People think they know what the Parker Spruce Hotel holds, but a night in a room there provides a clearer view.
Hiram just smiles, extending his hands again, only this time palms downward--as if declining an offer.
"I'm coming to you," the house mother says, pointing at Hiram before the doors close and she wheels on the drunk.
"What did I tell you when you registered?" she asks. "Don't cause no trouble. Now you standing here with a beer in your hand and you let some man, an unregistered guest, into your room, and the manager is looking for you. What can I do for you now?"
The man lists side to side, his mouth still half open.
"I am this building's mother," the woman says, her face turned up to the ceiling. "And I can't help you now."
The drunk, though still silent, looks chastened, the knowledge that he's fucked up in some serious and irreconcilable way slowly penetrating the fog of his high.
The Parker is perhaps best understood as a throwback to an earlier time, when large residential hotels were a common feature of every American city.
Paul Groth, a University of California at Berkeley professor who wrote Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States, spent a month living in a hotel similar to the Parker in San Francisco. "These places served a necessary function," says Groth, "and they still do, wherever they exist. When I stayed in a hotel, I was startled by how early everyone went to bed because they were all working as hotel porters and other jobs that required them to be up before dawn. I'd leave at 7:30 and be literally the last one out of the building."
Groth's book gets its narrative momentum from the steady assault urban planners waged on residential hotels in the '60s, '70s and '80s, by either tearing them down or hastening their conversion into more spacious, upscale condominiums, which simultaneously exacerbated the problem of homelessness and started homogenizing city centers. "The problem was that planners didn't understand these places played a significant role in the housing stock," says Groth. "They didn't understand that workers in modest middle-class jobs were living there, people needed to work in hotels and restaurants and some very skilled jobs as well."
Here in Philadelphia, some residents do recognize the role the Parker plays in maintaining the diversity of the Washington Square West neighborhood. "I'd like to be sure the place is well run," says Judith Applebaum of the Civic Association. "But I think we do need to be accessible to all kinds of people to live here."
Michael Guinn has lived on Quince Street for decades now, having first moved to Washington Square West in 1964. He rattles off a long list of residential hotels that disappeared from the area over the years: the Gladstone, torn down for Kahn Park. The Midston Hotel, which became the Lincoln at Locust and Camac. The Kesmon Hotel at 12th and Spruce, which became the Alexander Inn. And there were others: The Adelphia. The Sylvania.
"I believe the Gladstone was first to go," says Guinn, a painter. "The neighborhood was gradually starting to come back when they tore it down. It was seen as an eyesore mostly because of the people who lived in it. So of course the very liberal wanted to see it remain where it was and the real estate interests wanted it torn down."
How does Nancy Alperin, one of the city's most prominent Philadelphia real estate professionals, feel about the Parker property? "I wish someone would write a check for it," she says. "I've never heard of a single person who declined to move into one of the condominiums in the area because the Parker's there, but it could be put to a better use. And that's what I'm for--the highest possible use."
At PhillyBlog.com a series of posts denigrate the place, but then a writer with the screen name Jayfar volunteers a fuller picture. "As one of the former, long-term 'vagrant' residents of the Parker (about five years total in two stretches during the '80s), I'm wondering how someone paying $115 to $156 per week is considered a vagrant," he writes. "Or perhaps you mean people with low incomes. This vagrant was working a full-time job while living there."
Count Guinn among those who think the Parker represents an important piece of Philadelphia's history--and its present. He enjoys a unique view of the place because he serves as the judge of elections in the 5th Ward, 11th Division, which includes the Parker. According to his records, 81 people with the hotel listed as their home address are currently registered to vote. Those are people seeking to take part in the city's life--not drop out.
"It's now one of the last places in town where you can live at a moderate income," says Guinn. "All these places have been turned into condominiums, and who knows when the Parker won't do that as well?"
Would Neil Carver sell? Well, that's one of several questions he seems disinclined to discuss. His family life is another (in one of this story's more ironic grace notes, his wife Ellen served as a spokesperson at the Four Seasons). He also seems a bit shy about discussing the hotel's occupancy rates or what role the income he derives from it played in his decision to retire from criminal defense work in about 1988.
So what about selling?
"I don't really want to talk about that," he says.
PW's Summer Guide 2014