The Watson Hotel on W57th Street became the focus of protests Sunday night after city authorities tried to move single male migrants housed there to a new facility in Brooklyn — prompting a backlash at the conditions from some of the asylum-seekers sent to Brooklyn, and a stand-off on the street.
Police were called as men who had been housed at the hotel and had gone to a new facility at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook returned to Manhattan, saying they were faced with “icebox” conditions and few bathrooms. Mayor Eric Adams announced earlier in January that The Watson would now be used solely for families with children, with men moved to Brooklyn. The process of moving the men began Friday, but culminated in Sunday night’s protest.
Activists told W42ST that the first men from The Watson had gone to Brooklyn late on Friday but found what one protester called “an icebox,” with hundreds of cots in warehouse-like rooms, few bathrooms and little heat. Migrant campaign group South Bronx Mutual Aid released footage showing the facility. On Sunday some of the men returned to The Watson and demanded to be let back in, at the same time as others were being encouraged to leave.
The Watson appeared to refuse to allow the men access, prompting the protest outside, with police arriving just before 8pm. The asylum-seeking men were joined by activists who had responded to pleas on Twitter to join the demonstration. As DHS tried to board migrants onto two MTA buses outside the hotel to take them to Brooklyn, protesters pleaded with the men not to go.
The 597-room Watson was pressed into service in October 2022 to house migrants who had been bused from the southern border by Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott, after a plan by Mayor Adams to house them in encampments in the Bronx and on Randall’s Island was canceled in the face of local protests. The exact number of single male asylum-seekers it has been housing since then has not been disclosed by the city, with one activist saying Sunday night it was as many as 800.
Back in April 2021, The Watson was sold for an estimated $175m, just as Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to end its use as a temporary homeless shelter. The hotel was one of more than 130 New York hotels used for homeless accommodation during the pandemic.
In Brooklyn, the Cruise Terminal has been equipped for 1,000 single men in giant dormitories and in trailers outside the main building. At The Watson Sunday one migrant called Ivan acted as a spokesman for the group who had gone to Brooklyn and told police they did not want to return to the conditions there.
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The man told the NYPD’s Midtown North commanding officer Deputy Inspector John O’Connell — according to a translation given by an activist livestreamer on the Citizen App: “It is an icebox. It is so cold. There are no heaters. We’re from warm countries. It’s too cold. We can’t live like this. We’re people. We’re not animals.”
The activist who translated claimed there had been no notice given to the men that they would be bused to Brooklyn. W42ST could not independently verify the claim. In his announcement of The Watson’s change of use, the mayor had not given a timeline of when men would be moved, or how they would be given notice. The move from The Watson to Brooklyn was a notable change of conditions, from shared rooms to large communal dormitories.
At the protest unfolded, police largely stayed on the north side of W57th Street. At one point activists could be heard shouting “open the doors” in Spanish, a reference to claims that the men who had returned from Brooklyn had been refused entry and water. When DHS staff escorted men from The Watson onto a waiting MTA bus to Brooklyn, police created a buffer between the protesters and the bus, which left with just a handful of passengers on board.
As the stand-off continued, campaign groups appealed on Twitter for people to bring blankets and bedding for the migrants, saying as many as 50 were planning to camp outside The Watson. The men’s refusal to use the Brooklyn facility may mean the city does not have to provide them with an alternative. Migrants are covered by the city’s right-to-shelter law, Adams acknowledged last week, after appearing to suggest they may not be. But if they turn down the only option they are given, it is likely they would not have to be housed elsewhere.
The pressure on the city from the number of arrivals from the southern border is perhaps the only common ground between Adams and campaign groups. The mayor declared an emergency in October and has pleaded for state and federal assistance for the city to help deal with the 40,000 arrivals since last spring. Hell’s Kitchen has taken a significant role in housing migrants, with local schools saying in October last year that they were struggling with the influx.
Adams also traveled to the southern border at El Paso in the middle of this month, where the New York Times reported that he warned the migrant crisis could cost the city $2 billion it does not have. In the border city Adams told migrants he would fight for their right to the “American dream,” but also called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be activated and said: “Our cities are being undermined — we don’t deserve this.”
The scale of arrivals at the southern border has broken records. Almost all are from a relatively small number of countries including Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti, which continue to endure grinding poverty and high levels of violence, or from Venezuela and Cuba, where the combination of dictatorships, US sanctions and near-economic collapse in the wake of COVID has prompted massive numbers to flee through a risky route across Central America to the Mexican border.
Outside The Watson a New York activist focused his anger on Adams, saying that he and Governor Kathy Hochul could “open up the empty luxury apartments,” and accused the mayor of “looting” the city for wealthy property developers. Other groups appealed on social media for people to form “shifts” of protest, suggesting that Hell’s Kitchen is likely to become a focus for political anger against the mayor on top of the pressure the area is under for being used by the city to house the new arrivals.
On Monday morning, around half a dozen tents had popped up outside the hotel where migrants spent the night, and others had slept on the concrete outside the front door, in a sign that the stand-off could run for much longer.