New York on $5 a day – Then and now
In 1960 travel guidebook legend Arthur Frommer released the first edition of New York on 5 Dollars a Day, which followed the successful launch of the company’s similar Europe title three years earlier. In 1961 they put out an updated edition, and I discovered a copy in a used bookstore many years ago. My previous fascination with travel guidebooks was all about current titles of places I intended to go, but this particular one has a different kind of charm altogether. It reveals both prices and attitudes that were normal then, but seem incredibly foreign today.
This edition of New York on 5 Dollars a Day is a perfect time capsule of budget travel to America’s biggest city in 1961. Just to be clear, it was meant to be astonishing that you could visit New York City spending only $5 each day, so all the advice the book gives is for true budget travel in a city not known for it. All the prices below were considered cheap at the time, and most unsuspecting visitors would end up paying quite a bit more at the traps designed for just that, just as they do today. A hotel room for $3 was possible then in the same way a $90 room is possible today.
Below I’ve compiled some of my favorite examples of things found in the book, mostly revolving around the listed prices of things that still exist today. In early 1961, John F. Kennedy was being sworn in to office, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were just an idea still 5 years from breaking ground, and the fictional characters on AMC’s “Mad Men” would have been chain-smoking, drinking compulsively, and sexually harassing every woman in sight on Madison Avenue.
Of the 40 or so places listed in the book, only a few of them carry on with the same name, and only a few more continue as hotels at all. Most of them have transformed into something else or been demolished altogether. There are some interesting exceptions though.
Hotel-Chelsea – 222 West 23rd Street – The still-famous Chelsea, which opened in 1905, was considered a landmark long before Sid Vicious allegedly stabbed Nancy Spungen to death here in 1978. In 1960, if you mentioned the book, you could get a spotlessly clean single room without a bath for $3 per night on a weekly basis, and double rooms with bath starting at $6 per night, even by the day.
Now – The Hotel Chelsea’s stature has continued to grow and it’s been the residence, either short or long term, of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and S. William Burroughs among many others. It’s still quirky and it’s still clean, and rooms start around $220 per night.
Hotel Beechwood – 125 East 24th Street – A real bargain that offered singles with adjoining bath for $2.63 per night, and double rooms for $3.70, with an added bonus of a shared kitchen on each floor so you could save even more money by making your own breakfast.
Now – Things evidently went downhill for the Beechwood because in 1980 the hotel was bought by a group of Franciscan friars called the Friends of the Poor in order to prevent the welfare hotel tenants from being thrown out into the street. It still operates as a home for the homeless called the St. Francis Residence, and is run by the same group.
Hatfield Hotel – 103 East 29th Street – This centrally located hotel offered huge double rooms with private bath and an extra daybed for children under 12 for $5 per night, or a single room for $3 per night or $19.50 per week.
Now – It’s called the Hotel Deauville, and it continues to be one of the most affordable hotels in the city. Rooms with shared bath start at $89 per night, and rooms with ensuite facilities start at $149. Guests in the interim have included such notables as Courtney Love, Sid Vicious, and football great Jim Brown.
Arlington Hotel – 18 West 25th Street – A single room without a bath went for $1.75 per night, but the number of these was limited so you were advised to write well in advance. Double rooms went for $4.20, interestingly enough, but a double with a private bath would set you back $6.30. Potential visitors were warned that due to the Damon Runyan-esque clientele, many of whom lived there permanently, they did not recommend the Arlington for young ladies, although it would be “fine for adventurous young men or couples.”
Now – The Arlington remained until around 2005, with prices peaking around $160 per night, but it’s now a Comfort Inn where rooms range from about $160 to $340 per night, depending on season and occupancy.
Claredon Hotel – 22 East 31st Street – This hotel was a good budget option for couples, as they offered two-room suites (living room, bedroom, private bath) for only $5.75 per night, but the book warns not to let the unattractive lobby fool you – the rooms are clean.
Now – No sign of any hotel here now, although research indicates a man who was the superintendent of a business located here in 1979 was convicted for trying to swindle an Atlantic City casino by past-posting the big six wheel, so this location has not been without excitement.
