Over the course of its history, the Hotel Oak has been many things. As its facade has darkened, a mountain of street lore and police reports have made it a constant source of neighborly conversation.
The stories told often intersect at surreal and tragic.
In the middle of a New York heat wave about a decade ago, a lifeless body was spotted laid out on the rusted fire escape baking in the sun. It took hours to reach the body and once they did, police found out it was Mary, the 65-year-old prostitute from who-knows-where, simply sleeping. Maybe she had a stroke, neighbors had guessed, or a heart attack. She was the latest reminder of a long tradition of sex work in the Oak that attracted customers to the area.
Mary survived that day and the police simply joked about it and left, as was tradition.
Several neighbors tell similar stories of time spent in the back of police cars (as victims of crimes, it’s probably worth noting). In the process of searching the neighborhood for a mugger, cop cars with victims in the back would pass the hotel on Avenue H. The cops made one joke or another, laughed, pressed the gas pedal a little harder and turn on the sirens so they could make the red light on Coney Island Avenue with the Oak out of sight.
The police are not the only ones who laugh about the hotel by a long shot. Truth be told, it’s the neighborhood joke.
The Oak is decidedly less funny when women are afraid to walk down the block alone late at night. A local young woman and her boyfriend were walking down the block at night several years ago when yells started from the hotel. The couple cursed back at the Oak’s residents who then ran at the girl. The couple called the police and the screamers hopped into their ancient car and sped off. A brick was thrown through the car’s back window but the car didn’t so much as break. There are a lot of rusted automobiles in the sea. The screamers kept driving.
When a new owner bought the hotel in the middle of the 2000s, he closed the building down as he renovated. It took several years due to legal jam ups. The time in which the hotel was unoccupied (ending in 2009) is looked at as a golden age by neighbors.
The picture to the left shows the Oak boarded up in March 2008.
On warmer afternoons, kids ran through the concrete backyard of the building looking for soccer games by hopping the fence into the parking lot of the old funeral home nearby. When it got too dark to spot the ball, the game ended and the kids headed home, wondering about the bright lights inside the hotel which persisted in burning years after the place had been declared uninhabitable and supposedly emptied of life.
The stories and conversations between neighbors about the Oak could fill a book — or at least a long comment thread from a previous iteration of this blog.
When, in 2009, the hotel was set to reopen as a homeless shelter, Community Board 14 held emergency meetings about neighbors long lists of concerns. The hotel has since opened and is housing a variety of people. It has to be noted that the hotel is in much better shape today than it was under previous ownership. Drug paraphernalia does not litter the street, there’s no evidence of prostitution in the Oak and the building has been described by neighbors as relatively quiet.
I spoke with a few neighbors about the state of the hotel today.
“Well, we have to make sure to be honest here,” said one neighbor. “It’s been relatively quiet lately. There were a couple of stabbing incidents this summer but that’s it.”
“Except for that couple that got into that fight on the street, it’s been relatively quiet,” agreed a female neighbor.
In fact, today’s Oak has only one problem that is regularly complained about: a couple residing in the hotel regularly drink and get into fights on the street.
The female neighbor described a particularly memorable episode from just a couple of weeks ago.
“She was drunk, he was I-don’t-know-what,” said the neighbor. The man choked the woman on the asphalt of East 12th so close to the street corner that another neighbor feared a car turning onto the street would have run her over. The neighbors called the cops but say none came that they saw.
For their part, the 70th Precinct says officers stop by the building every single day in addition to Common Ground keeping regular tabs on the situation. With the notable exception of this couple, neighbors do seem relatively satisfied with the Oak.
I continued the conversation with the neighbors about the Oak’s relative quiet at present.
“He beat her senseless in the middle of the street?” I asked, forming an unwelcome visual of the recent incident.
“Well, not senseless,” said the female neighbor, matter-of-factly. “She got up.”
“Wow. Low expectations, huh?”
She nodded and the neighbors laughed until tears streamed down their faces at the old neighborhood joke.