I had an evening social engagement in Midtown. I probably could have stayed with friends in the outer boroughs, but since I knew I would be coming in late, I didn't want to be an imposition. Instead, I went to HostelWorld.com about a week ago to see what they had available. After scrutinizing the listings and the reviews, I chose Hostel 99 in Harlem. The lowest priced bed was $18.95 in a dorm of 14 beds, but I chose to go First Class and reserved a room with only 6 beds for $21.95.
When I was growing up, Harlem was thought of as a slum. This may have been true in the 1960s but not today. It's now a dense and diverse residential neighborhood indistinguishable from any other in Manhattan. I felt no great risk in walking there, even late at night, but I did feel a little apprehensive about the accommodations. What could I really expect for $20?
In fact, I expected very little. I only wanted a safe place to sleep. I needed a padded horizontal space to myself, hopefully larger than a coffin. If I could get some WiFi and an AC outlet for my computer, that would be icing on the cake. Being accustomed to hostels elsewhere, I was prepared to accept some quirks and the usual initial shock factor. ("I'm going to be staying HERE?!")
The location of the hostel on 129th Street in Upper Manhattan was beyond walking distance to any attractions in Lower Manhattan but an easy subway ride there. The hostel also turned out to be easy to reach by a city bus from Laguardia Airport (M60—always a sardine can), which stopped at 125th Street. (Warning: You need $2.25 to catch that bus at Laguardia, and it must be in quarters!) After a 5-minute walk from the bus stop, this is what I found at the given address....
The hostel is the 3-story brick building on the right. Here is the entrance....
Notice there is only "99" on the door with no indication of a hostel inside. It is a good bet most of the neighbors don't know it exists. This is what you would expect in a hostel in urban America. It wants to attract well-behaved foreign visitors and not local lowlifes, who would turn this sort of cheap accommodation into a drug-addled Skid Row. There have to be barriers, real or perceived. Some New York hostels explicitly exclude locals. (For example, you may need both a passport, to prove your worldliness, AND an out-of-state driver's license.) Hostel 99 doesn't have these restrictions, apparently relying on its anonymity to protect it from the surrounding neighborhood. Since most guests make their bookings through HostelWorld and similar websites, there is no need (or desire) for walk-in traffic.
Immediately inside the front door (which is unlocked), there is a registration desk, manned 24 hours a day...The registration desk occupies what was once the foyer of a 3-unit apartment building. There is one large apartment per floor. The upper two apartments and part of the ground floor one are used for dorms (with the 2nd floor reserved for women and the other floors mixed gender). The public kitchen and dining area is on the ground floor, and in the basement is a TV room/computer room.
The apparent assumption by the owners is that they can make more money by renting $20 beds to a lot of travelers than by renting the apartments as apartments. Naturally, they will want to warehouse as many bodies as they can every night while keeping all of their costs low. Their major cost has to be the labor required to keep this place running 24/7. It has to be a tough business model!
It was mid-afternoon when I checked in. My assigned bed turned out not to be in a 6-bed room as I reserved but a bunk in a 10-bed dorm occupying the living room of the third floor apartment (as pictured at the top of this entry). I wasn't informed of this change and didn't know about it until I reached the room, but I was also charged less than I expected and was happy to have a lower bunk, so I saw no reason to complain.
Or at least I thought it was a 10-bed dorm. After I got back from my social event, this is what I found....With three mattresses on the floor, it was actually a 13-bed dorm! (Probably the "14-bed" dorm offered on HostelWorld.) That was my shock factor for the visit. While I have no objection to cramming a lot of people into a small area, which is what all hostels do, mattresses on the floor seemed to have broken an unwritten rule. When you book a "bed" online, you should reasonably expect a mattress AND a bed frame not in the direct flow of foot traffic.
At the time I came here to sleep, the room was dark, and I sensed the mattresses and the bodies on them only by ESP. I used the light from my BlackBerry™ to navigate from the bathroom to my lower bunk. (Yet another use for that universal device!)
Another problem was inadequate showers and toilets. This single bathroom on my floor served 30+ people (although there were more toilets on other floors)...None of this fazed me for long, since these problems had already been well documented in the hostel's customer reviews at HostelWorld. I was not there as a building inspector, only to spend a safe night as cheaply as possible. For that, there must be compromise. There were no door locks or security to speak of, but my follow travelers were mostly foreign tourists, more than half of them woman, and I felt no safety issues. The hostel was also very clean and reasonably well maintained. In spite of the load conditions, it wasn't a slum or Hell's Kitchen tenement, more like dense military barracks.
Breakfast in the morning was free and consisted of oversize muffins and croissants from Costco, toast, coffee, milk and the usual unidentified orange-colored breakfast beverage (UOCBB) found at other hostels. It was served (or you served it to yourself) only between the hours of 9 and 10 AM, which seemed to be a
sort of capacity control to prevent too many people from eating it. I had a big muffin that would probably have cost me $3 on the street, so I didn't feel cheated. Here was the kitchen/dining area at breakfast...While space was at a premium in the upper floors, there was plenty of it in the basement...There was a big-screen TV but little furniture. There were also pay-per-use computer terminals, available for 10-cents a minute....Some travelers may grumble about having to pay for internet, but I have no objection to the hostel making some money on sundries like this. The WiFi was still free, and it was strong throughout the building. I found myself a luxurious little corner in the basement where I could work....That's all I really need: power, WiFi and a dim place to sit. Noise isn't an issue, like from the TV, because I always carry foam earplugs with me. (It's a marvelous noise-canceling technology even better than the electronic kind!)
My bed itself was bigger than some I have slept in, and the sleeping function was accomplished successfully (with no memories of it retained). By the 11am check-out time, I was gone from the hostel and heading out of Manhattan.
Was it $20 well spent? Certainly! In terms of my practical needs, a $200 hotel room couldn't have given me much more. (And they often make you pay for WiFi!) There was no mint on my pillow, but they're fattening anyway.
It wasn't pretty, but it did the job. When I come back to Manhattan, I wouldn't mind staying there again.
©2009, Glenn Campbell, www.Glenn-Campbell.com.