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Change checks in at a skid row hotel

Times Staff Writer

Check-in at the Cecil Hotel had to wait a few minutes because Kerri Torrance, the clerk working the graveyard shift one night in November, had to deal with a heist.

A man staying on the 10th floor had called down to report that a woman had grabbed his money and bolted.

After the woman dashed through the lobby and burst out the front doors onto Main Street, Torrance called police while a handful of guests waited.

“She’s right out there . . . you see . . . well . . . he said they were doing drugs, cocaine or something,” Torrance told police officers.

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Then she cupped the receiver and mouthed, “I’m sorry, just a minute.”

This was not the type of greeting the new owners of the Cecil desire as they try to “re-brand” the 80-year-old hotel between 6th and 7th streets. “We are not a missionary, we are not a halfway house, we are a tourist’s hotel,” Torrance explained.

In its early years, the Cecil and hotels such as the Million Dollar, the Alexandria and the Rosslyn catered to the city’s elite out-of-town visitors, and lavish parties were held in their grand ballrooms.

When the wealthy abandoned downtown during the Depression, the Cecil and others like it became residential hotels that for generations housed those who were one step above homelessness.

But downtown is becoming a hip destination again, and these hotels are sought by developers who say they can turn a profit by luring university students, working professionals and tourists.

A few weeks before the drug robbery, the new owners of the Cecil removed the fuzzy bulletproof glass from the check-in window. Dozens of new lightbulbs glow from antique chandeliers that hang from high ceilings in the renovated lobby.

Torrance said the robbery was unusual -- remnants of the “old” Cecil Hotel.

That “old” Cecil had quite a reputation. In the 1940s, it was one of the first public meeting places for Alcoholics Anonymous. It was later the sometime home of serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez, and is included on a bus tour of eerie Los Angeles crimes.

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Some long-term residents, such as 77-year-old Saverio “Manny” Maniscalco (14 years) and 30-year resident Michael Sadowe, still call the Cecil “The Suicide” because over the years a number of people have plunged to their deaths from the building.

But the real crime now, skid row activists say, is that longtime residents can’t afford the higher rents. One group, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, has sued owners of the Alexandria Hotel over what they allege are prejudiced and illegal housing practices. Earlier this month, one of the group’s supporting law firms sent a letter to the new owners of the Cecil, saying that they must stop their redevelopment or face similar legal action.

But the Cecil’s owners say they are not halting their effort to revive the hotel, which they bought last summer for about $26 million. They have promised to spend an additional $9 million on renovations.

A branding firm hired to recast the hotel’s image even came up with a possible new name: the Pearl.

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“There’s been a big turnaround of clientele, we’re getting so many more tourists,” Torrance said. “We are changing with downtown, we are changing with the times.”

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The website booking.com gives the Cecil two stars -- by comparison, the Best Western Hollywood Hills Hotel on Franklin Avenue gets three stars -- and says “if you want to stay at a fun, colorful hotel in an up-and-coming trendy loft area, with cool restaurants and hip shops, you can stay in one of Cecil Hotel’s 600 rooms, and save big bucks.”

Rooms usually cost $50 to $60 a night, depending on whether guests want their own bathrooms. Larger suites can cost about $100 a night.

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But the rates vary depending on which website is used to book the rooms or whether guests have affordable-housing vouchers. When asked what the rates are, Torrance said they are “moderate” and “appealing” but would not give exact prices.

Fresh Monet, Picasso and Kandinsky posters hang on the vivid yellow, red and blue walls next to the elevators on each floor. But around the corner, reality hits: The rooms are small, bugs scamper across the floors and in the dim hallways, one sometimes encounters guests who have been using drugs or alcohol. Fred Cordova, the hotel’s new owner and director of the building’s renovation, said more changes are coming.

He pulled out a map showing buildings north and east of the Cecil that in recent years had been converted into lofts or downtown attractions for the middle class. The Cecil was the last in a string of developments leading south down Main Street.

“There is a great need for quality affordable housing downtown,” Cordova said. “It’ll be classy.”

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Cordova hired a security firm for the Cecil to replace guards who had carried chemical Mace, handcuffs and batons.

The new guards wear crisp blue blazers and dark khakis, carrying only a walkie-talkie and badge.

“These suits have gotten us a lot of respect from the public,” said Brandon Foster, head of security at the hotel. “It’s a lot less threatening when we approach people.”

