Lucerne Now: Reflections on a Divided Community

The issue of sheltering the homeless turned into claims of deceit and distortion

| 21 Nov 2020 | 10:07

The case began with important questions about who decides how we share our crowded urban space. But by the time Justice Debra Adams announced she was ready to rule in the matter of the Lucerne hotel, the testimony had devolved into neighbor-versus-neighbor claims of deceit and distortion.

As the accusations became uglier, they also grew further and further from the original issue of whether the Lucerne should continue to be used to shelter some 240 men with drug and alcohol challenges

Defenders of the shelter accused the opponents of trying to bribe some of the men to testify that conditions in the Lucerne are poor and they would rather move. This brought a withering affidavit from one of the shelters critics, Melinda Thaler, a lawyer and West Sider of three decades.

“I never did or said any such thing,” Thaler said in an affidavit. “These are despicable defamatory lies.”

She had been working as a volunteer attorney for the group opposing the shelter, West Side Community Organization, and had bought coffee and meals for some men as she interviewed them about conditions, Thaler explained. “Of course, I never offered anyone any money or other thing of value in exchange for signing affidavits saying they wanted to move out of the Lucerne — as all four of the witnesses who signed such affidavits now attest.”

Growing Anger

The neighborhood combatants have challenged each others’ motives from early on. Supporters of the shelter, lead by a group called UWS Open Hearts, described the opponents as privileged racists seeking to transform the Upper West Side to a walled garden. The opponents, lead by WestCo, characterized the supporters as ideologues preaching the philosophy of anti-racism but refusing to discuss details like crime, drug use and what in an early time might have been called vagrancy.

The growing anger seemed to boil over in Thaler’s affidavit.

The “specious allegations,” she wrote, “are all the more hypocritical, considering that Open Hearts, the newly-formed community group that is the driving force behind their litigation, has repeatedly admitted to this Court that it frequently organizes “free stores” for the men at the Lucerne, holds regular pizza parties for them, provides them with MetroCards, and has set up “Amazon Wishlists” for them.”

That the Open Hearts side “has no issue besmirching me ... over completely commonplace and perfectly ethical conduct such as sharing a cup of coffee or a breakfast with some witnesses or clients at some meetings,” Thaler added, “speaks volumes about his and his clients motivations here in seeking to smear their adversaries at all costs.”

A win-at-all-costs mentality, it was being alleged, had descended from our national politics to root itself in a neighborhood dispute. An argument worthy of Jane Jacobs had become a feud more reminiscent of Steve Bannon.

At first the challenge was finding places for people without homes, most of them black or Hispanic, safe from the spread of COVID-19.

So Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who before the pandemic had been moving the homeless out of hotels, moved them back in as a safer alternative than the dormitory-style shelters. For the hoteliers this was a welcome source of revenue, most of it from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as the bottom fell out of the travel business.

Losing Control

But in some neighborhoods this program became a symbol of the city losing control, especially when combined with rising crime, increased presence of encampments on the streets and the rampant anxiety of lockdown and economic carnage.

One group of men ended up in a hotel on 51st Street, down the block from two other support facilities. Neighbors, supported by their council member, who also happened to be speaker of the City Council, said it was too much.

So five months into the crisis, a new hotel was turned into a shelter and the men were moved there. That hotel was the Lucerne, on the corner of 79th street and Amsterdam Avenue.

The Lucerne had once been an SRO – a residence for single, low-income people.

But in recent years, as the city and the Upper West Side boomed, the Lucerne became a popular tourist hotel. Nice Matin, the restaurant off its lobby, was honored by Wine Spectator Magazine for its cellar, which featured wines previously owned by John F. Kennedy and the now shuttered New York standard, Chanterelle, according to the restaurant’s website.

While men from the shelter sometimes seek money from customers at the restaurant, it has continued to operate without other disruption.

A win-at-all-costs mentality, it was being alleged, had descended from our national politics to root itself in a neighborhood dispute. An argument worthy of Jane Jacobs had become a feud more reminiscent of Steve Bannon.