Jim Kenyon: At the Shady Lawn Motel, Every Room Has a Story

Published: 01-30-2017 10:41 AM

A Dartmouth College graduate lives in a room on the Shady Lawn Motel’s ground floor. A 72-year-old who gets by on Social Security has been a guest since his release from prison four years ago. A grocery store worker and his wife share a room with their small dog across the parking lot.

“If you look at the individuals living at the Shady Lawn, there is always a story,” said Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, which often provides services to some of the motel’s occupants.

Bad luck, bad decisions, or a combination of the two often lead people to the double-decked, 34-unit motel on Maple Street, where rooms start at $240 a week, plus tax. It gets you a bed, bathroom, TV, refrigerator and a microwave. Heat and hot water (most of the time) are included.

The Shady Lawn, known around town as “Heroin Hotel,” has been living up to its seedy reputation in recent weeks. Two guests, both in their late 20s, were arrested Jan. 20 in connection with armed robberies at a pair of convenience stores in Wilder. One of the men said he used the money to buy heroin.

Hartford police then arrested a couple for allegedly dealing heroin out of side-by-side rooms at the motel.

Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten told me that his officers responded to more calls — 131 at the motel last year — than at any other location in town. In 2016, police made 22 arrests, including six for assault, at the Shady Lawn. The town’s other eight motels accounted for eight arrests combined.

The Shady Lawn, which has been around since 1950, didn’t start out this way. Like other Upper Valley motels of a bygone era, it catered to traveling salesmen and vacationing families looking for a clean, affordable place to spend a night before getting back on the road.

In the late 1960s, the fortunes of mom-and-pop roadside motels began to head south. “Once the interstate came through, they evidently didn’t have the business to continue,” said Hartford Historical Society curator Pat Stark.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

In 1984, the motel was sold for $489,000, according to Hartford property records. In 2005, a company called Jalaram Hospitality LLC, of Bellows Falls, Vt., bought the Shady Lawn for $300,000.

Kalpesh Patel, 44, has managed the motel for two years. He and his wife live in an apartment at the front of the motel.

When I stopped by last week, they invited me in. “Most of the people here work, some two jobs,” said Patel, whose family is from India.

Outside, two kids with backpacks headed to a corner room, after hopping off a Hartford school bus. That’s not unusual, Patel said. A fair number of families call the Shady Lawn home. A single mom who works at McDonald’s and her young children are among the current guests.

After offering to introduce me around, Patel knocked on a door near the motel office. A slightly built bearded man in his early 60s answered.

George Blake had just arrived home from work, having walked the half mile from the White River Co-op, where he’s a cashier supervisor. Blake and his wife have lived at the Shady Lawn for about 18 months.

“An apartment would be better,” he told me. “But all in all, it isn’t bad here. Without a vehicle, it’s the most logical place for us to live.”

In the parking lot, we caught up with Peter Guilbault, who was enjoying a smoke. He lays claim to being the motel’s current longest-staying guest — four years.

After getting out of prison, Guilbault said, the Shady Lawn was about the only place he could afford. “I don’t get enough in Social Security and disability to have an apartment. They’re so darn expensive.”

Last Wednesday morning, a man in his mid 50s pulled a suitcase on wheels along the Maple Street sidewalk that leads to downtown White River Junction. He wore a couple of winter coats over a flannel shirt, two pair of pants and black high-top Converse sneakers.

Ira Pearlman had just come from the Shady Lawn. “Where you headed?” I asked.

“Canada,” Pearlman replied. “Can you take me to Burlington? Montpelier?”

We settled on the Haven, which was only a couple of miles away and a place where he could grab a free lunch. On the ride, he tugged on his long beard. “Did you vote for Hillary?” he asked.

Sticking with politics, Pearlman said former U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was his Dartmouth classmate.

Later, a Dartmouth spokeswoman confirmed that Pearlman, a religion major, had graduated in 1983 — the same year as Geithner.

At the Haven, Kobylenski told me that she and her staff see a lot of the Shady Lawn’s occupants, particularly at the nonprofit’s food shelf.

The Haven is working with Pathways Vermont, a Burlington-based social service agency, to get Pearlman out of the Shady Lawn. Pathways helps find permanent housing for individuals with serious mental health issues and histories of homelessness.

Kobylenski knows many of the Shady Lawn’s residents by first name. Most have low-paying jobs or rely on Social Security benefits. “They can’t get out of the trap of living month-to-month,” she said.

They can afford the $1,000 or so a month it costs to stay at the Shady Lawn. But they can’t cover the up-front costs — security deposit, first and last month rent — that it takes to move into an apartment. Others at the Shady Lawn have criminal records with serious felonies that make it nearly impossible to find suitable housing.

“The Shady Lawn fills a vacuum,” Kobylenski said.

Examples of the wide range of social ills that ail the Upper Valley can be found at the Shady Lawn, she said. People teetering on the edge of homelessness due to the lack of affordable housing and decent-paying jobs. Folks struggling with substance abuse and mental illness.

It’s all there under one roof — for $240 a week, plus tax.