Franklin Hotel – 164 East 87th Street – In 1960 you’d be meeting Mrs. Greeley, the manager of 18 years, in the charming little paneled lobby here, who would rent you a single with private bath for $3 per night by the week, or $4.20 per night by the day. Double rooms went for $4.20 per night on a weekly basis or $6.30 one night at a time.
Now – The Franklin Hotel still stands, and in March, 2008 they completed a yearlong full renovation, and are said to be one of New York City’s most romantic hotels. You can now expect luxury at this 50-room boutique hotel, with rooms starting at $299 per night, and even a “Live Like Gossip Girl” package, which includes gift certificates to some of the places where the characters would go if it weren’t just a TV show.
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The 40 budget restaurants listed in the book fared even worse than the budget hotels. Only a few are still operating under the same name doing the same thing, although several of them have morphed into new and well regarded restaurants in the years since.
Frances Bell Restaurant – 125 West 55th Street – You could get real Southern cooking in a colonial home setting here. Meals consisted of an appetizer or soup, main course with two vegetables, salad, dessert, and beverage, all for between $1.25 and $1.60, with the Southern pecan pie being highly recommended.
Now – Since 1997 this has been the location of the Estiatorio Milos, which is a Greek seafood restaurant that has made Zagat’s list of the 50 best restaurants in New York, according to their website. Their 3-course pre-theater or post-theater meals go for $49, but everything is completely different here now so the price comparison is meaningless.
Tad’s Steaks – 119 West 42nd Street – You could get a one-pound steak, a baked potato, garlic bread, and a chef’s salad in this fast-food oddity for $1.19, with no tipping. The Tad’s concept began in 1959, so they were less than 2 years old at this point.
Now – After a national expansion and then major hardship, the country’s only fast-food steak restaurant group still exists, but this location finally closed a couple years ago, leaving only 3 Tad’s left in the country, all in Manhattan. A slightly larger steak (20 oz.) with side dishes goes for a still-thrifty $15.99 in 2008.
Paddy’s Clam House – 215 West 34th Street – The lunch at this seafood favorite across from Penn Station changed daily, but it consisted of soup, an entrée and side dish, a dessert, and a beverage for $1.29.
Now – There’s a Duane Reade drugstore here.
Hero-Boy Restaurant – 492 Ninth Avenue – The book says this used to be the heart of “New York’s meat-market section (Italian meat stores and warehouses are everywhere).” You could get a foot-long hero on fresh bread with meatballs for 50 cents, sausage and peppers for 65 cents, capicollo (pork loin shoulder) for 40 cents, or a veal cutlet for 55 cents, with tomato a nickel extra.
Now – Now known as Manganaro’s Hero Boy, this place that opened in 1956 is still there with more or less the same menu. Meatballs or sausage and peppers on your sandwich now go for $8 though.
Brownie’s Restaurant – 21 East 16th Street – “A favorite of the yoghurt-and-wheat-germ set – there’s no meat here, no health-destroying fats.” A full-course meal consisting of juice or soup, a main course and side, dessert, and coffee would set you back $1.19. The writer sampled vegetable-barley-mushroom soup, then eggplant steak served with beets, cabbage, carrots, and celery, followed by homemade cookies and milk for dessert. (The dessert part sounds pretty good.)
Now – The acclaimed and popular Union Square Café opened here in 1985, and meat is back on the menu. Main courses with side dishes now range from $24 to $35 and the place is usually packed.
Not surprisingly, most of the major attractions haven’t changed much in the last 47 years, except for the prices.
Statue of Liberty – The round-trip boat ride to the statue was 75 cents, and admission to the statue was free, as was a walk up the stairs to the crown if you didn’t want to shell out 10 cents for the elevator.
Now – The round-trip ferry ride now runs $12, and while the statue itself continues to be free (if you make a reservation), the public has been barred from getting to the crown since 9/11. Today the ferry ride also includes a complimentary stop at Ellis Island, which was closed in 1961, only 7 years after it had seen its last immigrant go through. It didn’t open as a public monument until 1976.
