By Robert Langellier
Ken bursts through the front door of the Bel-Aire office wielding a can of wasp spray. The woman who ran in just before Ken is, to understate matters, distressed, and both are screaming at each other. Ken’s round face is red with shouting, and the contrast of his white beard makes him look like Santa Claus from hell. A black-and-white license plate hangs above the office window: “ILLINOIS ROUTE 66 — GET YOUR KICKS —,” it reads.
The woman thinks Ken stole her clothes from the laundry room, so Ken sprayed her with wasp spray in the parking lot.
The motel clerk leaps up from the desk to intervene, and he’s greeted with an eyeful of insecticide. The much younger, smaller man grabs Ken, kicks him in the groin, and hits him over the head five or ten times.
Outside, up the stairs, a small 55-year-old man named Herb Earl hears the commotion and rushes down, bottle of Coke still in hand.
“Herb, stay the fuck out of it!” Ken growls, grappling with the clerk.
Soon Herb has joined the rest of the lobby, clutching his own eye. He sprays Ken back with his Coke and throws the bottle at him, an ineffective but emphatic gesture. Soon, the cops arrive, the melee is broken up, and the security tapes are reviewed.
Charges are pressed.
The clerk is relieved of duty and told to find a new place to live.
He makes bail and returns to his room, where his power has been shut off.
Dust settles. Nobody finds a new place to live.
For episodes like this, and many others, the city of Springfield, Ill. does not like the Bel-Aire. The city has tried to seize, raze, or renovate the ‘60s-style motel for years, accusing its owners of being slumlords. With low weekly rent, absentee owners, and failing infrastructure, the once-proud property is perceived as a playground for 40 or 50 of Springfield’s less-than-reputable characters. Every year or so it resurfaces in pitchfork politics as a problem spot. Let’s scatter the tenants and burn it down!
That’s yet to happen – but no other solutions have ever been offered. The Bel-Aire is a stark example of how cities view poverty not as a deep scar in their community, but as an aesthetic problem. This is not the only low-rent motel in Springfield. In truth, there’s only one reason anyone cares about the Bel-Aire: location.
In 1986 Gopal and Nirmla Motwani bought a proud motel sitting at the entrance into town. Springfieldians know this entrance as Business Loop 55.
Tourists know it as Route 66.
Since the Motwanis’ purchase, the motel has slipped into disrepair. This year it raked in an impressive 1,300 building code violations from city inspectors, a bill worth $114,000 and counting that is still under appeal. Former mayor Tim Davlin’s plan to turn the place into a Route 66 tourism center was interrupted by his suicide in 2010. Whenever the question of resident relocation arises, politicians often cough and mention a “contingency plan” to “address that in the future.” They feign care, but shuffling the cards of poverty is always of more concern to constituents than how exactly those cards are shuffled.
Now it’s true that the Motwanis’ style of ownership is characteristic of slumlords. For years they have managed remotely from Weston, Fla. The rent per room is low, about $170 per week. And maintenance is far from proactive, usually coming only after seizure threats from the city.
But look at it this way: Springfield, like almost every U.S. city that offers housing vouchers, has a Section 8 waiting list that spans multiple years. For the poor, the starting over, and the bureaucratically intimidated, there aren’t many choices. Illinois alone is currently short over 320,000 low-income homes. The Bel-Aire addresses the difficult situation of people across America who float somewhere between homelessness and stable housing.
So what, then, is a slumlord? A villain, or a low-income lessor for the otherwise homeless?
Any city likes to look at itself in the mirror. Springfield is no different. But vanity comes at a cost, one that only the poor can pay. As long as Section 8 housing is full to bursting, Springfield, along with the rest of the country, must recognize its poor as something that makeup won’t erase. And regarding its slumlords, it must ask: What would we do without them?
A young man, Clay, stands on the second-floor balcony looking out across Sixth Street. He rolls a sheet of paper from my reporter’s notepad and pinches in tobacco from a bowl of stubbed-out cigarettes. “Poverty in action,” he says, grinning.
Clay doesn’t talk much with the other residents on his landing. Instead he spends most of his time alone, programming his guitar website and reading. When he does speak, his voice darts.
