Cheap Rooms, and 'a Drug for Every Floor'
The Greenpoint Hotel is still listed in a few tourist guides, which promise cheap rooms and warn of the brusque if efficient staff. But few map-carrying bargain-hunters stay there these days. The hallways stink of marijuana and urine; the bathrooms - one per floor - are caked in dirt, and hot water is rare. The front desk is barricaded shut with sheets of plywood. Theft and violence are a constant threat.
"My room is a box - it's the size of a prison cell," one resident, Jaime Rodriguez, said as he stood outside a deli near the hotel recently, swaying slightly, his eyes cloudy. Mr. Rodriguez said he had lived at the Greenpoint for a decade, paying rent with disability checks. "This whole place is a prison," he said.
Most of his clothes, along with his leopard-print blanket, were lying on the roof outside his window, casualties of a late and raucous night of drinking. "I got a little out of pocket last night, man," he said, leaning out the window and examining the pile of clothes. "If I hadn't trashed my room last night, it wouldn't be too bad."
He sucked on his cigarette, pondering the chair. "I'm going to put a loveseat in here," he said, "with, like, some mosaic tiles."
Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting for this article.
Single-room-occupancy establishments like the Greenpoint have long occupied the bottom end of the lodging food chain in New York. Renting rooms by the week or month, the better ones serve as cheap housing for the old or ill, or for those who have fallen out of the middle class and are struggling not to fall further. Others mostly house a mix of addicts, AIDS sufferers, the recently homeless, and those who are all three.
The Greenpoint falls into this category. It is on the northern end of Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, where the antiques stores and Polish delis of the otherwise gentrifying neighborhood shade into bodegas and check-cashing establishments, a few blocks from the brackish Newtown Creek.
Even as flophouses go, the Greenpoint Hotel has an unenviable distinction. According to a motion for foreclosure that federal prosecutors filed last month, the hotel has decayed in recent years into one of the most dangerous S.R.O.'s in the city, a Brooklyn version of Manhattan's notorious Kenmore Hotel, where drug dealers and prostitutes ruled until a federal takeover in 1994.
About 20 deaths have occurred in the Greenpoint since 1998. Most of those were due to drug overdoses, but at least one was a drug-related murder, according to the motion filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn by the office of the United States attorney, Roslynn R. Mauskopf.
Federal prosecutors say most of those were casualties of a sophisticated drug-dealing operation that was run out of the hotel for more than a decade by Rafael Perez, known as Macho, who is awaiting trial. The United States attorney's office is seeking to take over the hotel.
"I'm surprised it took them so long," said Richard Santos, 44, who lived in the Greenpoint for two years and who still hangs around Manhattan Avenue, drinking beer out of brown paper bags and asking strangers for change. "Drugs were rampant back then. Management always had a hand in it. There was a drug for every floor."
Workers at the hotel, he said, turned the security cameras on and off to allow dealers and prostitutes to enter the building without being caught on tape. The bodies of those who had overdosed were taken out a back entrance, put into a car trunk, and dumped elsewhere. "With addicts, one dies, another one takes their place," said Mr. Santos, who said he was a former heroin addict, onetime crack smoker and an alcoholic.
The hotel's current owners, Max Starck and Sam Pearl of Brooklyn, who bought the hotel in 2003, did not return numerous phone calls, to their homes and offices, requesting comment.
The Greenpoint has nearly 200 rooms, crammed into a maze-like four-story structure. Room numbers are stenciled on with spray paint, and typewritten signs ask residents to refrain from throwing bottles of urine out the windows. (A quick inspection of the neighboring backyards suggests that the request has frequently gone unheeded.) The three-foot-wide hallways dip and slope where they connect the hotel's four buildings. Rent at the Greenpoint is $450 for four weeks.
It is not clear when drug dealing first became a major problem at the hotel. A hotel for more than 70 years, the Greenpoint was bought in 2001 by Praxis Housing Initiatives, a provider of housing and services for people with H.I.V. and AIDS.
Praxis was founded by G. Sterling Zinsmeyer, a film producer, and the Rev. Gordon H. Duggins, an Episcopal priest with a degree from Harvard Divinity School who became a street minister and has been praised by some for his outreach to gang members, delinquents and felons.
It was the first of several S.R.O.'s the pair acquired - with the help of hundreds of thousands of dollars in public financing - where they aimed to offer on-site counseling and other social services to residents.
According to some residents and former employees, however, some workers the two partners hired to operate the Greenpoint made it a haven for drug-dealing and prostitution.
"When I was there, I told Sterling and Gordon many times that the kids they put in there were drug dealers and were Latin Kings," said Hugo Puya, a former controller for Praxis and now an accountant in private practice. "It got much worse," he added. "It basically just became a distribution center for drugs."
Former and current residents said the occasional dealing became systematic, and a population that tended to seek its pleasures in the bottle turned toward the pipe.
Within a few years, Praxis came under investigation by city and state authorities in connection with suspicions that it had used some of its public financing to buy and operate commercial hotels. In at least one case, according to a settlement reached in November with the state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, Mr. Zinsmeyer and Father Duggins took over the lease of a Bronx hotel after it had been rehabilitated with Praxis money. The nonprofit group is now under new management.
A spokesman for Mr. Zinsmeyer, Ronn D. Torossian, said of the Greenpoint: "We felt we managed the building as best we could, and we never got enough city funding to stabilize the building to our satisfaction. We sold it in 2003 and we left a million dollars in the coffers for Praxis. In terms of our responsibilities, we more than met both the moral and the legal obligations." Phone messages left at Father Duggins's home on Friday were not returned.
Mr. Stark and Mr. Pearl bought the Greenpoint from Praxis more than two years ago, but the change in ownership does not appear to have improved conditions much, even after the new owners imposed rent increases of up to $200.
One resident, who gave his name as Mickey but would not give a last name, said that during the 12 years he has lived at the Greenpoint, he has seen "loansharking, drug-dealing, bootlegging, black-market cigarettes - you name it."
"It's always been dangerous," he added. "But it's worse now."
Federal prosecutors have charged that Mr. Perez - who was indicted in 2004 on drug-trafficking charges and is awaiting trial - and his crew employed some residents as dealers, storing heroin and crack cocaine in their rooms and working one of three eight-hour shifts to keep customers supplied at all hours.
Other residents worked as runners, ferrying purchases from the dealers' rooms to customers inside and outside the hotel, the government says.
When police officers showed up - between 911 calls and regular patrols, officers from the 94th Precinct made 70 to 80 visits to the Greenpoint last year - staff members would use an intercom system to alert the dealers with the code word "Nikita," said Mr. Santos, the former resident.
The system was not always perfect. "I was walking home one night and I got hit on the head with a dime bag of heroin," said one neighbor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I don't want any retaliation," he explained.
Despite the legal issues concerning the hotel, for some people the Greenpoint offers nothing less, and nothing more, than a lock on the door and a cheap room of one's own.
"I think it's all right," one resident, who goes by the name T-Rocker and sings in a heavy-metal band, said in an interview on Wednesday.
"Where else you going to get in New York City for $450?" he added, surveying the bathroom-size room where he keeps a twin mattress, a fan, his leather pants, and a couple of LP's from the 1980's metal band W.A.S.P.
Smoking a cigarette and sipping a can of Budweiser, T-Rocker said that he painted black stripes on the worn linoleum floor with a cotton swab - his hands were still stained with black paint - and that a neighbor helped install a loft for the mattress.