The Great Read
A Ukrainian immigrant, 82, has lived in a Manhattan hotel for decades. Now the owners want him out — while earning millions from the city to house others.
William Mackiw in his home at the Stewart Hotel: a rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment that goes for $865 a month.Credit...
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By Dan Barry and Photographs By Kirsten Luce
The travails of many can be lucrative for a few. Take the old Stewart Hotel in Manhattan, which is being used as temporary housing for some of the tens of thousands of migrants who have come north to New York in search of sanctuary.
The city is paying a $200 nightly rate for 611 rooms in the nearly century-old hotel. This comes to roughly $6,000 a month for each room, or about $3.66 million a month for the hotel’s owners.
While they collect favorable rates for their fully booked hotel, the owners are also suing to evict the wisp of a man paying $865 a month for Room 1810: William Mackiw, who has lived there for so long that no one knows when he first appeared. It’s been decades.
At some point he moved in with the rent-stabilized room’s tenant, his aunt Louise. At some point she died. Again, it’s been decades.
And he just kept paying the modest rent with what he earned as a waiter in restaurants of casual fare. Your Howard Johnson’s. Your Beefsteak Charlie’s. Month after month, year after year.
Mr. Mackiw, 82 and retired, lives among the relics of a solitary life rooted in the past. Piles of old movies on VHS and DVD. Threadbare shirts hanging above the discolored bathtub. A broken TV. A dust-covered rotary phone. Four pairs of black shoes gathered on the floor like a flock of crows.
Within his confined world, the tight boundaries of which include a church and a market, he lived mostly unseen. Until a few months ago, that is, when someone knocked on his door and handed him a document. Its message:
“Time for you to leave,” Mr. Mackiw recalled.
In 10 days.
With that, the economic, societal and geopolitical pressures of the larger world combined to upend his tiny speck of it, and not for the first time. Mr. Mackiw was also an immigrant refugee, once. He needed sanctuary then, and may soon need it again.
In November 1949, the General C.C. Ballou, a reconfigured Army transport ship whose amenities included a children’s playroom, departed the German port of Bremerhaven. Aboard were 1,265 of the many millions of Europeans displaced by the upheaval of World War II.
According to records kept by the Center for Migration Studies of New York, the passengers included Celestyn and Sofia Mackiw and their two sons, Zygfryd, 12, and Wilhelm, 9. The Ukrainian family had most recently been living in a displacement camp in Aschaffenburg, Germany, where the uprooted, persecuted and traumatized received food, clothing and medical care.
Asked why his family left Europe, Mr. Mackiw said, simply, “Because of the war.” His failing memory recalls only flashes of his disrupted boyhood: being terrified by the bombs; bringing food to Jews harbored by his mother; living in camps.
Once in the United States, the Mackiws settled into a walk-up building in an East Village neighborhood sometimes called Little Ukraine. He remembers his mother as “an incredible woman” and his father as a daring window cleaner who “didn’t bother with the belts.”
The family later moved to Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Mr. Mackiw attended the city’s Machine and Metal Trades High School, became an American citizen in 1959 and held a series of blue-collar jobs before waiting on tables full time.
“I worked in the restaurants,” he said.
Among them was Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane, a Theater District hangout for entertainers well known and yet-to-be-discovered. They all gravitated toward Mr. Franklin, a longtime radio and television host known for his command of entertainment history.
“The King of Nostalgia,” proclaimed his business cards, one of which sits amid the Room 1810 clutter. He died in 2015.
As Mr. Franklin held court with the likes of Soupy Sales and “Professor” Irwin Corey — you should look them up — his waiter of choice was Mr. Mackiw.
“Joe specifically sat in the section where William would be serving,” recalled Arnold Wachtel, a Joe Franklin’s customer who once ran Times Square gift and novelty shops like the Fun Emporium and the Funny Store. “They used to reminisce about old movies and swap copies of movies on videos and DVDs.”
At shift’s end, the diminutive waiter would place a hat on his bald head and go back to the Stewart at Seventh Avenue and 31st Street, back to Room 1810.
The 31-story hotel opened in 1929 as the Hotel Governor Clinton — a lesser version of its grand neighbor, the Hotel Pennsylvania — and experienced the typical ups, downs and changes of the hospitality industry. But some aspects seemed permanent, from the Art Deco touches in the lobby to a few tenants in the rooms above.
Specifics are murky, but a few decades ago, perhaps as early as the 1970s, a retired seamstress named Louise Hirschfeld moved into 1810, a one-room apartment with a bathroom and kitchenette. She was a sister of Mr. Mackiw’s mother, Sofia.
The date of Mr. Mackiw’s arrival has been lost in the Manhattan blur of time. He slept on the couch while his aunt slept in the bed. Then she left for France, where her son and grandchildren lived and where she died at 81. In 1995.