Lately he’s had a lot of time think about poverty.
He’s been at the Bel-Aire two months, after having bounced around.
“Being poor is, like, really depressing. You can’t do anything you want to do. The people you’re surrounded by are grating. It’s tiring, exhausting. And so you become more likely to do drugs.
“I’m trying to shift up several gears, to go from poverty to making $50 an hour. But I don’t see really a lot of paths to get there right now.” He watches traffic go by on Sixth Street.
[blocktext align=”right”]“People just sort of end up here.”[/blocktext]“People just sort of end up here.”
Clay and many other residents see the motel as a stepping-off point. Very few intend to live at the Bel-Aire permanently. The weekly rent gives people time to bounce back from layoffs, firings, alcohol and drug recovery, divorce, and more — as well as felonies and misdemeanors that make lessors nervous — without having to sign a year-long commitment.
The residents speak brightly of the Motwanis, calling them “Mike” and “Mimi.” Clay describes the compassion required of an alleged slumlord, of sorting through the crazies and the drunks that inevitably pass through, and of letting residents slide who can’t make rent.
Too much compassion can become a magnet for poverty.
“They’re not cold-hearted at all,” Clay says, putting out his cigarette. “No.”
For a few years the city’s dispute with the Bel-Aire has been on the back burner.
Then, on July 2, alderman Cory Jobe turned the heat back up by suddenly and publicly calling on Mayor Mike Houston to close the Bel-Aire within 10 days, or he would seek its forced closure through public nuisance clauses. Jobe is a sleek, young, bald politician with media mojo. He wears polos with his own name on them.
In fact, it just so happens that Jobe was considering a mayoral run in April. A convenient time to pick a righteous, public fight.
City council proceedings for a public nuisance clause began.
A couple weeks after the lobby brawl with Ken, 55-year-old resident Herb Earl is sitting in his room unapologetically drinking Canadian Superior whiskey out of a Welch’s grape juice cup in the middle of the day. He insists that the Bel-Aire is home.
“It’s like a family thing here. If I was running the place, I wouldn’t even kick Ken out. No. I might put him on notice.”
He takes a sip. Herb hopes to take over management of the motel in December.
Because the Motwanis spend most of their time in Florida, someone has to manage the Bel-Aire. For all 20 years they’ve owned the motel, that person has been resident Dominic Marando, a small, hunched man with tired eyes and a husky Italian accent. He’s a close friend of the Motwanis and, as one can glean from what almost all residents say, largely responsible for the motel’s deterioration. In December he’s retiring.
[blocktext align=”left”]The Bel-Aire is a large, dysfunctional family.[/blocktext]Herb is right. The Bel-Aire is a large, dysfunctional family. It operates almost as a tiny independent state, with rules set by Dominic and his friends and enforced by essentially no one. Its frequency of police calls and arrests rival any motel in Springfield. But it functions. This past summer it has been swimming with residents power washing sidewalks, fixing electrical problems, and renovating furniture in a rush to address the scroll of code violations. “Heads up!” a maintenance man yells as an old cabinet crashes down from the second floor.
And its people look out for its own.
When Herb moved into the Bel-Aire in June, a heavyset 34-year-old woman named Debbie Charles checked him in at the front desk. Three days later, she was dead — a blood clot had traveled to her heart. One of Herb’s first impressions of the motel was of 30 current and former residents showing up one evening on the patio for a memorial, with barbeque and drinks included.
Herb has a beef with anyone who has a beef with Bel-Aire. Many residents are unemployed or on disability, but he’s a job and health fair coordinator for the Illinois Department of Human Services, working especially with people on disability. He hands out business cards. He has me take photos of his room — small but perfectly livable, like all Bel-Aire rooms I saw. He frequently inserts his son, his nieces, and his nephews into his conversation: “They are the love of my life.” And he shows me a video of a TV interview he did for WGN in 2011. “You see?” he says, looking up from the screen. “We’re not all destitute here.”
