Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel
by Tricia Dower
In keeping with my practice of not covering something until most everyone else has read or seen it, I highly recommend the 2007 documentary Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel. It won a 2008 Gemini Award for filmmakers Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham. You might have seen the film on TVOntario or at a film festival. If not, you can catch it on Bravo Canada this April 16 at 9 pm EST.
Colin and I attended Victoria’s first screening of it on Monday as part of a homelessness series. Included was a live telephone interview with Roemer after the film in which he talked about how it came to be and answered audience questions. We had visited the Gladstone once for a charity event before the former flophouse became the boutique hotel and arts showplace it is now. I recognized in the film the rough looking lobby with its “No visitors after 10 pm” sign and the dark, uninviting staircase leading to the rooms. Here’s how Roemer and Graham summarize the film:
In 2000, developers purchase the crumbling, century-old Gladstone hotel to turn it from a skid row flophouse into an arts hotspot. They think it's empty... until they meet Marilyn, the chambermaid with a heart of gold; Shirley Ann, the cynical front desk clerk; and a motley crew of residents, including Maryanne, an ex-bag lady with a sweet personality who has turned her room into a toxic zone. The developers come up with a plan: gradual restoration that would see staff and residents remain upstairs while the bar downstairs stocks designer drinks. It doesn't work. Christina Zeidler inherits the mess and is committed to a "business model that includes social change," but the hotel has the last word. City inspectors demand complete rewiring, the boiler blows up leaving the hotel without heat, ceilings leak, walls are crumbling, and everybody's gotta go. Shot over five years with a cinema direct style, the directors have crafted a riveting and extraordinary human portrait of the effects of urban renewal upon the poor and the unintentional roles artists play in the process of gentrification.
The Gladstone Hotel was built in 1889, and still calls itself the oldest continuously operating hotel in Toronto. Graham and Roemer were regulars at the hotel bar before it became “cool.” They thought it would be interesting to document what was about to happen to the building and the low-income residents who called it home.
The film made me reflect on three things:
How market forces conspire against the disadvantaged: Colin and I paid $1,200 a month to rent a three-bedroom semi-detached house in the Beaches in 1988. Even taking inflation into consideration, there’s nothing fair about Maryanne paying the same in 2000 for a single shabby room with no bathroom in a run-down hotel (and her rent went up to $1500 a month under the new ownership). Because she and other Gladstone residents weren’t mentally and socially equipped to take advantage of better options the owners had no incentive to keep the hotel in good condition and to provide tenants with decent accommodation.
How our desire for gentrification disturbs whole communities of people who don’t fit with a lifestyle of galleries, jazz brunches, lattes and smoothies: Rates for rooms at the Gladstone, renovated and designed by local artists, now range from $125 to $375 per night. (You can see them here.) We’re dealing with this issue in Victoria right now where the city doesn’t want the “blight” of the homeless erecting tents in public parks, yet provides no better alternative than unsafe and unwelcoming shelters.
What the film can teach me as a writer: (1) The filmmakers spent over five years making it, earning sufficient trust from the owners, employees and residents to present with candor and emotion a compelling and dramatic narrative arc. I’m in the beginning stages of a novel right now and trying to develop the patience to allow my characters to trust me enough to reveal themselves and their stories. (2) The filmmakers took an objective approach, presenting the story without overt judgment. Depending on your own perspective, you may come away thinking the owners did only what good business practice dictates, you may find them callous, or something else entirely. It’s a lesson for fiction writers: let your readers come to their own conclusions about your characters and their decisions. (3) The filmmakers started filming without knowing for sure what they would get. They were available and persistent, open to what might come along. The same holds true for writers as we set out to create characters and tell their stories. We don’t know for sure if we’ll end up with something worthwhile but we stay the course and keep ourselves open to the surprising opportunities that might present themselves.
You can see the film trailer here.
Photo: Former Gladstone Hotel resident Maryanne Akulick