In Living Color

People think they know what the Parker Spruce Hotel holds, but a night in a room there provides a clearer view.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Oct. 25, 2006

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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 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.

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Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. Spencer Starnes said... on Apr 19, 2010 at 10:33PM

“Steve Volk-

I'm trying to reach you to do an interview for a documentary about this marvel of a hotel.

It would be very helpful if I could get into contact with you soon, if you see this, please contact me at

Thank you.
-Spencer Starnes

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2. Mary said... on Oct 1, 2010 at 12:55PM

“What a great article. Being a recent inhabitant of the Lenox building right across the street I have already been witness to plenty of "goings-on" at the Parker, mostly in my half asleep state at 5 in the morning. The most shocking occurrence was probably my first night in my new apartment when I was awoken at 7AM to a woman outside screaming repeatedly "I'll suck yo ---- !!!" It was pretty much verbatim that scene from "Don't Be A Menace." Anyway, great to have some clarification on what exactly the Parker is all about. I have to say, as disruptive and disturbing as the place is, there is definitely a perversely charming old-worldliness about it in the midst of all of the area's gentrification... I guess that's why I never feel truly threatened by it (aaand while writing this I can hear a group of men in the Manning alleyway bickering over a drug deal with numerous expletives... It's 2 PM by the way... gotta love 13th street)!”

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3. Anonymous said... on May 12, 2011 at 10:02AM

“I belive the hotel is a dirt bag of disgrace, I belive my brother was murdered in there and was made to look like he overdosed and fell.
When my mother called to asked about somethings that were missing, them low life scumbags said "we don't keep that fucking shit we throw it out." To a woman that just lost her only son. and according to the pictures that I have seen of this place there is no way of what they said happened, could have happened.. I will find out......”

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4. harv said... on Jul 23, 2013 at 08:13PM

“These scumbags took money from my debit card so watch when you pay your bill The managers are all Indians and very mean since I got ripped off L&I will be making a visit soon with the board of health and they harassed my girlfriend fucking roach infested dump don't stay there you'll get burned What a dump safer on a park bench”

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5. Ben said... on Sep 6, 2013 at 04:22PM

“The cries of horror and prejudiced vitriol at the intrusion of this unsavoury reality into the lives of the 'respectable' are born of fear of the unknown and a failure to realise their own responsibility for the circumstances that end in the lobby of the Parker.

A refuge of last resort that has clung on in a city where tidiness, property values and civility are valued at the expense of the marginalisation of the poor and unlucky is a surprise. It is certainly not good for anyone; not the locals, not the city, and not the residents; but, perhaps, it is less bad than many alternatives.”

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6. JOHN B BARE itt BARRETT said... on Mar 29, 2014 at 12:12AM

“The health of the tenants should be a concern . There only resort for care is the emergency room and that adds to the cost of health care in the long run..

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7. Gustavo said... on May 4, 2014 at 03:34PM

“I.m living in front of the "Parker Hotel" I don' understand why the City give a permission to operation in this neighborhood when many tourist come every day.
Always, every night are problems, people outside the hotel screaming during the night and disturbing all the neighborhood and the residents that as me, need wake up at 6 am go to work.
Where is the owner, they must take responsibility with the "guesses" and not allow them stay during the night standing up and screaming outside the hotel. We deserve respect as other people in this Country, and is not fair that yours "guesses" not allow us, workers" sleep during night.
PLEASE City. take action in this matter and close this place or change to another hotel that enhance our neighborhood.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Oct 21, 2014 at 10:50AM

“The city KNOWS there are drugs being sold on this block. The city KNOWS there is prostitution in this neighborhood. They know it is a mess, but they don't do anything about it.”


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