New Orleans. Irresistible Airbnb listing: technically in the French Quarter but south of the drunken revelry, in a neighborhood of upscale hotels and restaurants. An apartment on the top floor of a “doorman” building for $100 a night. (We never saw a doorman at the doorman desk.) Affordable parking garage a block away. A decent hotel would have topped $150 in that neighborhood. This Airbnb was a big-city bargain.
“Check-in” went smoothly, though achieved solely through virtual human contact: the host emailed a number to punch into the foyer keypad, an unseen person buzzed us in, we rode the elevator to the 14th floor, and found the apartment door open as promised. The keys were hanging on a hook inside the door.
The apartment was more than adequate for two nights in New Orleans. A bedroom for my travelling buddy and a fold-out couch in the living room for me. A galley kitchen with a few amenities such as coffee and non-dairy creamer, empty refrigerator, leftover Cap’n Crunch in the cabinet. TJ Maxx “artwork” on the walls, a big flat-screen television, not a book or a magazine to clutter the Ikea coffee table, half a roll of toilet paper, a shower curtain decorated with bible verses. Clearly no one lived here and the furnishings had been cobbled together to meet minimum touristic requirements.
In the lobby was a big sign that said “no short-term rentals.” But every time we passed through, we observed other couples with roller suitcases trying to decipher, as we had done at first, how to open the outer door. Our host had at least three “CBD apartments” listed in Airbnb (“central business district” in this case).
The first night in town we had dinner and went to an open mic with a comic friend of mine who moved from Burlington to NOLA last year. When I mentioned we were staying in an Airbnb, he said, “Average people in the city are very hostile to Airbnb. It has really hurt the housing market. So many places have been taken off the long-term rental market, and the price of what’s left has gone sky high.”
Like so many places in the world, owners of apartments in NOLA can maximize their investment by offering short-term rentals. When they remove housing stock from the long-term rental market, it puts upward pressure on rents. Even where short-term rentals are prohibited, our experience showed that enforcement is lax.
This New Orleans experience caused me some Airbnb guilt, aggravated by a recent article in The New Yorker. “The Airbnb Invasion of Barcelona” pointed out how many locals see the service: as a “pestilence” disturbing the character and peace of popular destinations by shifting the economy from one that serves residents—with grocery stores and dry cleaners—to one that serves tourists, dominated by cafés and upscale restaurants.
It is tempting to blame the capitalists at Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco. But we the customers are the enablers, hence my Airbnb guilt. Happily, NOLA isn’t typical of my short-term rental experience. I’ve stayed in lots of places that reflect the positive side of Airbnb.
Such as Carlsbad, New Mexico. In this oil patch town, a two-star hotel was going for $150 and up. In an upscale restaurant, oil-stained men just in from the field sat at the bar during happy hour with their work overalls rolled down to their waists. The place was too rich for my blood, but the wind was too high for tent camping. So I found a listing for a $40 Airbnb room in a house with a shared bathroom.
Two tenths of a mile from my destination the neighborhood looked a little sketchy, but host Maggie’s block turned out to be a tidy working-class neighborhood. As she had warned me by email, she had no wi-fi and her two sweet rescue mutts greeted me at the door. She showed me to a back bedroom with a single bed, a comfortable reading chair and two reading lamps. The pink and green ceramic tile bathroom screamed 1950s, but offered every amenity with little “Airbnb guests” labels: little soaps, shampoo, Q-Tips, a bedside flashlight, a first-aid kit, hand lotion. In the evening, I sat comfortably in my room reading with door open and the world’s sweetest pitbull lying at my feet.
In the morning, Maggie and I chatted. She and her now deceased husband moved from Illinois to New Mexico for his health. She said she is lonely now in the Land of Enchantment, but can’t face moving back to the cold. Her shelves were full of good books, and we discussed the relative merits of the PBS Masterpiece Theatre Les Miserables versus the most recent film version. We had plenty to talk about.
I asked why she decided to become an Airbnb host. She enjoys the company, she said. “Mostly I’ve met a lot of nice people. I had only one bad experience. A guy went in the room and shut the door, and when he left the next day, the room stank of cigarettes. I’m sorry if you notice any smell. I had my cleaner even scrub the walls, but I haven’t been able to get the carpet cleaned yet.”
Maggie is what I would call ethical Airbnb. My stay in her room didn’t deprive someone else of a place to live, nor will her hosting gentrify the neighborhood. Upon reflection, except New Orleans, my Airbnb experiences on this trip have been non-pestilential.
Homes away from home
In about 45 nights on the road, I have stayed in some places I would highly recommend if your taste runs to the funky or unusual. I’d like to share a few of my favorites with you.
A one-night stay in Paradise Gardens, Rev. Howard Finster’s outsider-art creation in Summerville, Georgia. As an amenity of the two Airbnb units on the grounds, they give you the keys wander the museum even when it is closed to the public. You may remember Howard Finster from the album cover for the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.
Airbnb cottage on farmer Paul’s place in Swan Lake, NY, where I was free to wander the farmyard among the goats, sheep, pigs, turkeys, chickens, ducks, cows, and donkeys. In mid-March, winter hung on in the Catskills, but many of the animals had recently given birth as if it were spring. Little pink piglets were suckling a sow in one shed. Tiny kid goats romped around my feet, trying to nibble my pants legs. Even though the accommodations were spartan, I was enchanted.
El Cosmico, Marfa, TX, glamping in the “Capital of Quirkiness” (per 60 Minutes), featuring very cushy tents, vintage Airstream trailers, and tepees, semi-outdoor bathhouses, camping merit badges, and of course all the hipness of Marfa. Lots of movies have been filmed there from the 1940s onward. Before you go, watch Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, for Texas mythology, and the mini-series adaptation of I Love Dick for the modern flavor of modern Marfa.
Glamping in Magical Nipton, CA, a “resort” on the edge of the Mojave Desert, just across the Nevada state line. I slept in a tepee and wandered among the art cars and sculptures—some transplanted from Burning Man—out among the cacti under a giant, jeweled sky. Across the street is the largest thermal solar installation in the world, 400 MW. The town is nothing but a few buildings and a railroad crossing, but was recently purchased by American Green, a cannabis consultant, with plans to make it a weed resort, though it basically was a weed resort already. I was one of three guests (no weed), but the place had been fully booked the day before, which happened to have been Easter, but more significantly, was 4/20. (If you don’t get it, look it up.)
New River State Park, North Carolina, a National Wild and Scenic River designated in 1976. It wasn’t yet warm enough to camp here, but it is the place I’d most like to return to for a kayak camping expedition. Geologists think this may be the second oldest river in the world after the Nile. Its tranquil waters, miles of undammed flow, and streamside campsites make it a paddler’s paradise.
Roughing it in the Atchafalaya Swamp, Lafayette, LA. I fell in love with southern Louisiana and it is probably the second place I want to return, to Bayou Teche and beyond, for further exploration of the physical beauty, cultural diversity and history of the bayou. Most climate and hydrology experts assume this region will soon change radically when the Mississippi changes course and its waters divert to the Atchafalaya. So go see this place while you can.
I think of my current travels as reconnoitering for future adventures, but like Bayou Teche, many of these places are likely to change in the coming years, yielding to climate change or other human folly. If any of them intrigue you, don’t delay; play today!