BY CARLOTTA MOHAMED AND GABRIELE HOLTERMANN
About 20 concerned Kew Gardens residents brazed the frigid temperatures on Saturday, Jan. 9, and attended a rally outside the controversial Umbrella Hotel, demanding it remain closed.
The rally was organized by New York City Council candidate Douglas Shapiro of Forest Hills, who is running to represent the 29th Council District.
Protesters gathered outside of the Umbrella Hotel, located at 124-18 Queens Blvd., that currently has “hotel closed” signs posted in the lobby, after management decided to voluntarily close on Friday, Jan. 8.
The Kew Gardens Civic Association had informed the community on Facebook about the hotel’s closure saying, “We are interested in knowing its future — as it has historically been a point of anguish for the community. We will not allow a new problem to surface.”
“This was a decision taken unilaterally by the owners under public pressure. Perhaps the owners are afraid of serious legal liability or of a tarnished reputation,” Shapiro said. “But we must understand their decision to voluntarily close is reversible. They have carried out some furnishings last night to prove their seriousness, but they can carry the furnishings back tomorrow, if they change their mind.”
Although the protesters welcomed the latest development, they’re requiring a more reliable and stable approach to ensure the hotel is permanently shut down. For months, the hotel has been a hotbed of criminal activities, including prostitution, drug dealing and human trafficking.
It has also been the scene of multiple shootings, including New York City’s first homicide of 2021. Only one hour into the new year, 20-year-old Robert Williams, a standout athlete who just one day shy of his 21st birthday, was fatally shot outside the hotel. Two other men were also shot, leaving one in critical and the other in stable condition.
Andrea Reichenbach, who has lived on the block for years, heard the shots in the early morning hours of the new year and hoped it was fireworks — a regular occurrence during the summer of 2020 — but had learned the next morning that a young man had died.
“That’s hard, and I grew up in New York. I know that kind of violence is not neighborhood specific,” Reichenbach said. “But to have it this close to where I sleep, it is difficult to deal with.”
The community had fought the development of the hotel in 2014. Now, they believe there is an opportunity to turn the hotel into a residential building.
Some residents were concerned that the city could turn the hotel into a homeless shelter. Dr. Donghui Zang, president of the New York City Residents Alliance and City Council candidate for the 29th District, said he would like to see the hotel turned into something that benefits the community.
“I want to see people with real needs to get to use it. Maybe some kind of affordable housing for seniors or families,” Zang said.
Following the events and continued pressure from residents and local elected officials, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Jan. 5 said he would move to shut down the hotel that had also received over a dozen violations last year.
“I think it’s been a blight on the community and it should not be that going forward. So, we’re going to use all the power of the city government to get that closed and stop having the community suffer from what’s happened at the hotel,” de Blasio said.
However, Shapiro said the city must ensure that the hotel remains closed, not with words, but with action.
“The de Blasio administration has shown a remarkable consistency of absolute incompetence across a vast array of issues, including safety, education, coronavirus prevention and the ongoing coronavirus vaccine rollout,” Shapiro said. “Our response to the promise that the hotel is shutting down permanently is simple: these are only words.”
Shapiro urged those who attended the rally to contact their local officials and demand that the city close down the hotel by the end of the month.
“We must push city authorities to shut down the Umbrella Hotel for good,” Shapiro said. “Every person, regardless of their race, politics and status, deserves to feel safe in their community and their homes. You deserve to feel safe.”