors. I'll confess I broke the rules myself. We weren't meant to have alcohol on the premises. And yet I was in my room, in a sweltering July, leaning against the wall and sipping on a Mike's Hard. (I’d also learned the hard way that anything left in the small fridge in the common room got stolen, so I bought a bag of ice from the grocery store to keep my drinks chilled in my room).

The other residents were a range of women, including foreign students, interns and older women too. I met one lady who was retired from her job as a translator with the UN, but who came back every summer to work for them on a particular project. There were cliques: the older broads all sat together in the cafeteria, and sometimes got into disputes with the younger women. There would be occasional shouting matches in the hallway.

Of course there was lots of gossip too. Some of the younger residents were frequent hoppers between the various women’s hotels, shuttling among the Webster, the Brandon, the Evangeline, depending on availability (and the situation of conflicts with other residents). There were also women who - rumor had it - had been staying there since the 60s and were still paying $150/month for rent. This happened at the Barbizon too (that most famous of New York women’s residences): when they converted the building to condos, they had to allocate some to a group of older women who had been living there for years, and had the protections of rent-control tenants.

Part of the economy of the lifestyle is reminiscent of college: a community dining hall. Breakfast and dinner were included in the rent. It’s unusual today, but this model of was typical in early apartment buildings and lodging houses, when it was assumed there would be a shared dining room, and that people would not want to cook for themselves. (Before cooking became a fashionable middle class hobby, it was a working class job. Those who could afford not to, didn’t do it). Even fancier buildings expected to operate on the same economies of scale. Residents could have a small galley kitchen, but a restaurant downstairs that could send meals to each flat by dumbwaiter.

We see this model in other cities like Hong Kong, where apartments were often built without cooking facilities on the assumption that people would simply go outside and buy their food at hawker stalls or lunch counters - and retail food prices made that viable. It was also a safety element, with much less risk of fire if there are not hundreds of hotplates and stoves in a building. (Not to mention keeping the heat down in the building - more of a concern in the warm climate of Hong Kong).

Meanwhile, hotels with shared facilities are no longer what people encounter (or want) when they travel. Even at college, students today are likely to have their own room with a private bathroom. The rarest hotel still exists with the “bath down the hall” model.

Apartments are built on the assumption people want to cook, with valuable floorspace given over to ovens and fridges. Personally I can take or leave cooking, and a dining hall (or meals by dumbwaiter) would suit me fine. And given the long winter of covid, I’d be glad to be in a hot city with cool can of hard lemonade.