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Checkout Time at the Asylum

Bellevue has long been as much metaphor as hospital–the focal point for what we understand, and don't want to understand, about going insane. So what does it mean that it might become a hotel?


Illustrations by Gluekit  

Here are three different stories, to be filed under “Don’t be that guy.” They all start differently. And they all end in the same place.

(1) Last fall, a 26-year-old man drew the attention of pedestrians on West 47th Street. He seemed slightly agitated. Finding the door to the Olive Garden locked, he went into Tad’s Steakhouse, briefly climbed onto the counter, then left. As he paced the sidewalk, he checked his cell-phone messages. Other than a single black sock, which he later removed, the cell phone was the only thing he was wearing.

(2) One Sunday a year ago, a daytime-soap actor inclined to volatility found himself at 45th Street and Tenth Avenue at 4:50 a.m. (this was probably already a bad sign), fighting with three people for no apparent reason. After shouting, “I’m going to get you!” he allegedly went after them with a metal crate as a weapon. When the police came, he began flailing and kicking.

(3) In July, a 29-year-old resident of West Hartford, Connecticut, decided to pay a visit to New York City, specifically to the new New York Times Building. He thought he’d like to see the view from the top, without the aid of an elevator. Using the horizontal ceramic rods on the building’s exterior that were part of Renzo Piano’s design, he began to climb. When he reached the tenth-floor ledge, he stopped to rest and called an editor at the Daily News. The police arrived and placed a large inflatable cushion on the sidewalk in case he jumped or fell. It was past 5 a.m. when they finally talked him down.

There are countless ways to go crazy in New York City—permanently or briefly, bloodily or peacefully, comically or horribly—but those among us who have ever wondered if our own names might one day be called in that unlucky lottery are generally aware of a key distinction: You can lose it privately or you can lose it publicly. Losing it privately can be resolved by a call to your shrink, or the intervention of family, friends, and colleagues, or medication, or a stay in a private mental-health facility. But if you’re in Manhattan and you happen to be unfortunate enough to decompensate in a manner that involves an imminent threat to yourself or those around you, your day is probably going to end the way it ended for all three of the aforementioned gentlemen: You are going to Bellevue. Bellevue will almost certainly not be the last stop on your personal journey, but it is the single word that, for more than a century, has told the rest of New York City that there is now one less person on the streets about whom it has to worry.

“It takes a lot to get into Bellevue,” says Frederick Covan, who arrived at the hospital in 1980 and served as its chief psychologist until 1994. More accurate, it takes the absence of any alternatives. Bellevue is not for “some Upper East Side suicidal neurotic or whatever—they’d go to NYU Medical Center next door. Our patients were the ones with no money, no resources, and multiple stressors.”

That, or their behavior is so extreme—criminal or otherwise—that no other option presents itself. Merely wandering into the middle of Broadway while muttering incoherently? Probably not enough. “You know, the brilliance of the schizophrenics when they’re directing traffic,” says Covan, “is that they always direct it in the direction it’s already going, so their grandiosity is reinforced. But if they start to direct it in the opposite direction, or if they’re assaulting other people, or if you came in and said you really wanted to kill yourself, not just that you were thinking about it … You know, Bellevue is not the place for you if you’re just not feeling good today and you’re really worried about the stock market.”

The newer buildings of Bellevue sprawl across a few blocks on the east side of First Avenue in the high Twenties. Spokesmen for the hospital will remind you, with the dogged patience of those who have had to say it again and again, that Bellevue is much more than a psychiatric center—it’s the oldest public hospital in the United States (dating to 1736, when it was founded as a six-bed almshouse). Last year, nearly 2,000 babies were born there.

But the Bellevue of our shared imagination—the nuthouse, the punch line, the must-to-avoid vacation spot—is something else entirely. And at least in one sense, it’s about to go away. Although Bellevue’s mental-health treatment center will continue to operate at full strength, this spring, the city’s Economic Development Corporation announced its intention to offer up the building that, for more than half of the last century, was Bellevue. Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, the Bellevue that for 78 years has stood, gloomy and gated, on 30th and First, the Bellevue made infamous in movies and nightmares, the forbidding destination for so many celebrated and notorious New Yorkers that it stands as a chilling landmark: the Chelsea Hotel of the mad.


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