It’s the Top Ten list hotels dread. When Trip Advisor released its 2011 roster of the nation’s ten dirtiest
hotels complete with reader-supplied pictures — Cockroaches! Black stuff in the showers! Holes on the bathroom floor! – one New York hotel scored a place of dishonor near the top.
It’s a repeater. Time Square’s Carter Hotel, a fixture on Trip Advisor’s anti-hit list since the list began, is Number Four for the second year straight. That’s an improvement; prior to 2010, the hotel took the top spot with amazing consistency.
We’ve heard horror stories about the Carter for years. A stylish friend from California, booked by a clueless travel agent after she requested a “nice, not too expensive Theater District hotel,” spent a night a couple of years ago. She slept on top of a sheet wrapped in her coat and fled the following morning, relinquishing the rest of her prepaid stay.
Still, not everyone is picky, and the 615-room Carter, a magnet for students, Europeans and tourists on a budget, regularly sells out. It’s undeniably cheap. For years, a sign on the building advertised rates of $99 a night. Miraculously, prices have come down. The hotel Web site currently lists rates from $75 for a single and $84 for a double with private baths.
We decided to stop by the Carter and see what it takes to land on Trip Advisor’s most infamous list.
Off-putting is the word that leaps to mind upon seeing the Carter’s 24-story, tan brick exterior. Its location is impeccable if you want Times Square, but it’s downhill from there. Situated in the middle of a block near Spiderman’s current home, the hotel announces itself with classic red neon letters that spell out, with a few burnouts, HO E CA TE. Pungent cooking odors emanate from the black-and-white tile Lucky Star deli next to the front door.
In years past, you could waltz in through the Carter’s wide glass doors. You can still enter the shabby marble vestibule, a metal chairlift for the disabled anchored to a wall (the hotel got wrist-slapped for being wheelchair inaccessible a while back). But a porter, aka guard, in an ill-fitting black uniform asks to see your key before letting you pass.
We managed to get past him only to be stopped at the front desk. Saying we were meeting friends, the attendant smiled, and we plopped into a large brown leatherish sofa by a glass-topped wood coffee table with part of a leg snapped off. Another uniformed porter paced back and forth between the pay-as-you-go computers and the racks of tourist brochures.
We didn’t notice guards when we wandered into the lobby a few years back. Was their arrival in response to the young woman a cleaning lady found strangled under a king-size bed in 2007?
The lobby, which could have been transported intact from a Soviet-era Moscow hotel, won’t be appearing in Architectural Digest, yet it looked somewhat better than the last time we visited. The wildly patterned rug, while no beauty, looked new as did our hulking sofa. A lone flatpanel TV tuned to CNN had replaced the walls of old tube TVs that once made the lobby resemble an outpost of Best Buy, ca 1990.
Still, the overall effect was weird. Big mirrors framed with Christmas lights hug the ceiling. A large, lidless garbage can stands near the elevator.
Behind the check-in desk, battered safe deposit boxes blanket the wall next to a line-up of old-fashioned slots for keys and mail straight out of an old film noir movie. And yet, next to the check-in desk stands a black lacquer Asian screen, an isolated effort at beautification.
But the scrutiny felt stifling. When two strapping men speaking Russian checked in, the porter put their backpacks onto rack and escorted them to the elevator, even though they looked perfectly capable of carrying their own bags.
History can enhance a hotel but not when nearly everything seems unchanged since the day the place opened. The Carter started life as the Hotel Dixie in 1930, the same year as the Waldorf=Astoria. Rooms cost $2.50, and a bus depot was in the basement. In 1977, Tran Truong, a Vietnamese businessman, purchased the hotel. His intent was to create a clean, safe budget property for travelers, he told The New York Times.
Despite Trip Advisor’s deadly verdict, reader comments are by no means universally damning. “Ruuuuuuun unless you like cockroaches and hookers,” declared a reviewer from Hamilton, Canada. But a reviewer in Jerusalem wrote, “If you’re on a tight budget, traveling most of your day, want a central location near the subway in the heart of Times Square, be ready to compromise. It’s not so bad.”
We’re not so sure. If you’re looking for budget digs in New York, we suggest the Pod.