[blocktext align=”right”]That’s how most residents treat the Bel-Aire. Defend it viciously, and move out when you can.[/blocktext]Yet for all his defense of the place, he plans to move out when he can. “I’m not going to be here forever. I’m hoping to get back in a house I used to be in the next street over.” That’s how most residents treat the Bel-Aire. Defend it viciously, and move out when you can.
On Aug. 5, alderman Cory Jobe announced that he was not going to run for mayor as predicted. A sound decision — he wasn’t going to win. He made the announcement in a press conference down the street from the Bel-Aire. Instead, he would be running for reelection in Ward 6, which contains the Bel-Aire.
“We put slumlords on notice,” Jobe announced to the crowd.
Jobe’s initial plan of using public nuisance clauses was pushed through city council, but failed to have any result. As city attorney Todd Greenburg told the State Journal-Register, “We can’t say, ‘We think the current owner is a slumlord,’ and all of the tenants are out on the street. That’s not how code violations work.”
Jobe was not to be daunted. “I’m not giving up on the Bel-Aire,” he said early this summer. “We’ve got to get those residents out of there.”
But if the city succeeds, and the Bel-Aire is shut down or seized, many of its residents will have nowhere to go.
The young man, Clay, bites into a BK Big Fish sandwich. The Burger King down the block is a popular haunt for Bel-Aire residents. Clay defends the motel, but he knows the results of clustered poverty. He speaks softly but quickly.
Poverty is like … an ant lion, he says. An ant lion is a bug that burrows into the sand, flicking sand out to make a cone-shaped hole. Its hole finished, it hides just beneath the surface at the bottom of the hole, waiting. Unsuspecting ants walking by stumble first, then lose their footing completely.
“Ants walk in and fall in and the ant lion eats ‘em,” he says. A second Big Fish sits on Clay’s plate, to go. “They can’t crawl out.”
Alderman Joe McMenamin is the kind of guy who answers his front door of his neat two-story home with his shirt off, red chest hair bared and covered with sweat from afternoon yard work. He has serious, soft eyes and a history of sincerity in local politics. He rarely jokes.
[blocktext align=”left”]“You can’t let a cesspool become a cesspool.”[/blocktext]McMenamin subscribes to the broken window theory: that if one kid breaks a window, and no one fixes it, then all the neighborhood kids will soon come to break windows. You let one bad motel resident stay, whether out of greed or compassion, and word will get out. “You can’t let a cesspool become a cesspool,” McMenamin says.
And the city has to look out for itself. The Bel-Aire sits at the entrance to the state capitol. Scattering its residents might be a mere aesthetic solution, but you don’t show your guests the messiest room of your house first. The stairs are clean on the McMenamin landing, the yard trimmed. McMenamin speaks slowly, weighing each word as it comes out. “It’s important to keep a clean front door,” he says after a long moment.
The front door of the Bel-Aire’s office address reads “2636.” The 6 hangs down loosely at a sideways angle. The door itself is peeling, with strips of paint coming off. The brass knob is faded yellow, with splotches of paint on it.
Above the motel, on the south end, is a sign that reads: “Must Sell / By Owner Due To Sickness / Good Income / Solid Building / $750,000 + City.” Nobody believes the “sickness” line. The Bel-Aire went up for sale right when Cory Jobe laid new heat on it this summer. It’s obvious the Motwanis are trying to cut their losses for the ridiculous sum of nearly a million dollars (“City” = the $114,000+ for the code violations).
The glass on the office door is cross-hatched, with diamond-shaped panes, and unlike the rest of the door’s exterior, it is spotless and clean. You can see right through it.
“Bel-Aire Motel Owner Has Died” read the headline of the State Journal-Register on Sept. 14. The news came as a shock to the city and everyone except anyone who knew him.
Gopal Motwani was reportedly under enormous stress, which was compounded by the drama of the Bel-Aire. He’d had a heart attack already this summer as he was flying to Springfield amidst all the building code violations.
At his own 70th birthday party in Naples, Fla., Gopal collapsed during his son’s toast. He was later pronounced dead of a stroke. His wife, Nirmla, immediately took on full ownership of the property.
The next day, Cory Jobe announced the city would continue to press charges.
