Midnight at the Prince Hotel

The final Prohibition-era flophouse in Bay Ridge is set to be sold off by the year’s end. What happens until then?

Tuesday, 9:25 p.m.

When I arrived at the front door of the Prince Hotel, one hand on the knob and the other on eight crisp twenty-dollar bills in my front pocket, the place was quiet. No gunshots, no glass breaking, no shouting from the stairwells or loud shuffling in the rooms upstairs. Outside, a man and his son sat on the curb in pajamas, talking idly with someone leaning on his car. Inside, nothing moved but a slow ceiling fan and a few gnats.

The man at the front desk leaned back in his chair behind a pane of bulletproof glass. He lifted his head when I stepped up to the window.

“Any rooms open?” I asked.

“Cheapest is 90 dollars,” he said, taking a yellow slip from the counter in front of him. “Only cash.”

I nodded.

He asked for my driver’s license and took the money, then began filling out the slip.

I looked around the lobby, then at the room options (luxury suite, $120; jacuzzi tub, $140), and out through the blinds and across the street, where a woman from a Chinese restaurant stood dumping cold grease and chicken stock into the gutter. The smell drifted over the threshold, where it mixed with the odor of ammonia and stale cigarette smoke. There was an old gray couch under the window, two black tables against the wall, a dusty half-lit chandelier hanging low above it all.

“Checkout is at twelve,” said the man at the desk. “Breakfast is served, too.” To my right sat an overturned box of donuts, empty on a bare table.

I turned back to the counter and collected my room key, with a receipt and ten dollars change. The man buzzed me in through a big metal door to the left of the desk, and it slammed shut behind me.

Upstairs, I made the twenty-foot walk across stained tiles to Room 206. Which, for the next 15 hours or so, was mine.

In front of the door sat three crumpled tissues, beside a light spattering of water and something red. I turned the key in a rusty gold lock and stepped inside.

There’s a strange, sick feeling you get from being inside the Prince Hotel. It lasts only for a minute or two, before the thick moisture and dilapidation start to feel normal. But some faint ghost of it remains for the length of your stay. Like a dull headache or an ulcer.

Even if you haven’t heard the complaints or read the stories — the drugs, the hookers, the fighting and drinking — just the sight of the place conjures a kind of cold unease.

“It looks a little creepy,” said a woman standing by the 95th Street subway stop, just a few hundred feet from the Prince’s blue awning. She’s never been inside, but said that she peers in the front door sometimes on her walks around the neighborhood. “That light is always on. And I never see anybody going in or out, really.”

The hotel is four stories tall and built entirely of red and gray brick, still visible on most of the exterior. There’s a quiet cottage on the right, an abandoned nightclub on the left. Tudor-style woodwork covers the upper right-hand corner, like a relic of some grand old world creeping through the worn brick and tile.

When the building that would become the Prince was built in 1918, the owners unveiled it as a upper-class gathering place called The Spofford Hotel. The architects — two brothers who operated a construction business under the name Lake & Lake — felt that the name evoked a kind of champagne-and-tuxedo gravitas, and used it to attract rich and powerful patrons from all over the city.

Every day at the the Spofford, beginning with its grand opening in 1919, lunch and dinner were served in the “Grand Ball Room.” The room, now destroyed, covered almost the entire ground floor. It was built to seat 200 people comfortably for dinner and weddings. There was a multi-course supper special on Sunday nights for $1.25–30 cents above the weekend price of 65 cents, and an a la carte menu all day.

Newspaper advertisements for the Spofford were illustrated with more detail than most front-page news items. Some weeks, the ads took up entire half-pages of the paper, printed in bold ink across three columns. They featured tall men in crisp tuxedoes, dancing with archetypal flapper girls across the page. The women wore long ball gowns, their sharp features and close-cropped hair shaded with thick gobs of ink. Opulent lanterns hung from every straight line in the ad, and from the bold calligraphic type at the top. Fine print below the title noted that “over 500 social events, conducted by prominent people” were once held at the hotel over the course of a single year. Many were advertised in the society pages.

During the darkest years of Prohibition, the Lake brothers redecorated. They made deals with big-name suppliers from across the water in Manhattan, and added a second, more intimate lounge on the building’s ground floor. They called it the “Spanish Room.” In a 1928 advertisement, printed on the entertainment pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, it was billed as “an ideal space for weddings, small banquets and club meetings.”

There remains no conclusive evidence as to whether alcohol — illegal for several years at the time of the small private lounge’s construction — was ever served there.

But we can be sure that Vannie Higgins, Brooklyn’s most famous bootlegger, operated a notorious liquor empire around Bay Ridge at that time. When he was involved in a deadly shootout on the streets of the neighborhood in 1929, he told police after his arrest that he lived at The Hotel Stafford. A young officer, having heard that Higgins had moved out to Manhattan, recorded that as being at93rd and 3rd in Manhattan.

But as a local historian has recently pointed out in a piece about the shootout, “he almost certainly meant The Hotel Spofford,” which stands at that exact address in Brooklyn. Presumably, this was some slip of the tongue by Higgins, or a result of a rookie cop’s bad handwriting. But this being a story about the building that was to become the Prince Hotel, you might think it equally likely that he was covering something up. Perhaps some stash of dirty money or stores of barreled liquor.

