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Wales Story

The NYT has a story today on two women who have lived for 28 years in a rent-controlled apartment in the Hotel Wales. I might not have paid attention were it not for the fact that I’ve stayed at the hotel several times in recent years. I had no idea it accommodated long-term renters. Which it doesn’t, that being the reason there’s a story.

Twenty-eight years ago, Habiba Ali moved from the Y.W.C.A. into Room 320 in the Hotel Wales on Madison Avenue near 93rd Street, with few illusions of grandeur.

“It was a dilapidated old building,” she said the other day. The rent was $225 a week — more than she could afford, but the neighborhood was tranquil, and she would be close to the American woman who had been like a mother to her since she arrived from Pakistan. The ceilings in some rooms were falling down at the time, she said. Her neighbors were mostly older people living on fixed incomes.

Ms. Ali, who reluctantly gave her age as 60, sat on a creamy leather-upholstered chair in the hotel’s elegant second-floor Pied Piper room as jazz played softly in the background. Gone are the old mattresses, broken furniture, sinks and bathtubs that filled the room when she first moved in; gone are the old neighbors, too. Gone, even, are several generations of renovations.

But Ms. Ali and her roommate, Pamela Downing, who came to “crash” with Ms. Ali for a few weeks in 1985, have remained. In a hotel that has spiffed up, changed clientele, changed ownership several times, changed décor about as often — where various owners have offered them tens of thousands of dollars to leave and once, they said, tried padlocking their door — they have been a rare constant, coexisting in peace or disharmony in the unrenovated 450 square feet for which they now pay a rent-stabilized sum of $1,135 a month, utilities and weekly linen service included.

The hero of the story is Bernard Goldberg, who bought the building in 1988 and turned it into a boutique hotel. He moved everyone else out through offers of money and help finding alternative apartments, but Ali and Downing stayed. “There’s a certain elegance to them,” he explains. “They’re very gentle and cultured. Maybe their clothes are not as expensive, but they were always well groomed. It was really nice to have them. They’re the only guests that I really miss.”

The Wales is on Madison and 92nd, if you’re looking for a place in the neighborhood. Guests receive (or they did) a free breakfast in the large sitting room on the second floor that is pictured above, with fruit, yogurt, bagels, bread, pastries, and beverages. It’s a relaxed, low-key place, sitting atop two excellent restaurants. For those looking for a fuller breakfast, there’s Sarabeth’s East, which also offers a full dinner menu. And around the corner, with an entrance on 92nd, is the Italian restaurant Paola’s, of which Gail and I are especially fond. I must have written about it before. Yes, here.

Across the street is a shop that makes an appearance late in the NYT article.

When asked about changes in the neighborhood, they both mentioned the flower shop and grocer on the corner, in reminiscences as different as the women themselves.

Ms. Ali said she used to go there on midnight ice cream runs, where she would see Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward buying coffee.

Ms. Downing remembered not the customers but the smell of cut flowers wafting from the store into their suite. “Then they boxed it all in with plastic,” she said. “Now we don’t get the smell anymore.” She added, “I don’t like the improvements for the most part.”

We’ve shopped there. Never saw Paul and Joanne, but we know the plastic.

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Categories: Life, Travel
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