When New York City is at its bleakest, that’s when Ian Schrager tends to shine.
There was 1977, the Summer of Sam. A serial killer prowled the boroughs. Times Square was a cesspool. Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” might as well have been a documentary film. After dark, people were terrified to go outside. That’s the year Schrager and partner Steve Rubell decided to open a nightclub on Manhattan’s forlorn West Side.
“The West Side was like no-man’s-land, like bombed-out London in the ’40 and ’50s,” Schrager recalled. “Just an unseemly, dangerous place where nobody wanted to go. One of the reasons we went there was because there wouldn’t be any problem with the neighbors.”
Studio 54, they called their club, and New York nightlife would never be the same.
“When times are bad, people always seek out an escape — always,” Schrager said, the Brooklyn in his voice only partly sandpapered away by decades of Vanity Fair adulation and gossip-worthy friends. “I opened my first hotel under Ronald Reagan when interest rates were 21, 22%. So, I learned very quickly what Tiger Woods said about golf, that winning takes care of everything. The vagaries of the economy just don’t matter when you go to market with a good product.”
With his first flurry of New York hotels — Morgans, the Royalton and the Paramount — Schrager invented the modern boutique hotel. With the Delano in Miami and the Mondrian in West Hollywood, he defined urban resort. After selling his expanded Morgans Hotel Group in 2005, he turned his attention to high-end residential buildings including Manhattan’s 40 Bond and 50 Gramercy Park North, then began rethinking hotels all over again.
Just in time for New York’s latest slap upside the head.
Battered by COVID-19 and squeezed by empty offices, missing tourists and rising crime, even some lifelong New Yorkers have started sputtering: “New York is over! Who needs it anymore?”
“Ridiculous!” Schrager scoffs. “New York is forever. And I don’t believe in paradigm shifts. We haven’t had one of those since Noah and the Great Flood. We always go back to living the way we lived before. Always. I don’t have any data. I can’t tell you when. But I felt that way in March of last year, despite what all the experts and pundits were saying. No. We will absorb this shot. We will move on. Even 2008, when we almost went into a financial meltdown, a few years later, what happens? Everybody goes back to what they were doing.”
It’s all just a matter of riding the wave.
Schrager’s current wave is something called the PUBLIC hotel, which he describes as a new approach to luxury hospitality, a luxury almost anyone can afford, at least every once in a while.
The 367-room PUBLIC Hotel New York, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron with minimalist interiors by British designer John Pawson, is a contemporary 28-story building at 215 Chrystie St. on the Lower East Side near the Bowery, another New York district not always known as a tony destination. As at most hotels, the rates bounce around a bit depending on occupancy. But they’re hovering in the $200s, not the $500s and $600s that some high-end New York hostelries demand.
“You know luxury is not only for rich people,” Schrager said. “Luxury is a state of being, a state of mind. It’s about feeling comfortable and having the freedom of time and being treated very kindly and in a very friendly way, rather than being inundated with all these telltale things from the past. White gloves. Gold buttons. Bone china. Who needs all those luxuries from Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries? That doesn’t cut it anymore.”
Today, Schrager said, hotel guests want to check in quickly and get up to their rooms. They want the cappuccino now and don’t care if it’s served in a china cup and saucer. They want fast Wi-Fi. They’re happy to carry — or more likely roll — their own suitcases to the room. “Suitcases have wheels now,” Schrager said. “Why do you need one person to unpack your car for you and someone else to bring your luggage to the room, when you’ll have to tip both of them $5? We’d rather focus on the service that matters.”
Now that the post-pandemic visitors are finally returning to New York — vacation and business travelers — his hotel is buzzing again, Schrager said. “I do think the pandemic has made people think about what’s important to them. There is a more spiritual understanding of what matters.”
Schrager is also in business with Marriott International
having partnered with the company on its new luxury-lifestyle line of EDITION Hotels. “We’re doing about 40 of them around the world,” he said. “I don’t build them. I don’t purchase them. I just create them.”
But the PUBLIC is his. “I think this is the future of the industry, to be able to provide a really sophisticated product with exciting food and beverage and entertainment options and great service that’s available to anybody. People aren’t stupid. They know the real thing when they see it.”
The plan, he says, is to “do 10 of them over the next five years and then sell to someone who can do a hundred.”
Then, Ian Schrager can go create something else.
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.