Over the course of its history, the Hotel Oak has been many things. In the beginning, it was painted a perfect white. Over the years, stains spread across facade hinting at fires, violence and a century of dirt hitting the walls with no one doing much cleaning at all.
Looking South at East 12th St.’s Hotel Oak in 1988. Compare this photo with a picture from 1910. Photo courtesy of Ron Schweiger, Brooklyn Borough Historian.
If the Hotel Oak acted as a catalyst for the rise of New York, the hotel pulled its weight as an anchor during the city’s descent. After decades of ostentatious bright lights, the ’70s and ’80s saw a major decline in the city. In this neighborhood, the fall was punctuated by the hotel. It eventually became a building designated by the city to provide housing to the poor, but it often served simply to bury them.
Ignored as much as it was restricted, the hotel became a haven for drug use and prostitution by the ’70s and through the ’90s. Business cards handed out a decade ago to publicize the major prostitution ring housed inside read “18 bucks for 15 minutes.” They were given out freely without police batting an eye.
“When I lived on Westminster Road, between Glenwood and Avenue H, from 1976-1978, the hotel was a Single Room Occupancy facility,” said Ron. “Mostly single men would occupy the building. The photo I took in April, 1988 clearly shows the dramatic change from 1910.”
The dramatic decline was in no way limited to the hotel. These decades, particularly the latter part of the 20th century, saw a dirty New York committed to film for posterity. The above video gives us a glimpse of that time as a family travels from Union Square to Coney Island in a city that is, in some ways, barely recognizable today.
As we continue this series, we will also continue to ask neighbors if you have any stories, pictures or records about the hotel to share. In a previous iteration of this blog, a lengthy debate was held about the building. If you have anything at all to add, leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.