Cordova said that before he purchased the Cecil it was a haven for drug dealers, who would move in for a month and rent rooms for their clients to smoke and shoot up.

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“Paramedics were always showing up,” Cordova said. “It was just ridiculous.”

To make room for new clientele, Cordova worked closely with the Los Angeles Police Department, giving officers access to the hotel and residents that he said previous owners had denied.

Foster said it boiled down to “getting a lot of knuckleheads out of here.”

Capt. Jodi Wakefield of the LAPD’s Central Division remembers that when she began her job downtown three years ago, there were frequent calls to the Cecil -- most involving drugs and prostitution.

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“Now the Cecil very rarely comes across my desk as a concern,” Wakefield said. “They have been very receptive to our requests, and it seems to be working.”

Cordova described his new, hypothetically “perfect” customer as a middle-class tourist looking to stay downtown inexpensively.

That means he’s going to have to persuade people such as 24-year-old Nicole Jackson, who was in L.A. recently to see the Spice Girls kick off their reunion tour at Staples Center.

“My friend and I needed a cheap place to stay,” Jackson said after getting out of an airport shuttle in front of the Cecil. “I didn’t really want to stay here because of the area . . . but I went on Hotwire and put in the price and was stuck.”

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She was visiting from Columbus, Ohio, where she is a graduate student in history, and said the Cecil reminded her of the bohemian youth hostels she encountered while traveling in Europe, with communal showers and bathrooms, and prevalent drugs and alcohol.

After checking in, she settled for a pre-made cold turkey sandwich from the cafe below, smoked a cigarette and looked around.

Jackson said she was pleasantly surprised when she entered the hotel, but changed her mind after she went up to her room.

“The entranceway is unbelievably amazing, and then I turned the corner and was like, ‘whoa!’ ” she said.

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Maniscalco and other longtime residents of the Cecil say the hotel and surrounding blocks are safer. But Maniscalco doesn’t kid himself; he knows the improvements were not devised with him in mind.

Management has moved him twice in recent months, but so far he hasn’t taken the hint. “Where else am I going to go?” he said.

He arrived on skid row in the 1970s after working odd jobs around the country and falling into alcoholism. He says he’s been sober for years -- and feels that the stability of the Cecil has helped keep him on the straight and narrow.

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He collects about $900 a month from Social Security, paying $471 for rent.

“This is my last stop,” he said. “I don’t have anywhere else. No family or nothing.”

Maniscalco knows that tourists are paying higher rates and said that in recent months airport shuttles and charter buses have been dropping off dozens of travelers at the hotel.

Cecil employees say that over a month, a tourist may pay about twice as much as a low-income resident.

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Alvin Taylor has lived at the Cecil for 25 years. Unlike Maniscalco, Taylor said he refused managers’ requests to move out of his room on the 10th floor.

His room, which in a typical house would be about the size of the dining room, is packed with belongings, including three 27-inch televisions, each hooked to a VCR. “I watch everything,” Taylor said.

Last Christmas, Taylor went back to Texas -- “I gotta see my momma,” he said -- one of the few times in the last decade that he has stayed overnight anywhere other than the Cecil. Taylor moved to Los Angeles from Houston in the 1970s when he was diagnosed with leukemia, and thought the weather and doctors would be better in Southern California.

He’s been downtown since, mostly unemployed and on disability.

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He said that soon after new owners took over the hotel, maintenance crews came to work on some pipes in his room. As they began, Taylor said cockroaches flooded out of a hole in the wall. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I’ve got roaches.”

Maniscalco and Taylor are among 90 to 110 long-term residents -- depending on who is counting -- and both said they are worried about rising rates and eviction.

Last fall, the two men walked a few blocks down Main Street to tell Pete White and Becky Dennison of the Los Angeles Community Action Network about their problems with the Cecil’s new owners.

“I think they want us to move for one reason,” Taylor told White. “Because they don’t want us to be residents. They’re trying to turn it into a tourist attraction.”

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Cordova said he is staying within the law and paying little attention to complaints from the community group.

He said his ambitions are reasonable and that he has no illusions about the neighborhood.

Still, he promises that the Cecil’s makeover will continue and said he is seriously considering renaming the venerable hotel “the Pearl.”

“Because the world is your oyster,” he said, showing sketches of what the new name would look like on the side of the building. “Maybe we’ll get a third star.”

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com


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