After all, there was no Hotel Stafford at 93rd and 3rd in Manhattan.

Today, what used to be the “Grand Ball Room” is blocked off by plywood and plaster, while a few remnants of the “Spanish Room” sit abandoned in the dark, just left of the hotel proper. The only view of it is afforded by a rectangular window in front of the hotel.

Through the blinds at night, with the right amount of bic-lighter glow and moonlight, you can still make out a faint outline of the bar. Lean in close and you’ll see your reflection too, distorted in the cloudy mirror behind it.

For a little over a month, I’d been asking people about the Prince Hotel. Calling all the local government officers, the departments of Buildings and Finance, historical societies; asking people on streets and in bars. I’d even placed a few calls to the home and office of Moses Fried, who’s owned the hotel, along with a host of notorious, and now mostly defunct, flophouses and for-profit homeless shelters since 2001.

Since he began working as a developer in the 1980s, Fried has been able to move like a phantom through the Brooklyn real estate market. He’s owned four “Class B” hotels like the Prince, three of which have been shut down for drugs or prostitution in the last few years. His name is also on the deed of countless Single Room Occupancy and apartment buildings, most of which are illegal.

He is 87 years old and, according to a ten-year-old story in The New York Sun, a survivor of the Holocaust. He is married — and often transfers troubled properties to Bernice Fried, his wife. In the King’s County Supreme Court system alone, he’s been the defendant in 25 lawsuits since 1990. All of them involve unsafe living conditions and illegal construction projects.

Every few years, usually when one of his hotels is being shut down, he picks up the phone for a reporter and gives a few canned lines, always to the same non-effect. “I’m a religious man,” he once told the New York Sun. And the Daily News. And The Brooklyn Ink. “I just want to run a good business. Not one with prostitution.”

Those who’ve dealt with him tell a different story. Tim Thomas, who runs a real estate blog about properties along the line of the Q train, called him “a very intense lying scumbag.” In telling me the story of 205 Parkside — one of Fried’s properties, vacant by order of the city for years but still rented intermittently to “squatters” — Thomas said that Fried was “very aware that their ‘hotels’ were used as brothels and drug dens for years.”

This was obvious enough in other properties, like the Little Princess Hotel in Park Slope and the Prince Lefferts in Bed-Stuy, for the city to mount criminal investigations and have them shuttered for good. Local police once spent two weeks working undercover investigating allegations of sanctioned prostitution at the Prince Lefferts. One of the officers reported that a man would come into the hotel and slip money to one of the girls in the lobby, who’d give the handful of cash to someone at the front desk. Then the two people would disappear to the back for an hour or so. Sometimes, reported the officer, the front desk even provided condoms. Three days after the investigation ended, there was a padlock on the hotel’s door.

One by one the hotels were closed, until only the Prince of Bay Ridge was left standing.

9:31 p.m.

My “single furnished room” turned out to be about half a room, separated from its neighbor by a paper-thin sheetrock wall. Court records show that Moses Fried, or someone acting under his name, undertook an illegal construction project ten years ago to break bigger spaces into single-bed rooms. The violation is still listed as open, and accounts for about $10,000 of the $400,000 that Fried owes to the city. The map beside the door, which looks drawn by hand, lists all of these illegal rooms as being legally sanctioned.

Still, the room was a little bigger than I’d expected, a little cleaner, too. Other than the bed I had a small desk with two mismatched chairs, two scratched-up end tables, a mini-fridge that functioned only as a third end table. The thick white curtains were full of dust. Above the bed was a water-damaged painting of sunflowers, hung to hide a few round holes in the wall. I sat down in the corner with a notebook to get a few thoughts down, and noticed something scrawled in thick black ink on the exposed hot water pipe.

He is watching.

I shivered a little, then shook it off to look for bugs. There were some, mostly flying things and one or two tiny roaches. Like the rest of the room, they weren’t quite as bad as I thought. The way people talk about this place, you’d half expect someone to punch you in the face on your way over the threshold. But things stayed quiet, even upstairs behind the big metal door. Every few minutes someone down the hall would laugh at a joke, spoken in what sounded like Spanish. A bottle fell upstairs; a couple ran through the hall holding hands.

I listened like that, sitting still on the bed, for an hour.

When the nerves set in I packed up my bag and put it under the bed, then took a walk downstairs. On the way out I passed the man and his son who’d been outside when I got there. They were sitting on the couch in the lobby, wearing their pajamas. The kid was playing a game on his father’s smartphone, laying across his lap the way people do in a living room. I said hello and asked about the building — “No English,” he said — then stepped out onto the sidewalk. It was warmer there, though darker than any street in the neighborhood.. I hadn’t noticed until then, but the overhang of the Prince, harsh and gaudy as it is, remains this corner of 93rd Street’s only real source of light.

