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One four-year Clermont resident who asks not to be named has a well-paying job that easily would allow him to buy a house or condo. Instead, he opts for the simplicity that comes from having a single weekly bill that covers the bulk of his living expenses.
"All I need is a chair, a bed and a stove," he explains. "It's like the ultimate dorm room: You got your freedom, your privacy and your own little space that doesn't require much attention."
Much like a dorm, the hotel has myriad rules that seem a tad intrusive: Paying guests are not allowed to linger in the lobby after 8 p.m. Visitors must show I.D. and sign in at the desk. A lobby sign scolds, "Please don't stand around in front of the hotel or the parking lot." The shabby laundry room is off-limits much of the day. Getting behind in the rent quickly lands your belongings in the lobby in trash bags.
Unfortunately, such rules are necessary when you're running a residential hotel in intown Atlanta, says Edwin Porterfield, owner of the venerable Ponce de Leon Hotel just west of the old Sears warehouse. He closes his lobby at 11 p.m. to avoid the drunken altercations that invariably take place if people are allowed to congregate.
Porterfield believes his 52-room hotel and the Clermont share the same customer base: those who need transitional lodging while they overcome some setback, and working-class folks who, for one reason or another, simply want to live in the thick of things down on Ponce.
Another institution whose glory days are long behind it, the Ponce has the distinction of being the one-time home of one of Atlanta's first gay-friendly restaurants, Mrs. P's Cafe, in the '40s and '50s. More recently, its basement housed the original MJQ.
Although it's clear that Porterfield has great affection for some of his longtime residents, he's realistic about many of his customers' weaknesses, such as booze, drugs, mental illness and chronic irresponsibility. There usually are several who have been placed in the hotel temporarily by private social-service agencies.
Porterfield often finds that guest-room carpets have been pulled up so something could be hidden underneath. He laments that having phone service in guest rooms "just didn't work out." And he can't seem to keep a new set of TV antennae in a guest room for more than a few days.
"They'll break them up into pieces and use the hollow tubing to smoke crack," he explains matter-of-factly.
Later, in my room at the Clermont, I look behind the dresser to find a thin, sharp knife (or shiv, in prison parlance) and what remains of a set of rabbit ears with the tubing missing.
According to Atlanta police, in 1999 and 2000, respectively, there were 52 and 54 documented crimes against people or property at the Clermont, numbers that a police spokesman notes are relatively high for a property of its size.
Theft and assault with a deadly weapon typically lead the list of offenses, but there also were murders at the hotel in both 2000 and 2001 -- in one, a woman shot her boyfriend; in the other, a guy was found with a bullet in his head on the outside stairs. Neither case aroused anywhere near as much media attention as in 1987, when a 15-year-old runaway girl from the northern suburbs was stabbed through the heart in a hallway.
But crime at the Clermont appears to be on a downward trend since Atlanta police moved their headquarters to City Hall East, less than a mile away. Certainly, the Ponce corridor has a fraction of the prostitution busts of a decade ago.
Sometimes, Porterfield says, he wonders if the hotel business is worth the hassle, but then adds: "I don't know of any other business besides bank robbery where you can make the kind of money you can with a small hotel."
With rent averaging $165 a week and nearly every room filled, his hotel took in nearly $400,000 in revenue last year, Porterfield says. Although it's nearly three times larger, the Clermont grossed about $515,000 last year, according to county property tax documents, for an estimated net income of only $260,200.
Porterfield isn't familiar with the finances of his closest competitor; he has difficulty even getting the hotel manager to come to the phone to discuss matters of mutual interest, such as utility rates.
"I've dealt with them a few times and they just won't talk about anything," he says, shaking his head. "They won't talk to anybody, I guess."
Henry Hollis doesn't come across like anybody's idea of down and out. Thoughtful and well-spoken, with neatly trimmed, graying hair, the 67-year-old has an open, friendly manner, standing straight and making eye contact when he speaks.
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