Nirmla Motwani, aka “Mimi,” spent a good portion of the summer at the Bel-Aire, supervising extensive renovations of its interior rooms. She’s a flustered, busy woman with a strong Indian accent, and residents treat her like something between a friend and a parent.
One quiet night, a gray-haired woman rode south on Sixth Street on a blue bicycle weighed on both sides by saddlebags spilling over with assorted possessions. She wore layers of coats and a round surgical mask.
Without a word she pedaled across the moonlit parking lot pocked with potholes. Breathing heavily through the mask, she dismounted and set the bike against a square yellow column by a soda machine outside the office. She entered. Inside she exchanged words with Mimi. She had no money.
Mimi acquiesced and let her stay.
Mimi let her stay the next night.
And the next.
And the next.
And the next.
Clay doesn’t know when he’ll be able to move out. Such is the case for many residents who call motels temporarily home. If Cory Jobe has his way, Clay and others could end up anywhere.
Alderman McMenamin raises a point. “I flip through the newspapers, to the classifieds, and I see apartments that say ‘$600 a month.’ If these residents are paying $170 a week to stay at the Bel-Aire, wouldn’t it be cheaper to live in an apartment?”
Clay has an answer to that. Or rather, many answers.
The single-bill, in-house, weekly rent is important. At a motel it includes all utilities. A lot of residents have no transport except for the bus system. Basic things like envelopes and stamps are not convenient to come by. You can’t underrate the value of simplicity. “Some people are semiliterate,” Clay says. “They’re intimidated by processes, they’re intimidated by bureaucrats.”
There’s a grocery store down the street. “Walking a mile with a couple days’ worth of groceries, that sucks. Especially if you’re on disability.”
Simplicity can be addicting. Ants fall into the ant lion hole.
“At the Bel-Aire, you’re unlikely to be arrested, you’re on social security, credit scores are bad, you can’t save up for a deposit …” He trails off. “People that have a $200 electric bill, you have to get that cleared up before you get an apartment, and if you’re making minimum wage, you’re probably never going to save up $200.
“Politicians and people driving by are out of touch. Some people living here are dumb, but they’re not mean or dangerous.”
[blocktext align=”right”]The Bel-Aire averages more than one police call per day…[/blocktext]The Bel-Aire and every motel like it are a drain on city police forces. The Bel-Aire averages more than one police call per day, which costs taxpayers money. There’s some truth to McMenamin’s broken window theory. And maybe Nirmla Motwani is not the best owner in the world. Maybe she is a “slumlord,” and maybe she profits from other people’s poverty. But she also fills a niche no one else is willing to: easy, no-questions-asked low-income housing. Springfield can beautify all it wants. You can shuffle the cards of poverty, but nothing really changes. The same cards are still there.
It’s Saturday, Sept. 20, and Herb Earl has organized a memorial service for Gopal. He’s dressed in finer wear, in rare slacks and a button-up shirt. “Gopal …” he says, getting up. “Don’t call him Gopal. Call him Mike. It doesn’t sound friendly to call him by his real name. His real name is Mike. Call him Mike.”
With gravity he lifts a black satchel off the ground, which contains candles and a black-and-white printout of Gopal’s face transposed over an image of the Bel-Aire. “He’s my best friend,” I remember Herb telling me when I met him. In his other hand is the Welch’s grape juice cup, splashed with whiskey.
Thick clouds have formed overhead.
Down he walks to the parking lot, making his way to the former-swimming-pool-now-patio. Ken, Bel-Aire’s resident Santa Claus, sees me walking with Herb across the lot.
“You illegally trespassing?” he yells. “You trespassing here? You gotta get out. You need to leave here.”
“Hey!” Herb yells back, suddenly alive. “Fuck you, cocksucker!”
“Herb, you better watch out. Your days are numbered, you know that?” Ken smiles.
“Hey, you’re an asshole, Ken.”
[blocktext align=”left”]”You’re goin’ to jail, buddy!”[/blocktext]Herb continues into the fenced-in patio, where he lays down the satchel and whisky cup. After a few moments, Ken rolls by in his maroon, late ‘80s de Ville and leans his elbow and head out. “I just went downtown today, and I put some federal charges pressed on you, Herb. You’re goin’ to jail, buddy!”