Mr. Mackiw continued to pay the monthly rent with cash or a money order, and to collect receipts bearing the name of his dead aunt. When he wasn’t lingering in the lobby, shopping for food on Ninth Avenue or praying at St. Francis of Assisi Church around the corner, he was in his room, watching movies from the extensive Mackiw collection.
These portals of escape are scattered by the dozens on the floor. “King Kong.” “Broken Arrow.” “It Came From Outer Space.” “To Have and Have Not.” And his favorite: “Gone With the Wind.”
His routine did not change as time passed, as the city evolved, as the hotel came under new ownership. In 2016, the building was bought by a limited liability corporation whose partners declined through their lawyer last week to identify themselves. City records identify two of them as Isaac Chetrit, who with his brother, Eli, owns the AB & Sons investment group, and Ray Yadidi, who with his brother, Jack, owns the Sioni Group real estate firm.
The first threat to Mr. Mackiw’s insular world came early last year, when the owners informed the half-dozen permanent residents that they would be providing relocation assistance while the building underwent extensive renovations. The plan was to close the hotel and spend up to three years converting it into a 625-unit apartment building.
This, apparently, was when the owners discovered that Mr. Mackiw, not the late Louise Hirschfeld, was occupying Room 1810. Even though he had personally handed over the rent every month for years.
After this revelation, Mr. Mackiw said, hotel representatives came to his door more than once to tell him in a forceful and threatening manner that he had to vacate the room. The hotel denies ever harassing him.
At the same time, a humanitarian crisis was unfolding in New York, as thousands of migrants from Central and South America came to escape crime and economic uncertainty. Many arrived by bus, courtesy of the Republican governors of Arizona and Texas, who wanted to give the Northeast a taste of everyday life along the southern border.
The hotel’s owners set aside their conversion plans and, in mid-September, agreed to allow the city to rent half the building, including 300 rooms, for use as an intake center and refuge for asylum seekers.
It wasn’t enough. In mid-December, the city signed a new contract to take effective control of the entire hotel, including the lobby, the ballroom and 611 rooms (at $200 a night). The agreement, which gave temporary housing to about 2,000 migrants, did not include the several units occupied by permanent residents.
The same week in September that the hotel began renting rooms to the city at market rates, a process server handed a 10-day eviction notice to the man who answered a knock on the door of Room 1810. The server described Mr. Mackiw this way:
Height: Five foot five.
Weight: 110 pounds.
Approximate age: 83.
By this point, a distressed Mr. Mackiw had reached out to Mr. Wachtel, his old Joe Franklin’s customer, who had not heard from him in more than a dozen years. But as the son of a Holocaust survivor, Mr. Wachtel was moved by the older man’s ordeal — “The man is terrified” — and family memories of harboring Jews during the war.
“He’s a nice guy,” Mr. Wachtel said. “He prays for me and my family.”
Mr. Wachtel made phone calls, sent emails and arranged to hold Mr. Mackiw’s power of attorney. He also contacted the Goddard Riverside Law Project, which specializes in the rights of single-room-occupancy tenants. It agreed to take the Housing Court case of CYH Manhattan LLC against William Mackiw a/k/a Bill Mackiw.
Daniel Evans, a lawyer with Goddard Riverside, said that under the city’s rent-stabilization codes, Mr. Mackiw acquired the rights and protections of a permanent S.R.O. resident once he had spent six months in the apartment. There is no dispute that his stay has been much longer than six months — much, much longer.
“It’s outrageous that they would bring this type of case after 40 years of Mr. Mackiw living there,” Mr. Evans said. “Especially when he’s paying the rent himself at the front desk. They know he’s there.”
In a telephone interview, Lisa Faham-Selzer, a lawyer representing the owners, declined to answer a series of questions, including how long Mr. Mackiw had lived in the hotel and why the hotel had accepted payment from him for decades.
“This is a strong case with very, very clear allegations,” she said.
A hint of those allegations is contained in a recent court filing, in which the owners contend that Mr. Mackiw “has been posing as Louise Hirschfeld for decades.” By doing so, they argue, he “has been perpetrating a fraud.”
The case is pending. Court records do not indicate eviction proceedings brought against any of the hotel’s other permanent tenants, although one moved out after receiving a $10,000 buyout.
For now, Mr. Mackiw, a refugee from another time, continues to live among the refugees of today, fretting to the point of tears about his future.
He stays mostly in Room 1810, his longtime home. There, during a recent visit, the only food seemed to be milk, some cheese slices, peanut butter, a box of Cheerios, a pack of vanilla Oreos and a few Hershey chocolate bars.
“You want a Hershey?” asked the old waiter.
Karen Zraick contributed reporting, and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.
Dan Barry is a longtime reporter and columnist, having written both the “This Land” and “About New York” columns. The author of several books, he writes on myriad topics, including New York City, sports, culture and the nation. @DanBarryNYT • Facebook
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