I am pretty sure the only time the police were called specifically on me was while working for West Side Spirit.
The story I was reporting focused on so-called illegal hotels, which were often found in Single Room Occupancy residences and other types of buildings that weren’t outright classified as “residential.” When New York City’s tourism industry heated up in the mid-2000s, many landlords found that it was more lucrative to rent out rooms to tourists than to keep these accommodations as part of the neighborhood’s permanent affordable housing stock. City officials agreed that this practice was against the letter and spirit of the law, setting a dangerous precedent, but landlords pointed to vague phrasing in a building’s certificate of occupancy that they claimed allowed them to run transient establishments. In the meantime, residents of these buildings complained of inconsiderate and noisy tourists, ever-changing neighbors and landlord harassment.
One such resident, Anne Cunningham, was kind enough to invite me into her home to show me how it was actually being operated as a hotel. At first glance, The Tempo, on West 73rd Street, looked like your average, nicely appointed Upper West Side high-rise. But inside were all the hallmarks of the hospitality industry: a rack of brochures advertising tours and shows, a check-in desk in the lobby and a handful of people wheeling suitcases and lugging bags throughout its hallways.
Trying to act inconspicuous, I began snapping pictures to document this activity, chatting up some of the tourists to ask them how they found this place and what their hometown was. The manager, of course, didn’t appreciate that. He interrupted my conversation, instructing the guests not to talk to me, and threatened to call the police. The guests, at this point, were totally freaked out and confused.
Hackles raised, I felt that I was truly onto a good story—if this building’s hotel business were legit, why would this guy care if I took photos and talked to people? Moreover, I was experiencing harassment—as a member of the press, uncovering injustice! OK, so this wasn’t exactly Watergate, but still, it was exciting. I had clearly touched a nerve and the erosion of affordable housing was a huge issue on the West Side, and in the city as a whole.
Feeling completely in the right and figuring I could get off the hook using my precinct connections, I told the manager to go ahead and call the cops. Indeed, when the police arrived, I showed them my press credentials and they declined to detain me—although they suggested I leave.
I did, using my brush with the law as the lede for my November 2007 story, “Tourist Traps: Critics say hotels are illegally encroaching on much-needed housing, but building owners say the law isn’t so clear.”
Although the city has cracked down on these hotels, many still exist and West Side Spirit reported about partial vacate orders issued for two such buildings as recently December 2009. I’m sure those won’t be the last
Charlotte Eichna has worked at West Side Spirit since 2003, and has been executive editor since 2008.