By Caroline Levander and Mathew Pratt Guter
Are hotels a hotbed of poverty, oppression and danger? Or are they relatively benign institutions of temporary respite, offering the traveler the basic comforts of a minibar, hot shower and clean sheets?
This odd question, perhaps better fit for literary than legal analysis, nevertheless sat at the center of one of the Supreme Court’s most unusual cases during its just-completed term. In a 5-to-4 decision in the case of Los Angeles v. Patel, the court on June 22 invalidated a 116-year-old local ordinance that required hotel owners to hand over simple information about their patrons, gleaned from check-in forms, to law enforcement, even if there was no warrant.
Hotels, wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the majority decision, are “not intrinsically dangerous,” so there was no reason, she concluded, to require a guest book to be handed over without a warrant issued after judicial oversight.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the minority, disagreed, describing hotels as “an obvious haven for those who trade in human misery.” Such places, he inveighed, “provide housing to vulnerable transient populations” and “are a particularly attractive site for criminal activity ranging from drug dealing and prostitution to human trafficking.” They offer “privacy and anonymity on the cheap,” have been “employed as prisons for migrants” and served as “rendezvous sites where child sex workers meet their clients on threat of violence.”
These strongly divergent opinions, and the closeness of the decision, highlight the way hotels have long occupied a gray area in American life. According to the historian A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, the author of “Hotel: An American History,” hotelkeepers have long struggled to control and purify the experience of an overnight stay, a struggle that pitted them against a veritable horde of “adulterers, seducers and prostitutes,” “burglars and confidence men” who gravitated to the hotel because of the anonymity and temporary cover it provides.
In the 1890s, the Pinkerton detective agency distributed “wanted” posters to hotel front desks, to be placed on top of the handwritten ledger. The posters often obscured the names of guests in the ledgers from public view and helped hotelkeepers survey their clientele, ensuring that no criminals were in their rooms. The detectives were hot on the trail of Harry Longabaugh, the criminal better known as the Sundance Kid, and his lover Etta Place, a well-known burglar. And, indeed, the pair frequented countless hotels, from Utah to St. Louis to Fort Worth.
As the 20th century opened and Americans grew ever more transient, hotels became a centerpiece for concern about vice crimes. People might live in a hotel for months on end before moving on, or they might be gone in a day. The opportunity for crime, perpetrated by or against the hotel guest, was not entirely illusory, either. The Los Angeles ordinance at issue in the Patel case, along with others like it around the country, came out of a nationwide anti-vice campaign, a campaign rooted in concern about seedier hotels, their rooms rentable by the hour, available for quick hookups and hits.
A hotel’s private rooms are not its only, or even its most, dangerous spaces. Since the 1820s and ’30s, when grand hotels like the Astor House in New York, the National Hotel in Washington and the Tremont Hotel in Boston emerged on the urban scene, hotel lobbies have been the places of chance encounter and planned assignation, places where high-end prostitutes went trolling for affluent businessmen and identity theft in the form of pickpockets was rife.
In 1836 a writer for The New York Mirror described them as places where a chaotic collection of people and illicit agendas met and mingled — places that drew “the beau, the belle, the merchant and the scholar, the poet, the editor, the Wall-Street broker, ladies to meet their lovers, and tradesmen” looking to finalize a deal.
But if hotels have long been places of sin, they are also places of possible salvation. The first Gideon Bible appeared in a Montana hotel in 1908, a result of the efforts of a small, self-appointed group of Christian traveling businessmen, who saw the hotel as a place full of opportunity for Christian witness.
Over the last 100 years the Gideons International has placed close to two billion Bibles in hotel rooms across the United States and in more than 100 other countries. Ceremoniously presented with these Bibles, the managers of newly opened hotels place them in night stands, a quiet offering, it is hoped, of moral strength to the tempted traveler.
Whether in a rented room or a crowded lobby, the hotel fascinates us because it sits at the intersection of public and private life. People will always find some of these opportunities to be threatening or dangerous — which means that the hotel will continue to be a hotly contested place, long after the Supreme Court’s decision.
Caroline Levander, a professor of English at Rice University, and Matthew Pratt Guterl, a professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown, are the authors of “Hotel Life: The Story of a Place Where Anything Can Happen.”
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.