The Days Inn in Clarksburg, West Virginia has earned five “sunbursts,” an indicator that it has fulfilled Corporate’s highest quality assurance standards. At its front desk, a sign states that if you live within a 50-mile radius of the hotel, your business is no good there. I asked the receptionist about the reason behind the rule. She said she wasn’t really sure, but “a lot of locals end up destroying the room and stuff.”
The squat, tan building – distinguished only by its shining sun logo – shares a parking lot with the USA Steak Buffet located just off I-79. Less than a mile away is a dormant downtown that is probably livelier on weekdays. The new core of the city has moved a few miles south along the interstate to the Eastpointe Shopping Center – the state’s largest strip mall, a disorienting blob of 80 stores arranged in classic sprawl.
I moved on from Clarksburg after a night at the Days Inn and haven’t been back since. I was their ideal guest: just passing through and with a home more than 50 miles away.
To drive along any interstate in the United States is to become familiar with the limited palette of budget hotel logos: the Comfort Inn and its tri-colored circle with wavy lines; Motel 6 and its blurry, red six; and the generic white text on blue background of the Rodeway Inns and Travelodges. The corporate logos of today are a far cry from the eclectic and original motel signs of previous decades, which lured in travelers with neon cowboys and teepees.
However they might try to brand themselves, roadside lodging falls into the category of what French anthropologist Marc Augé calls “non-place,” or in other words, a place of transit or a temporary abode which “cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity.” Fast cars, trains, and planes have ushered us into an era where our expanding mobility allows us to physically pop in or out of non-places, such as hotels or airports, which do not always leave meaningful impressions.
A scene from Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train comes to mind. Two Japanese tourists travel to Memphis and after checking into a shabby hotel, the male tourist begins taking photos of the room.
Girl: Why do you only take pictures of the rooms we stay in and never what we see outside while we travel?
Guy: These other things are in my memory. The hotel rooms and the airports are the things I’ll forget.
Thus Augé: “The traveler’s space may thus be the archetype of non-place.”
Before the internet and the surge of online review sites, the vast landscape of budget hotels were a bit of a no-man’s land. Despite a healthy amount of pre-internet guidebooks profiling cheap roadside motels, the proliferation of the corporate logo – and its promise of consistent “quality” – seemed to displace the need for personalized reviews of minor, “non-destination” hotels along the freeway. Was there really any difference worth documenting between two Super 8 motels 20 miles apart? And if so, who had the time or desire to catalogue thousands of roadside motels when in all likelihood the traveler would just take what she could get. After all, these cheap motels were just resting points on the way to grander locations.
But now, any corporate chain is just as worthy of an online review (if not more) than a luxury hotel. And not always a positive one, either: according to a 2011 report from the market research firm PhoCusWright, the number of reviews of two and three star hotels on online review sites has increased, while reviews of four and five star hotels have declined.
Now, the most minor details of a $50-per-night hotel stay are documented and shaped into stories, giving the most forgettable chain hotel a semi-permanent presence online. We see hotel identities emerge at a local level beyond a brand, and with such detailed reviews, I wonder if our stays at cheap hotels are as impressionless as the concept of non-place would have us believe. With each review we give identity and texture to places that were deemed unworthy of such attention decades before.
I first experienced this when I read about the Leland Hotel in Detroit on TripAdvisor. Though I had been to Detroit once and had never visited the Leland, I became engrossed in reading travelers’ descriptions online. In short, it’s one of the misfit hotels of the world that, shunned by tourists, caters instead to black markets, partiers, and renters.
Up until 2006, the Leland, an impressive Beaux Arts structure built in 1927, operated under the name Ramada Inn Downtown Detroit. Then, apparently forcibly, but also in time for the Super Bowl, they dropped the Ramada flag. Oddly enough, when you searched Google for “Ramada Inn Downtown Detroit” two months ago, a reservation page for the Leland was the first hit.
In between the portraits of dejected humanity and stern warnings to other travelers on review sites, the Leland is portrayed as the scariest hotel in the Midwest. Tourists who thought they were booking a night at the Ramada, as opposed to a hotel with a goth-industrial club in the basement, begin reviews on TripAdvisor with:
My night stay at the Ramada Inn downtown Detroit was the worst and most terrifying experience of my life.
The lobby was full of bedraggled people with redoubtable demeanour.
For some, this is the allure of a place like the Leland. Boundaries of privacy and “decency” are in constant flux there, making it appealing to photographers like Chip Willis, who told me that, during a trip to the Leland in 2008, he photographed a nude model in a fully functioning elevator for about ten minutes without objections from anyone.
Every individual room at the Leland embodies a miniature catastrophe. Some reviewers described their stay as traumatic, while others had only “disturbing” encounters, like the man who found this bloody handprint in his room. Other reviewers are confounded by the physical space of the Leland:
There was a locked closet and a sealed door in our room. The sealed door was painted shut and had no handle, it wasn’t going anywhere. The hotel room next to us had the number taken off and was also sealed. I swear at one point I heard 3 distinct taps from that direction, but I never heard it again when I listened.
Still, the Leland is a “survivor,” according to Buildings of Detroit. While movie theaters and shops shut down in its vicinity, the Leland and its 22 stories – though decaying – have remained open for almost a century. In this way, the Leland doesn’t work as a non-place, even if it tried to pass as a Ramada for a few years. Firmly positioned in its local environment and with a history unmatched by any corporate chain, it complicates how we have become accustomed to interacting with hotels in a distant and detached manner. Unlike the hotel in Clarksburg, West Virginia, which banned locals, the Leland wouldn’t have survived without them, even if it has sacrificed a few tourists in the mix.
Just last month, I was traveling through the Midwest en route to Wisconsin and considered a night in Detroit. I was eager to stay at this place, which had such fabled reputation. I called the Leland to check their availability. “Anything open Saturday night?” I asked the receptionist. “No,” she said. “Sunday?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Anything available ever?” She hung up. I stayed at a Motel 6 outside of Toledo instead.
Stairwell photo by Chip Willis