“Yeah, you go on. You fuckin’ asshole.”
Ken drives off and is gone. There’s a moment of quiet. Herb turns to a large woman, the only other person on the patio. “Ain’t he an asshole?”
Just then, a body thuds. A woman behind us outside the fence has passed out and hit her face on the velvet interior of a van behind us.
Herb jumps up.
Two men, who were with the woman, stand around her.
“She just fell.”
Herb springs around the fence to her, crouches, puts a hand on her diaphragm. His eyes are wide and proud. She’s flat on her back and staring upward, wearing a brown tank top and sweatpants covered in a pattern of lips.
“Can you breathe?” Herb asks loudly.
“Can you breathe?”
“Can you breathe?”
“Show me you can breathe.”
By now a small crowd has formed. Residents ask if they should go get “Theresa.” A small boy runs around, asking everyone what he can do.
“Napkins! Get me napkins.”
The woman nods at Herb’s questions but remains still.
Apollo Shannon, who claims to be a retired Navy Seal, ambles up. “Hey, bring a pillow. A pillow!” he says to his phone.
One of the men with the woman leans over the seats. “Ey! What’s my name?”
Finally, the woman on the ground laughs. “I know your name!” she says. A wave of relief sweeps the crowd. “I think I feel better now.”
“Must have just passed out,” someone says.
“Well, we gonna get you an ambulance anyway, check you out,” her friend says.
As paramedics pull in, rain starts to fall in light drops.
“Of course it does,” Apollo says under his breath.
The crowd disperses under the light rain, and the service starts. Only five residents out of the motel’s 45 have gathered at the patio picnic table — Herb, Clay, Apollo, Apollo’s wife, and another woman. Someone has brought a 12-pack of Natural Light and distributes them.
Herb pulls out his grainy photo of Gopal and puts it out to be splotched in the rain. The candles are forgotten.
“Our Father,” he starts, “who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Halfway through the prayer the others stumble in and join. Then a silence.
“This is for our friend Mike,” Herb says to the small crowd. “Love that guy. Love him I love him I love him.” He shakes his head. “He’s awesome!”
“Toast!” Apollo adds. Cans of beer are raised.
The clouds have opened for sun, but the rain continues to fall. It sparkles in the lit air. Herb raises his Welch’s cup of whisky, splashed in rain. On it there is the faded image of a little boy playing catch with a blue dinosaur.
Every morning thousands of cars pour down Business Loop 55 in Springfield. From the lake houses south of town come business owners, local politicians, and government workers to downtown offices. From further south, from St. Louis and Oklahoma City and all the way west to Los Angeles, come tourists moving northeast, soaking in the crumbling remains of the once-proud Route 66.
All of these people pass the Bel-Aire on their way into town. They see its tan bricks that have yellowed with age, and they see its yellow pillars that have browned with age. They see a minefield of a parking lot, they see a caving gray roof, they see a deteriorating chain link fence surrounding a swimming pool filled with concrete. They see a fountain that spits no water, a painted seal that stares dryly upward into heaven, and a pink rosary lain around its mouth. They see poor people milling about: dirty people, disabled people, crazy people, broke people, criminals, cheats, complainers, freeloaders, thieves, whores, bottom feeders, drunks, dealers, users, dropouts, and thugs.
In the seconds it takes to drive by, they do not see people striped by poverty. They see only the poverty itself, and the ugliness that comes with it. They see slumlords swimming in a cesspool. Then they see potential; they see knickknacks and sepia tones. They see gift shops and refurbishments. They see revenue. They do not want “old,” they want “vintage.” They see greed in the owners and they turn it back on them. They want a rich form of poverty, for the Bel-Aire to serve as a living advertisement for a dead Route 66 past. They don’t want it to limp like people do; they want it to limp like a Union soldier in a battle reenactment. They do not see the thin line that separates people from the streets. They don’t see people who more than anything want to be left alone. They want the dust to stay but the poor to go, so they go after it. And there the city sits, knocking at the front door of the Bel-Aire office, asking for its slumlord.
Robert Langellier is a culture and social justice freelance writer who just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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