It was there, on New Year’s Eve three years ago, that Charles Amado, who’d been drinking and dancing in the lounge next door, got in a car with his girlfriend and mowed down four people. They’d gathered outside near the Prince Hotel’s overhang to smoke, and couldn’t see him coming. When the car hit, three of them were knocked backward onto the pavement, while another fell forward and got caught below the tires. Amado’s girlfriend then took the wheel and reversed hard, hitting two more cars before she stopped. The fallen woman was literally knocked out of her shoes, and left a body-sized puddle of blood on the street.

No sign of that remains. Just a little chunk taken out of the sidewalk and a few black pockmarks on the concrete. I also couldn’t find any of these hypodermic needles that newspapers have reported people finding in little piles outside the door.

Within seconds of my being outside a skinny guy and his girlfriend came by and sat on the concrete stoop to smoke. Each of their arms, so thin and pale you could make out the soft lines of their bones, was covered in colored tattoos and track marks. Neither spoke English.

“You guys live here?” I asked.

The guy looked up at the faded yellow text on the overhang, from which the logo and phone number had just been scratched. From the ground below it, you could see how faded and haggard the thing really was.

His eyes got wide for a moment; his mouth crunched into a tight a circle. He grimaced and shook his head. Then he shut his eyes.

In February of 2016, Brooklyn Sheriffs raided the Prince Hotel. They came in a few department cars, lights flashing, and posted up at the front desk to collect on Moses Fried’s debt. Deputies at the desk started collecting cash — for check-ins and rent mostly — to pay down the $400,000 owed by the hotel to the city for its 68 active violations. For a point of comparison, bear in mind that 205 Parkside Avenue, another of Fried’s illegal SROs that the city was able to shutter, had five violations at the time of its closing.

Newspapers reported the raid the next morning. People posted pictures to Facebook of the squad cars and the lights. For a moment, it seemed as if the community’s long battle with the Prince might be over. Days later, the Department of Finance even decided that the debt was too big for a normal payout — it would take years to chip away at it in little cash payments like the $90 I’d paid at the desk — and announced an auction. The hotel would be legally taken from Fried and sold to the highest bidder on June 18th.

The end was in sight.

But Fried, working from Miami Beach, sued the city, and the lawsuit gave him time. It also necessitated that a judge rule on whether the city could actually move on with its auction. By filing the suit, Fried alleged that there had been some foul play. In the meantime, he promised to fix all outstanding violations, and keep what control he had of his hotel. Most people didn’t realize it at the time, according to a representative from the Department of Buildings, but a raid from the sheriff’s department doesn’t imply any criminal activity — only civil wrongdoing. The sheriff deals exclusively with civil violations, which are notorious for being legislated slowly and punished sparingly.

“He’s basically got to prove that the city did something wrong in handling this,” said Councilman Vincent Gentile, “which I don’t think it did.” Speaking at the end of September — when the case was supposed to be decided — Gentile seemed confident that the city would be able to move forward with the auction, and noted that the case was on the calendar for October 25th. So unless Fried and his lawyers get a continuance, it looked like he’dll lose the place. Gentile wasn’t too clear on the particulars of the auction, and neither was the Department of Buildings. What they were sure of is that the Prince hasdn’t been a safe place to live or stay for years.

In May 2016, just four months after the auction date was set, someone checked in early at one of Fried’s “single furnished rooms” at the Prince and didn’t leave for days. When he didn’t make his noon checkout, a manager found him on the bed. There was a needle in his arm, and a backpack full of heroin by his side. The rest of the summer was quiet, but the story of the overdose hung over Bay Ridge like a black cloud. Legislation was introduced to keep out “junkies and homeless people,” who come into the neighborhood on the R train and never leave. “It’s like a dumping ground, unfortunately,” said Ann Falutico, chairman of Community Board 10’s zoning committee, at a recent board meeting. “We’ll have to do something about it.”

12:02 a.m.

After visiting two bars and a smoke shop around the corner, I went back to my room and tried to sleep. The lobby was empty.

No one in the bars had much to say. There were groans when I mentioned the Prince Hotel, but not much else. Upstairs there were more footsteps than there’d been at check-in, more voices too. They were louder now. More irritated.

Listening through the pipe-hole in the ceiling I could make out three different languages. Bugs came from two of the room’s four corners. The little flying ones were proving harder and harder to kill. Someone screamed from outside my window. “You Jap fuck! I will drop an A-bomb on you both so fast that — ”

Another bottle dropped. This one shattered.

Two minutes on the bed and the itching began. Like a hard bug bite, but dull and all over. Things flushed and water came rushing through my pipe and I heard music start up, then a television from down the hall.

I sat on the bed, stone still for another few minutes, then packed up my things and left. Snapped a few pictures on the way out, noticed what I could. The balled-up tissues, the no-smoking-in-the-hall signs. One rickety black wheelchair at the foot of the stairs.

It was 2:35 in the morning.

I slid my key under the slot at the front desk on my way out. Said I had to catch a late train. The guy smiled a little and said alright, like he knew I’d be down before morning. I must have lingered a moment too long because he looked back down at the desk and said, with what looked like pleasure and felt like spite: “No refunds.”