St. James Place

The best room at this hotel costs $12 a night. Community and dignity are provided free of charge.

Everybody's sprawled along the couches and chairs, blankly staring in the direction of the television, as late-afternoon sun brightens the lobby of the St. James Hotel. A young father and his 5-year-old cautiously make their way up to Bobby, who's working the front desk. The father's wearing a tool belt and work boots; his son eats McDonald's French fries out of a bag. The father talks briefly to Bobby, who says, "Lemme see what I can do."

Bobby hustles over to the manager's office and explains the situation to Wanda, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: "We got one room left, but it's not big enough for two people--it'd be violating a code or something. Got any answers, Wanda? He's got a kid."

Wanda doesn't have any answers. Heads turn from the TV toward the waiting father. The boy, oblivious to circumstances, puts the fries aside and plays with a Happy Meal toy. Soon, a small huddle gathers before the front desk. Bobby's the quarterback, but three TV watchers are now in the game:

--Hey, he can stay in my place. Just give me permission to stay down the hall with Thomas . . .

--Joey already said he'll switch with the newcomer. Joey'll move his stuff out into the cot room, and the newcomer can have his room and stay with the boy . . .

--Well, hell, Joey's got too much stuff in his place to move out. I got nothin'. Lemme move into the cot room, the newcomer can take my place, and Joey can stay put.

Keys are traded, humble smiles exchanged, television watching is resumed. The father and son take their French fries up to their room.

Renting out rooms for $12 a night, $8 for a smaller cot room, the St. James Hotel carries the baggage and assumptions that go with that kind of place. An SRO. A Single Room Occupancy hotel. A bachelor's hall. A flophouse.

But the St. James is a place that surprises people. The labyrinth of hallways, the bare-bulb lighting and whitewashed walls create a space that is visually timeless. A visitor immediately gets the feeling the St. James could inhabit any time period, from the Depression to the present; the only clue of 1990s modernity is an occasional appearance of Bart Simpson on the lobby television.

Originally built in 1928 to serve tourist and business travelers arriving in Phoenix via the new mainline-railroad connection, the St. James Hotel has run into growth that has put it in odd juxtaposition to the rest of the city. The hotel is two blocks south of the white-collar high-rise known as Renaissance Tower, two blocks north of railroad tracks that no longer carry passengers, three blocks east of Madison Street Jail and 55 paces from America West Arena. Because of this odd location, most people who stumble across the hotel do so by accident, while they are headed somewhere else. Often, those casual visitors try to avoid closer contact with the St. James in subtle ways. Couples cross to the other side of the street. Wives squeeze their husbands' hands a little tighter; the husbands stare straight ahead. Neither husbands nor wives get close enough to know the real St. James, which is a shame, because, like the stereotypical blind date, it's got a great personality.

In November 1993, Wanda and Charles Shadden were living in Denver, Colorado, "working for U.S. Motels, doin' Super 8s," when they were offered a temporary management gig by COAZ Hotel Properties, the owner of the St. James. They arrived in Phoenix at midnight and drove all over downtown, hoping their directions would lead them to something Arizona-esque, someplace with palm trees, or a cactus at least.

"When we got outside," Wanda recalls, "I just stared straight ahead and said, 'Charles, I thought they only had places like these in the movies.'"

Obviously, the Shaddens had not intended to make a long stay at the St. James.

"I was supposed to be here two weeks: train a manager, set up the paperwork; Charles'd get the maintenance done and leave," Wanda explains. Things didn't work out that way.

"It seems like we just got attached--and it happened real quickly, because of the people," she says. "This place was in such decay that anything we did was a major improvement. And with the residents--we started treating them like equals. We tried to weed out the troublemakers and kept the nice people. The long-term residents appreciated these small changes so much, and made sure we knew it.

"The whole process of living here and working here became really satisfying. You're building something and you see what your efforts can do. It's rewarding."

If it's rewarding on the whole, life at the St. James also presents specific problems seldom seen at Super 8. In the summer of 1994, for instance, Wanda got a call from a resident who complained that blood was dripping from his ceiling. Charles went to check it out, discovering that Randolph Brewer, the tenant living in the room above, had expired. Then there was the junkie whose left arm got infected--it subsequently had to be amputated--after he shot up with a dirty needle. Knowing he would be evicted if Wanda knew about his drug use, the junkie explained the infection as the result of a brown-recluse-spider bite. Wanda and Charles were ready to tear up the floor searching for the spider before they learned the truth.

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