Luxury hotel and homeless shelter co-exist in East Village

The Bowery Hotel opened in 2007 on the Bowery, an avenue historically known as New York City’s “skid row.” The rooms range in price from $425 to $1,200 a night and have been home to A-list celebrities and socialites alike. The hotel stands as a symbol of the gentrification of the East Village.

Although the Bowery Hotel received a positive review in The New York Times travel section, one of the “cons” listed was “questionable neighbors.”

Shelter resident Hubie and janitor Wayne Pete stand outside Project Renwal. Photo by Sophia Soloway

Shelter resident Hubie and janitor Wayne Pete stand outside Project Renwal. Photo by Sophia Soloway

The “questionable neighbors” are the residents of Project Renewal, an all-male homeless shelter located directly next door to the luxury hotel at East 3rd Street near Bowery.

“It’s strange bedfellows,” said Wayne Pete, a janitor at Project Renewal. “But that’s the pulse of the city. We all have to learn to co-exist. We have mosques next door to Jewish synagogues, blacks next to whites, poor people next to rich people.”

The shelter did not affect first-time Bowery Hotel guest Sarah Katz, 29, of San Diego. In fact, Katz said she was unaware it was even there. And even after learning of its existence, she claimed she felt no less safe than she did before.

“I expect that in New York City you will find everything on every corner,” she said. “It’s part of the culture of the city.”

Bowery Hotel staff are not allowed to talk to the media, but one doorman said many guests don’t notice the homeless shelter next door.

“A lot of people who stay here are in the entertainment industry,” he said.  “So they’re in their own world and not concerned with who’s next door.”

But co-existing is not always easy, and for the residents of the East Village, this may present more of a problem than it does for hotel guests, who are only visitors.

“Two years ago there was a surge of homeless people in the neighborhood, and they were really prevalent on my block,” said Simone Frasier, 34, a five-year resident of the East Village. “They would pass out in my vestibule, and I don’t want that because it’s my home and I paid a lot of money for it. I want to feel safe there.”

Residents of Project Renewal are aware of how they are perceived by their neighbors.

The outside of Project Renewal. Photo by Sophia Soloway

The outside of Project Renewal. Photo by Sophia Soloway

“There’s a lot of residents in the neighborhood who are paying so much money to live here, and they don’t want the shelter here,” said a resident of Project Renewal known as “Lover Boy.”

According to Cooper Square Community housing specialist Brandon Kielbasa, the gentrification of the East Village has caused an increase in homelessness in the area.

“We have seen more people coming in for emergency housing because the gentrification is removing affordable housing every day,” Kielbasa said.
Kielbasa sees the tensions of the neighborhood from both sides. He spends a lot of time fielding phone calls from unhappy tenants, such as Frasier, who say homeless people are sleeping in the vestibules of their buildings and making them feel unsafe.

But Frasier also feels tremendous guilt at the dwindling resources available to the homeless in her neighborhood. She recently learned the Salvation Army around the corner from her apartment, which also served as a group home, is closing and re-opening as a trendy sushi restaurant. She struggles with how things that benefit her often hurt those less fortunate in her neighborhood.

“It’s an inner conflict because it makes you feel really selfish,” she said. “The value of my property is going to increase while the value of these peoples’ lives is going to decrease.”

Frasier walks by the Bowery Hotel and Project Renewal nearly every morning on her way to work. She is always struck by the bizarre juxtaposition of the two.

“It makes me wonder how people can walk by and see this luxury hotel right next door to a place where people have nothing, absolutely nothing,” she said. “How is that OK? I think about it every time I walk by, and I walk by all the time.”

But many residents of the East Village are not bothered by the homeless shelter in their neighborhood at all.  In fact, many believe it is important that it remain in its place because it represents the history of the neighborhood.

“Traditionally, this is a place where poor people come,” Kielbasa said. “There’s a socialization to homelessness here. The East Village has a reputation for being on the fringes of society. Even the police are more lenient than in other areas of the city.”

Karen McWharten, 52, vice president of the co-op board at 99 East 4th Street and a 12-year resident of the East Village, agrees.

“The homeless shelter is a part of the neighborhood,” she said. “I think it’s appropriate that there would be one here. It’s part of the history.”

Hubie, 55, formerly of Harlem, has been living at Project Renewal for 10 days.  He lost his job two weeks ago and has been unable to find affordable housing anywhere in the city. He believes the guests at the Bowery Hotel are afraid they will get robbed by residents at the shelter and acknowledges that, sometimes, they do.

Pete, a janitor at Project Renewal, insists that the some of the feelings of discomfort go both ways.

“During the day, everyone acts like nice citizens,” he said. “But come around here at night and you’ll see what really goes on. The people in the hotel are drunk by, what time is happy hour? 5 o’clock? And they’re crazy. So the drunk people at the hotel are afraid of the people at the shelter, and the people at the shelter are afraid of the drunk people at the hotel.”

Carlos Cooper, 40, has been in the shelter system in New York City for years. He likes Project Renewal because he thinks the residents’ assistants and caseworkers really care about homeless people. Although, he sometime feels his next-door neighbors can be condescending.

“You get a lot of people next door that spend a lot of money to stay at the hotel, and they don’t want us here,” Cooper said. “They think we’re low-lives, but we’re human beings. We’re just trying to get on our feet.”

But Cooper has had some positive interactions with Bowery Hotel guests as well.

“I’ve sat outside and smoked a cigarette with Cameron Diaz, Lindsay Lohan and Keanu Reeves,” he said. “Cameron Diaz, she’s a beautiful person.”


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