Checking into "The Dirtiest Hotel in America"

TripAdvisor, a popular site where hotel guests review places they've stayed, has released its list of the 2009 Dirtiest Hotels. The results make you queasy enough when you read them on your computer monitor. But a blogger from our sister site, Gadling, took the brave step of checking into the "dirtiest" winner, New York City's Hotel Carter, to see just how bad it was.

His tools weren't what you'd call scientific. No lab equipment, no swabs or petri dishes -- just a home-made hazmat suit and a mask for comic effect, and a blacklight that would reveal any bodily spillage. Not doing lab work is a bit unfair to a place that holds the title of "Dirtiest," but the blogger confirmed what he could: That the Hotel Carter is off-the-scale grim. Anyone can tell at a glance that the "sorrowful" Hotel Carter, although apparently feces-free, is nowhere you'd even want to spend the night, let alone a dollar. That is, unless you consider "crusty brown spots," a "dirty vent," and "the perfect place to commit suicide" to be amenities.

After reading his wrist-slitting account and quickly flipping through his Flickr photo set the way you might cruise past a bad accident on the highway, two things become clear. The first is that although he didn't prove that the Hotel Carter was indeed dangerously dirty, he did prove that it was hopelessly depressing.

The second thing you realize is that America lacks hygiene standards for our hospitality industry. We have them for food, restaurants, and for pharmaceuticals, but if a hotel is disgusting or even dangerous, there's not much pressure to force it to change beyond rumors that spread among prospective customers through sites such as TripAdvisor (and those sites are anything but consistently reliable). Clearly, when residue from meth labs is lingering in our hotel rooms, the market isn't a strong enough detergent.

A hotel doesn't have to have high prices, or even art on the walls, to be clean. I've stayed in places that lack furniture in India, ones with only a transom for a window in Malaysia, and even underground in former opal mines in Australia. But they were all clean. I had only one tool to forewarn me which ones to avoid: a good guide book.

The 700-room Hotel Carter was noticed among America's countless horror shows because it's in Times Square, a prime tourist district where plenty of unsuspecting tourists make the mistake of booking it. (If you want to be one of them, or if you're in the mood to clean something, it costs only $105 tomorrow night. Or, if you want, you can stay at the Hotel St. James two blocks away. You might recognize that hotel as the terrifying slumhole where Tom Hanks checked in the night he became a grown-up in Big. According to TripAdvisor, that one has cleaned up its act since 1988, and these days people actually like it.)

Whether or not there's anyone (journalist or civil servant) actually counting the bacteria in our hotel rooms, the country is crawling with scummy sleepers. For every fleabag hotel that gets a review on TripAdvisor, there are eight more flophouses that receive no notice whatsoever -- and I have already written about how expensive hotels can be just as dirty, only they're much better at hiding the filth.

Walk down, say, Larkin Street in San Francisco's Tenderloin, or hit the pillow-based torture chambers east of Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles, and you'll come to realize there's a whole world of miserable hotels out there. Most of us don't see them unless we're on the business end of a heroin needle.
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