Empire State Building – The elevator to the 86th floor observatory cost $1.30, and was open from 9:30am to midnight.
Now – The same elevators cost $19, and they run from 8am to 2am daily, but these days you’ve also got to go through 3 separate lines, one of which puts you through airport-style security. These days you can skip to the front of all three lines if you are willing to pay $45.
United Nations – A guided tour cost $1 in 1961.
Now – The 45-minute tour goes for $13.50 in 2008.
Museum of Modern Art – Admission was $1, and included free classic movies shown at 3pm and 5:30pm daily.
Now – Admission is $20, and unlike many New York City museums, this is not a “suggested donation” so you are really on the hook for the whole $20, although cheapskates do have an out with the ‘Target Free Friday Nights, sponsored by Target,’ which jams the place to the rafters from 4pm to 8pm every Friday evening. The movies are now $10.
Guggenheim Museum – This Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building opened in 1959, only two years before this guidebook was published, and it was controversial even then. Admission was 50 cents.
Now – Admission has crept up to $18 by 2008.
Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection – These were both listed as free museums in 1961.
Now – The Met has a “suggested” donation of $20, which some fearless visitors do shun by offering up as little as $1, and the Frick now charges $15.
Central Park – “Go here only in summer, when there is safety in numbers,” the book warns. Among the many activities listed for those bold enough to venture into the park: Every Tuesday night at 8:30 pm you could join in the free square dancing on the Central Park Mall.
Now – It might not be the safest place in the world, but there are no longer warnings for any public parts of Central Park at any time of the year, at least during the day.
Chinatown – In 1961 you had to take the subway to Canal Street and Broadway, then walk 6 blocks east until you got to Mott Street, then turn right and go one block to Bayard Street, after which “you are in Chinatown.”
Now – Once you emerge from the subway at Canal and Broadway you are already so deep in the ever-expanding Chinatown that it feels like you should need a passport, and maybe even some shots.
The Rainbow Room – 30 Rockefeller Center, 65th floor – In 1961 there was no cover, no minimum, no charge for the elevator ride, and the book promised no one will get angry with you if you only order one drink, which would set you back $1. You’d also have a shot at free pretzels or popcorn while “an organ or trio entertains you in the background.” Back then, the Rainbow Room shut down at 9pm and was closed Sundays.
Now – The Rainbow Room continues as a legendary nightspot, but things have changed just a bit over the years. It’s now more formal, and only open on Friday and Saturday nights (plus a Sunday brunch). The elevator ride is free as long as you are going to be a paying guest, and the cheapest option for that is now a 2-hour block from 11pm to 1am with a $45 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. And those drinks average around $20 each now, by the way, no joke.
Top O’ The Tower – Beekman Tower Hotel, 3 Mitchell Place (near 49th St and 1st Ave), 26th Floor – This was a good place to go for splendid views of the United Nations and the East River. There was no cover charge, during summer it converted into an open-air rooftop bar, and drinks were 80 or 90 cents.
Now – The Top of the Tower still operates as it did then, although there is now a $10 minimum that is meant to discourage people from coming just for the free view. Beer now starts at $9 and cocktails go up to about $15.
The Town House – 108 East 38th Street – In 1961 it was “known far and wide for its indescribably delicious and absolutely free hors d’oeuvres: huge pots of cheese, baked clams and crackers.” Drinks to help you wash down the free grub would set you back anywhere from 75 cents to a dollar.
Now – It’s the ‘Towne House’ apartments now, which at least at one time was a residential hotel, and there’s definitely no free hors d’oeuvres anymore.
Subway/bus – In 1961 a subway ride cost 15 cents, as did a bus ride, although a bus transfer cost an extra nickel.
Now – Today the subway or bus goes for $2 per ride, and discounts are available if you purchase multiple rides at once.
Hudson River Day Line ran identical 3-hour boat tours as The Circle Line around Manhattan for $2.50.
Now – Hudson River Day Line now only has cruises up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain and only in summer. It’s now owned by the same company that owns Circle Line, which dominates the New York Harbor cruise market. Their 3-hour tour now goes for $29, but they also have a more compact 2-hour tour that many people prefer for only $24.