NEW YORK: Dirty and crowded — and surrounded by police, both in uniform and plain clothes — this is how once a swanky New York hotel, Roosevelt, now looks: a shelter for homeless refugees.
Like other properties in distress, Roosevelt has graffiti on the front, partly covered with placards and contrasts sharply with the nearby Grand Central station that glistens after renovation.
The 19-storey building, with 1,025 rooms, named after former US President Theodore Roosevelt — opened its door to America’s rich and famous in 1924, almost 100 years ago. Now, most of its tenants are illegal refugees from neighboring Latin American nations, although some are from distant regions as well.
In 1979, an American real estate developer Paul Milstein leased the hotel to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). In 2000, PIA and Saudi Prince Faisal bin Khalid bought the hotel, and PIA then acquired Prince Faisal’s ownership stake.
Real estate developer believes hotel can still earn profit with some effort
In 2020, the hotel closed due to continued financial losses associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2023, it reopened as a shelter for asylum seekers deported to liberal states by the conservative governor of Texas.
The building — now run by the New York government — has two American flags on the entrance though it had a Pakistani flag, too, until recently. It was removed after PIA leased it to the New York government.
A group of Pakistani journalists visited the shelter on Sept 24, during the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, which is the busiest season for New York’s hotel.
As it’s close to the UN headquarters, Roosevelt was once a favourite abode of visiting leaders and diplomats. During the UNGA, the hotel often had two or three foreign flags to show which foreign leaders were staying there.
“I remember President Musharraf having breakfast with other world leaders,” said Moviz Siddiqui, a Pakistani journalist who has covered the UNGA for almost 20 years now. “Scores of ministers and diplomats stayed here too.”
But there were no presidents or prime ministers on Sept 24. Police allowed Pakistani journalists to watch the refugees, not to interview them or take their pictures. Yet, they managed to do both, after moving to a ‘safer’ distance.
“You are beautiful,” said a refugee, Kevin, to a Pakistani journalist as she tried to interview him. He asked for a joint (marijuana) and when she said she did not have any, he told her: “Life here is tough. Marijuana can lessen the burden.”
Another refugee, who, like others, only gave her first name, Michel, said “the situation is particularly bad for children.” She said they were living in unhygienic conditions and had no future.
“People have no hope, so they get violent,” she said. “They often get into fights with each other.
On Sept 25, The New York Post reported that police arrested two migrants from Roosevelt for criminally assaulting another refugee. Two more were arrested during the weekend. Since early this summer, when the refugees started coming, police have arrested 40 people from Roosevelt.
Four to five refugees live in each of the 850 rooms they occupy. When the journalists visited, many stood on the sidewalks and more lined up on the front, under the two American flags, waiting for food.
The police let them stay but when shopkeepers of this upscale commercial district of Manhattan complain, they push them back into an already crammed hotel.
Leased for $220m
PIA still owns 99 per cent shares of the hotel while the Saudi prince holds on to one per cent. The airline has leased the hotel to the city for three years, at the rate of about $200 a day for a single room. The city will pay a total of $220 million in three years.
The agreement requires the city to repair and clean the hotel before it hands it back to PIA. But Imran Igra, a New York real estate developer of Pakistani origin, thinks it’s unlikely.
“In such arrangements, the lease is automatically extended,” he said. “Pakistan neither has the desire nor the resources to restore the hotel to its past glory.”
Mr Igra said that in its present condition, Roosevelt would sell for $636m. But if it’s sold as a midtown Manhattan hotel, after restoration, it could fetch between $1bn and $1.4bn. Repairs may cost up to $500m. He, however, opposes selling it because he believes it can be turned into a profit-making property with some effort.
Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2023