The last resort: More and more Americans are calling long-stay motels home

In recession-gripped America, society's most vulnerable find themselves living in long-stay motels, writes Guy Adams.

Guy Adams
Saturday 03 September 2011 00:00

A long way down the US housing ladder, beneath the grisly 'projects' of The Wire and the trailer parks hymned by Eminem, beneath the slums of New Orleans and the ghettos of Detroit, you'll find the long-stay hotel. Cheap, not very cheerful, and pretty much a last resort, these institutions provide four walls and a roof, for a few hundred bucks a month. It's some of the cheapest accommodation you'll find anywhere in the US, aside from a cardboard box.

Long-stay hotels can be found in almost every major American city. They offer none of the privacy of trailer parks, and even less of the permanency. Guests make do with postage stamp-sized rooms, paper-thin walls, and nylon sheets. You'll rarely find them listed in tourist guides, even the section of a Lonely Planet devoted to 'rock-bottom dives'. Staying in one isn't exactly what you might call a holiday. It is, however, an experience. So says Kalpesh Lathigra, whose compelling photo-essay on the Wilmington Hotel in Long Beach, Southern California, is published on these pages.

A British documentary photographer, he stumbled upon the place while looking up relatives during a family holiday to Los Angeles (it is owned by his uncle, Bachu), and has since re-visited for extended periods, building close relationships with its most colourful and well-established residents.

"The hotel is one of those places with a feel that you know just has to be recorded," he says. "There's something in the ether. I remember walking in for the first time, and straight away realising that it had this weird character that cried out to be photographed.

"The carpet looked like it was bought in the 1970s. The doors are this ugly blue. My idea of American hotels and motels was of a place where you came and stayed for a night or two. But here, every room was occupied by someone who had been living there long-term. It felt like one of those places that has a real story to tell."

Lathigra's images capture some of the unlovely realities of life at the $150-a-week Wilmington, which is situated a stone's throw from the industrial fug of Long Beach port, and a half-hour's drive from the mansions of Beverly Hills and the Hollywood sign. They show peeling paint, filthy curtains, and nicotine-stained walls – not to mention the battle-scarred men and women who have ended up inhabiting the building's 30-odd rooms.

Every long-stay hotel revolves around rules. Residents must forego drugs (though alcohol is allowed). They must pay their rent on time, and agree not to hog the shared bathrooms. Every 28 days, so as not to breech hotel licensing rules, they must clear everything out of their rooms, and check in all over again. There is no room service and chambermaids are non-existent: guests make their own beds and wash their own sheets.

Yet for all the superficial grimness, there is also a tangible sense of community to the Wilmington. Residents adorn their rooms with rudimentary tokens of homeliness, from family photos to kettles, computers, televisions, stoves and objets d'art.

They build relationships, looking after neighbours' children and watching each other's backs. You'd be hard pressed to call their situation happy, but most hold out hope for a better future, and still buy into the American dream.

"A lot of them have come from broken families, or bad situations. And this is what they're left with. It's pretty much the last resort, the only one they could afford," says Lathigra.

"But they still have good relationships, play together, listen to music, and party. There's a weird dynamic: people keep their doors open and neighbours can walk

in and make themselves at home. You could say that they rely on each other for family."

Every resident has a story. Mike, known as 'Jesus of Wilmington', was working as a roofer, but lost his job in the 2008 recession. He is currently doing casual jobs in Long Beach port, hoping to save enough to buy a truck and get his career back on track.

Sandra, who suffers drug and alcohol problems, recently had the children in her photograph taken into care until she can complete a course of rehab. Ron, the dapper gentleman standing in a hallway, is a former war hero who can barely scrape by on his Air Force pension.

"I love America, but there's this side to it that's never mentioned to you, and I hope these photos capture that," says Lathigra. "Here's a place, a short drive from the Hollywood Hills, where you have people eating spaghetti four nights a week because it's all they can afford. The US is such a seductive, successful, wealthy society, but it also has these big cracks, and I guess this kind of place shows people fall through them all the time."

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