Duck Duck Book

41 – living downtown
01.17.2007, 4:56 pm
Filed under: technology

Living downtown : the history of residential hotels in the United States / Paul Groth.
Berkeley, Calif. : University of California Press, c1994.
[MCL call number: 647.9473 G881L; one copy, no holds]

In the United States and much of the rest of the industrialized, European-influenced world, people are supposed to live in families.  Sure, there are exceptions to this rule — it’s fine for some people to live in school dormitories, in military barracks, in prisons, in monasteries, or in healthcare facilities — but even these people are assumed to have a proper place elsewhere, with a family composed more or less like every other family.  Anyone who chooses nonfamily life, or who accepts it as their permanent situation is perceived not only as aberrant, but as a danger to family people everywhere. 

So, when cities in the United States began to assertively plan their built environments, when they established building codes and zoning and strategic city planning, one of the things that most civic reformers and city officials did was push hard for a new city that would preference families living in separated houses or apartments in neighborhoods filled only with other houses or apartments.  No shops, no restaurants, no industry, no offices.  No hotels, no dormitories, no hospitals.  No unrelated people living together in groups. The best way for people to live was in a space where all that happened was that families lived there.

But before zoning and city planning were fashionable, there was an era during which people who lived permanently in hotels were a significant and varied part of the urban population throughout the country.  Hotel people were often single, though married couples and families also lived in hotels.  Many long-term hotel residents enjoyed a wide variety of neighborhood commercial services that supported their hotel lifestyle and allowed relative comfort in their choice of accommodation.  Living Downtown provides a history of hotel life and its political and social context from the last few decades of the 19th century through the 1990s.  The book begins with a definition of four categories, or ranks, of hotels:

  • palace hotels, which sheltered wealthy people who wanted to live in opulence and luxury without having to employ their own servants or run a household
  • midpriced hotels for members of the professional and middle classes who desired residential comfort and relative luxury that would not require erosion of their free time for housework and related tasks
  • rooming houses catering to working people who were at the margins of respectability and required convenience of location and services, yet had very little economic power
  • cheap lodging houses which provided short or long-term shelter to people whose poverty was profound, but who wished or needed to live in the urban core

These four ranks of hotels are each described in depth, with a focus on the period between about 1880 and 1940.  Groth writes with a great deal of respect for the autonomy of people who chose hotel life for affirmative reasons as well as those who took the best choice out of a bad selection.  In fact, his account of the four types of hotels works also as a narrow but useful study of the history of urban life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Questions like: where did people work, how did they travel, what were their incomes and their personal expenses like in real terms, how did people function as members of social groups, how did technological innovation and the changing urban landscape affect their daily lives, and what luxuries could they expect to attain form a major part of this narrative.  Photographs of hotels, hotel residents, and hotel neighborhoods augment the text, along with floor plans and neighborhood plans illustrating the specific physical details of hotel environments and the lives of people who lived there.

After the initial chapters have set the stage, Groth begins a more in-depth analysis of how hotels, hotel residents, hotel owners and managers, progressive activists and civic reformers, and governments have viewed hotels in the context of the city.  The public health, racial segregation and integration, residential overcrowding, the destruction of the American family, the autonomy of women, urban renewal, the availability of cheap casual labor, and other factors are examined. In the minds of officials, reformers, business owners, and hotel residents themselves, Groth asks, how did hotels exacerbate or alleviate problems, and how did they form or erode solutions? 

Some pieces of this history are logical but still surprising.  For example, Groth explains that before full-scale urban renewal began in United States cities in the 1960s, rebuilding programs were typically very modest in scale, and required that each public housing unit that was built would be shadowed with a dilapidated unit elsewhere that would be condemned, repaired, or replaced.  This happened slowly, building by building, and part of the reason for this approach was that slum neighborhoods where “problem” buildings like cheap lodging houses were located were only considered social liabilities — they were still economically viable and valuable.  But the notion of urban blight (a feature of the philosophy behind urban renewal) assumed that the slum neighborhood was an overall economic liability.  Such a neighborhood’s property values were so depreciated that even a slumlord could not reasonably expect to find economic profit there.  From this position, it was easy to argue that the whole neighborhood had to be razed, in order to save the city from itself.

Ultimately, Groth argues that a city that serves the housing needs of all of its residents must be a city that embraces a plurality of housing situations.  And furthermore, the wider society must provide a buttress to the view that a wide variety of housing is needed in cities.  Houses work for some people, large apartments for others, small apartments for still others.  Institutional housing works for people with specific interests or support needs.  Hotels, Groth stresses, equally fill a valuable role in housing city people and providing spaces where community can be born.

Overall, Living Downtown is a fascinating history.  Groth’s attention to the sociological and historical significance of hotels and hotel residents, as well as his capable view on the history of the American city, fill a crucial void in urban literature.  And unlike many books in this field, Living Downtown is clear and a pleasure to read.

Living Downtown includes an appendix illustrating statistics about the popularity and costs of hotel life, and details about the numbers of people employed in different jobs, and their typical incomes.  These are followed by a section of very detailed notes to the text, a thorough bibliography, and a competent index.


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