[sounds of people chatting, wind]
[Chanting No Hotel, No Hotel]
Construction workers are bundled in thick coats and hard hats eating breakfast on the side
of Kings Highway in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. It is a cold and windy November day.
The wooden barriers and chained dark green doors at the hotel construction site keep out
the TV crews and protesters on the sidewalk.
Councilman of the 45th District Jumaane Williams and Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein are
at the protest. Councilmember Williams turns to address the media.
JW: This is not an area for hotels. It’s not a destination spot. If anyone has
Caribbean family everybody knows that they stay with family. We don’t need one
here. What we suspect will happen is this will become another hot sheet motel.
We are standing at a bulldozed land plot. It’s vacant except for the drills, machinery and bits of
concrete already poured as a base for a building. One half of the plot is set to be a Target, the
other half is to be built into this transient hotel.
Transient hotel is the official language used in the paperwork. Which means people who stay
there pay by the hour or day and shouldn’t have permanent residents. But like councilmember
Williams says, he’s concerned that some rooms will actually be rented out to the city to house
homeless people and thus become a quote “homeless hotel.”
And some say these kinds of “homeless hotels” bring crime. I spoke to one woman about this...
Person 2: We got a lot popping up in Canarsie. A lot of incidents been happening, a lot
of robberies. And it’s not the people that live there in the neighborhood.
There are 11 official mens and family shelters in the immediate area, two of which are transient
hotels. And this is by no means a new practice — homeless hotels have been around since the
[AMBI OF JEFFERY]
[Person 2: Respect. 3,4,5]
[Person 3: Testing 1,2, testing 1,2. This is Brooklyn in the motherfucking house.]
I: That's my dude right there I'mma holler at you. Um sorry we’re we, we in New York
City. Things happen. [laughs]
This is long-time Flatbush resident Jeffery “Idea” Anokam. And he’s conflicted about the hotel.
I: People are homeless. It's winter time. They need somewhere to go. So ey. We
didn't even know there was a shelter there. So those people I guess that are there
are not causing a scene. They not making the neighborhood look different, they not
He’s speaking specifically about one of the hotel shelters already operating, on the corner of
Winthrop and Utica Avenues in East Flatbush, north of the proposed Kings Highway site.
Jeffery is a 28-year-old Nigerian Street drummer and prefers to be addressed by his stage
[Idea drumming on plastic buckets and cans]
I: I spend most of my time here playing, making these people happy. You can find
me right here at 42nd and 7th.
He also runs a Dollar Van business in the neighborhood. A dollar van is apart of a local
Caribbean-run transportation business with one or two vans, small buses, or vehicles carrying
people up and down a major highway or boulevard--for 2 dollars.
I: We just provide a service for people. 24 hours, you can always depend on the
dollar van if you stranded. Sometimes you might not see a bus for hours but you'll
see a dollar van. There's always someone trying to make some money out there.
[dollar vans horns]
He thinks its possible his business venture could prosper if a hotel opens up..
I: it could bring business because people are going to need to get there, and people
are going to need to get back home.
And he also resonates with people who need the shelter because
I: I lived in the shelter before.
He says from that perspective he thinks the shelter is good for the neighborhood
All they doing is probably bringing more money cause what do shelter people do,
spend money all day. You know, the ones trynna' get up out the system they go to
work all day. In the shelter--I lived in the shelter before. It's a lot of money spending.
And they spending money in our neighborhood. We didn't even know they were
there. So I don't see what the problem should be.
The problem has two parts from within: homelessness and gentrification. Many parts of the
city are fighting gentrification in the form of unwanted industry, like the new Amazon in Long
Island City. The hotel represents a change some people are adamantly against. They think
the hotel will bring commercial industry and gentrification. But at the same time, the hotel
could also help curb homelessness in the city.
Even with about a 2 percent decrease from 2007 to 2016 in homeless individuals, New York
still rates among the highest for homeless and unsheltered people in major cities. In
Flatbush specifically, about 15 percent of the population is below the city’s poverty line,
making affordable housing necessary. But to many the idea of a transient hotel is not the
solution. So to understand the unique race, class, and industrial conflict the neighborhood is
facing we need to go back to the foundations of Flatbush.
[pages turning, mouse clicking]
For a deep dive into the history of the land plot and neighborhood, I went to The Brooklyn
Public Library’s private collections.
[sounds of clicking]
Diana Bowers-Smith is an archivist there. She walks me through the atlases and old
DS: A lot of the major thoroughfares in Brooklyn were originally trails that were used
by the Native population in Brooklyn Flatbush Avenue is another example of you
know another thoroughfare that was once an important native american trail.
Once it was colonized by the Dutch in the 1650s, Kings Highway itself went from being a
Native American trail to a major potato farming area and then to a royal mailing route and
battle ground during the Revolutionary War. By 1890, the area was largely settled by Dutch
DS: certain roads and trails have been delineated, and certain areas and
neighborhoods have been delineated in Brooklyn history. Kouwenhoven, obviously,
from the name you can tell is a Dutch family.
