Sunday, December 30

The Broadway Hotel

Last night we stayed at the Broadway hotel on the main strip of Phillipsburg, Montana. The town of Phillipsburg, once the hub of a successful mining operation, has dwindled to only a fraction of its former size. Some of the residents have even taken on the slogan, "greatest living ghost town." Yet in the last few years, the town has capitalized on both its history and scenic location to transition into a tourist enclave. When the old Broadway hotel, which had not been functioning as a hotel for about a hundred years, was restored, the town took another step in the direction of revitalization.

The Broadway sits right in the center of town. Kenneth Jackson has pointed out that this was the norm for its time,

"In the middle of the nineteenth century, every city, every county seat, every aspiring mining town, every wide place in the road with aspirations to larger size, had to have a hotel. Whether these structures were grand palaces in the order of Tremont House in Boston of New York's Fifth Avenue Hotel, or whether they were jerry-built shacks, they were typically located in the center of the business district, at the focal point of community activities. To a considerable extent, the hotel was the place for informal social interaction and business, and the very heart and soul of the city."

Yet all of that changed in the 20th century. First, camping locations began to pop up along the highways in order to attract passing motorists before they entered the town. Eventually these were replaced by motels, lodging that was specifically designed around the needs of the automobile. And the motel market was increasingly dominated by major chains that could ensure a standardized reliability, which also effectively dampened the uniqueness of the local context. By the latter decades of the century, the transition was in full swing. According to Jackson, "by 1960 there were 60,000 motels, a figure that doubled again by 1972. By that time an old hotel was closing in America every thirty hours." This reality rings true especially to anyone who lives in a Western town.

While the places to stay in a city were shifting from the center to the periphery, they were simultaneously shifting from places that fostered social interaction to private and anonymous way-stations. This is even evident from the original floor plan of the Broadway, which was kept intact during the renovation. The rooms are all clustered around a central gathering place, with an inviting stove and plenty of tables and chairs. An open kitchen also sits in a central location and is used by employees and guests alike. The new Broadway, of course, has private bathrooms in each room, but I doubt that was always the case. The entire experience encourages at least a "hi" to the strangers staying with you.

What does the location of a hotel say about how a city treats its strangers? Are they welcomed into the "very heart and soul of the city," able to walk throughout the downtown to many of its attractions? Or are they pushed to the edges?

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