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Where Elvis Meets Jesus: The Surprising World of Big City Hostels in the Wake of the Great Recession

A writer and media professional is hit by the recession and gets a glimpse of another America.
 
 
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Remember your parents’ hostels – those youth tourist dorms where 10pm curfews reigned, and pancakes and morning chores were the order of the day? That world has changed. You’ll still find backpackers from afar. But as effects of the economic downturn linger, temporary domestic inhabitants are on the scene, and even more often, long-term residents who are unemployed or underemployed, transitioning between cities, or merely saving a buck.

I know. I’m a freelance writer and public relations professional, but due to unexpected circumstances, I spent some time in DC hostels and got a glimpse of a surprising America.

Hostels in the Age of Austerity

It’s early evening at Downtown Washington Hostel, a walkup dorm a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Guests lounge on generous cushions or curl up with laptops as a large TV monitor dominates a room that also serves as kitchen and dining space. The mainly Spanish and German male guests are cackling at the inane slapstick of ABC’s “Wipeout,” a reality show that combines the worst aspects of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Fear Factor.” The guys are savoring every pratfall and absorbing the slang of the announcers and contestants.

The scene is typical of a night in Washington's hostels, where students, young Europeans, Australian and Japanese vacationers, and other intrepid travelers co-exist with an array of Americans whose backgrounds might surprise you. Where else can you encounter a 60-year-old sci-fi novelist, a China-hopping airline pilot from New York with a masters' degree from GWU, an otherwise coherent German who insists he is Jesus Christ, a multilingual terrorist interrogator named Elvis, and a 40-something pianist who was once the toast of Boston’s nightclubs?

Hostel living involves concessions of privacy and property. Food is the first casualty. In the kitchens, guests mark their purchases in Magic Marker, but that system doesn’t work out so well. I highly suspect that the first time my Fig Newtons were eaten, and the empty box placed back atop the fridge, the culprits were among a large group of Spanish students from Carnegie Mellon. The fact that staff prepared a huge Thanksgiving feast did not save my Newtons. About a week later, same routine. 

Often, ordinary conveniences go out the window. While I am not certain what diehards such as Elvis do about their mail, I suspect post office boxes or overnight shipping stores play a role. The one time I asked that something be addressed to me at a hostel, I was never notified of its arrival.

Dealing with these small challenges is an adjustment when you’re new to this world. I lost my apartment last fall, six months after being laid off from a media firm and a month after late and insufficient payments from a freelance public relations client. I turned toward hostel quarters, knowing they were inexpensive, and in Washington, conveniently located for downtown job searching.

Post-recession slumming by professionals in DC hostels has garnered the attention of public officials as it has in New York, where the Bloomberg administration passed a measure that bans rentals that are less than 30 days and makes the use of even one apartment for transients illegal. Prior to the new edict, a majority of a building had to be occupied by transients for it to be declared illegal. "In the past, ambiguities in the law hindered our ability to take enforcement actions against illegal hotels," said Mayor Bloomberg. He has closed a group of short-term "hotels," some raids forcing residents into the street during their stays.

At the McDougal Street Synagogue on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, building owners left clients specific instructions on how to try to subvert the new law, noting in a flyer that inspections may occur and "if you inform the public official that your stay is longer than 30 days, then the public official must leave your residence and should not bother you any further" and "don’t give your receipt of payment to them."

 
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