One Brooklyn poet who grew up alongside the highway celebrated this history in her poems.
the rambling homesteads blink like aged seers
and watch their narrow, winding highway grow
They see a boulevard.
A pride of years that was just a dusty footpath long ago
Gertrude Ryder Bennett
Eventually, this particular section of Kings Highway became an ice plant and coal yard.
Trains brought in industry by the 1910s and 20s.
DH: One thing that these maps tell us about the specific blocks of Kings Highway is
that there’s an industrial history here. So you know for example, we’ve got this map
from 1929 in front of us and it shows an ice plant and a coal pocket and of course
the railroad tracks running through. Um you know so that is an indication that yeah
you’re probably not going to have a lot of high income individuals living in the vicinity
of an ice plant, coal plant, or railroad track. So that kind of industrial also informs us
about the class of the area.
When the immigration laws were eased in 1965, New York saw an influx of families and
students from Caribbean countries, such as Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad. In the 1970s and 80s,
the neighborhood shifted from a majorly Jewish, Irish, and Italian neighborhood into what it is
today - 63% black in Flatbush and 87% in East Flatbush. Idea, the Nigerian drummer and dollar-
van owner, says this is a neighborhood where people like him feel culturally at home.
I: We comfortable in Brooklyn. It's like Ellis Island for us, we comfortable. People
from all over. That's the first place they go. From wherever they from. They come
they do they thing.
[motorcycles, accents, music, voices laughing, horns, ice cream truck]
The transition from White to Black neighborhood was not an entirely peaceful. A spike in
crime and race riots in the 90’s left its scars on the neighborhood and people of all
backgrounds still have issues trusting one another.
I went to visit someone who could help me understand modern day Flatbush better. Gerard
Brewster, founder of the community group Utica 2 Flatbush. He’s spearheading the discussion
about the transient hotel issue. I sat down with him at the Halsey Bar and Grill on Avenue H,
where he holds many of his meetings.
GB: I've lived in Brooklyn all my life. I grew up in Bed-Stuy. It was a family
community. Many of us come from uh a caribbean background. We're either first or
second generation. Some cases we're recently off the boat. The sad reality is
because of rising rents and a thousand other reasons people are being displaced.
And so here in Flatbush what we see is a sort of Catch 22. To fix the community’s homeless
problem, the city can house people in this new hotel. But the hotel itself could bring
gentrification and new corporate interest to the area. But Brewster says above all...
GB: It was the manner in which they brought the shelter into the community.
The type of property the hotel is on is a commercial or business zone. And there’s something
developers use called 'As of right' - As of right is used to build whatever they want as long as
a building complies with all the zoning regulations. What many people are upset about is
that developers don’t need to tell anyone about their plans for a building, like the community
board or council members, as long as their application is approved by the City Planning
Commission or Board of Standards and Appeals. It’s an assumed practice to at least say
something as a courtesy to the residents. Brewster says because his neighborhood is
mainly Black and low-income, it’s being disrespected.
and in their initial conversations they suggested that they were doing it for the
community. That's BS. When I have family that comes out of town, they stay with
me. It's a Caribbean thing. I mean if it's my family why would my family be
So if the hotel doesn’t serve the community, then who is it for?
GB: So if storage spaces pop up, hotels pop up, the end game for them is
development of those for more money. Nobody builds to make less money or to lose
According to the community and councilmembers, the developer, Manish S. Savani, and
contractor, Tejpal Singh Sandhu have not been as cooperative with the community as the
Target contractor, who is building on the other half of the plot. I tried to get in touch with Sandhu
and Savani multiple times but they did not respond or pick up the phone.
GB: He doesn't want anything to do with us. No conversation. He hasn't even visited
uh hasn't visited the community board because he knows what he's going to get--We
remember. And we know he's coming we're going to be there and we're not sleeping
Developing or gentrifying a neighborhood is complicated. Brewster says it’s about people’s
social and economic status being disregarded.
GB: Homeless people need homes, they don't need shelters. If you were going to put
affordable housing up. I get that and I can't see people complaining about that. Or
people being against it.
He says that affordable housing, a recreational center, or a grocery store impacts the
community differently than a hotel.
[ambi of community meeting]
In November, community board 18 held their monthly meeting packed with concerned
residents. Towards the end of the meeting, District Manager Dorothy “Dottie” Turano gives
the latest update on the site development.
DT: They’re moving right along. We have to exert pressure so I really suggest that
you keep on it.
Brewster says that even though the building is in development he has no intention of giving
up on this fight. And even though Idea, the Nigerian drummer who was homeless, says the
hotel is good to help the community, he fears ultimately, corporate business will come in
and take money away from him.
I: It could mean more business but certain people in better positions than a lot of
people who drive dollar van. There's millionaire's off of dollar van too, but a lot of
people come from the struggle you know. Trying to get off the ground and you have
people who have a little bit more money and they wanna' like take over routes and
buy routes and kick the--you know--the less advantaged people uh off of the streets.
In that way, he and Brewster can agree that a hotel won’t benefit the disadvantaged people
in their community.
[Chanting No Hotel, No Hotel]
By Ariama Long, ‘18, CUNY(Craig Newmark Grad School of Journalism)