Passaic “Hotel” — a drug den, and “low-life” residence to close.

10 08 2008

PASSAIC — Ernest Robert Parsons, Jr., 34, has lived with his mother in the same room of the Passaic Hotel since he was 4 years old.

It has no kitchen, which means they’ve eaten a lot of cold cuts.

Their neighbors have included prostitutes, drug dealers and those people whose last high stopped their pulse.

The short-on-luck and seekers of illicit fixes come to the Passaic Hotel because it’s cheap: Thirty-five bucks pays for a bed in a small room, or three hours in a big room.

But the city’s only hotel, open for business since before the Great Depression, is also a place many call home: some, for years, others, for as long as their government voucher lasts. Most of the 34 rooms have no bathroom. There is no room service. But the three-story hotel is safer and allows for more independence than homeless shelters, and it almost always has a vacancy.

Now the Passaic Hotel, like some of its residents, has run out of options.

Next year, the state plans to knock it down. In its place will rise a preschool and administrative offices.

Parsons, whose olive skin and wispy beard recall Che Guevara, will miss the room where he grew from boy to man.

“Real heartbroken pretty much, ’cause I like this place,” said Parsons on a recent evening as he stood in the threshold of Room 307.

Two doors down, Catherine Spinelli, 80, is upset, too. She’s lived here since 1977 — longer than anyone else. So long that some residents nicknamed the place “Catherine’s Hotel.” When Spinelli learned the hotel would be torn down, she cursed the governor.

“That Corzine,” said Spinelli, pronouncing his name cor-zeen.

“I’m there long time. It’s my hotel. I don’t bother nobody,” said Spinelli, her lips curled over toothless gums. To pass the time, she watches wrestling on television and tends to 30 clocks in her room that pay homage to her dead boyfriend, Clark. The word “clock” sounds like “Clark,” she explains. His body went cold in her corner room a decade ago, a mix of heart problems and heavy drinking.

For Spinelli, Parsons and a handful of others who have lived in the hotel full-time, next year’s razing will mean being uprooted from a way of life, however unconventional, that they’ve known for much of their lives. For temporary patrons, the razing means the end of affording some moments, however brief, of peace.

Passaic Police spokesman Andy White calls the conversion of the Passaic Hotel to school buildings a “home run.” The hotel attracted unsavory characters for decades, he said. “It’ll clean up the area further, and it’ll be used for a good cause — for the children of the city,” White said.

Many city residents agree with White.

For as long as most of them can remember, the triangular intersection of Henry Street and Main Avenue has been a stretch of pavement to avoid. By the 1950s, couples were meeting there for premarital romps in secret, and in the 1970s, the former vaudeville theater around the corner, the Montauk, started showing pornographic films.

The area was, according to city historian Mark Auerbach, a place where “you could get anything you wanted from within 100 feet of the hotel front door.”

In recent years, Henry and Main has lost some of its reputation as a crime magnet. The Montauk shut down last year. Police ramped up street presence. A new owner of the hotel set up surveillance cameras inside and out and affixed “No Loitering” signs to the building.

But the hotel never stopped luring drug users and alcoholics. In 2006, a 30-year-old man drank himself to death inside his room.

For nearly a decade, the state promised new school facilities to be built on the site. But a scandal involving the former state Schools Construction Corporation postponed those plans.

Last month, the state announced it has come up with the cash for the Henry Street project, located on a square block that includes a supermarket, a travel agency and a Dominican restaurant, as well as the hotel and Montauk Theatre around the corner. All will be demolished.

Tax records show Passaic Realty Development Corp. owns the entire square-block lot. The lot owner, said to be a man of Greek descent who lives in New York City, rarely shows up in the area. A telephone number on a vacant storefront next to the hotel with a Queens area code would not accept messages because the voice mailbox was full.

In many ways, the hotel looks like it did when it opened in 1927, under a different name, the Lincoln Hotel. Back then, train tracks nearby whisked in Manhattanites looking for a good time at the city’s five theaters, which showed silent movies and featured live shows.

Today, outside and stretching out above the modest entrance is the original large rectangular marquee lined with naked light bulbs, some of which still work, brightening the gritty street at dusk. Inside, hallway floors are covered with checkered brown-and-cream tiles set in 1927.

The hotel has a small lobby and two floors above. Each floor has roughly 18 rooms. South-facing rooms have views of Henry Street, a side street off Main Avenue, the downtown drag. North-facing rooms are dark with views of a brick building a few feet away.

Small rooms with a shared hallway bathroom cost $35 a night. A larger room with a bathroom costs $75 per night, or $35 for three hours. The weekly charge for a small room is $200.

Because it’s so cheap, the hotel is one of two used by the Passaic County Welfare Board for emergency housing. The other hotel is the King’s Inn in Wayne, where rooms start at $71 a night. Neighboring Paterson, the state’s third-largest city, used to have inexpensive hotels such as the Rainbow Motel. Last year, the motel, infamous for illicit goings-on, was demolished and now, in its place, is a brand-new hotel called the Scottish Inn, where rooms start at $79 a night.

The Passaic Hotel, then, is the final bastion of area hotels that serve as a halfway house, or a place the homeless can afford when they get a little cash.

It’s the type of place where most refer to their station in life either by their felony or the color of the government check that pays their tab.

Brown checks identify the mentally or physically disabled, issued by the federal Social Security Administration. Yellow checks come from the state parole board, for parolees.

Beanstalk-tall, chatty Priscilla, 63, and her cheerful boyfriend Kevin, 46, bounded out the front door on a recent sunny afternoon.

“He’s slow and I’m nervous,” Priscilla said. “We’re the brown check.” Social Security pays her hotel bill. Like many people here, Priscilla didn’t want her full name used.

Edward, 48, a state parolee with elfin ears, stays in a small room, 10 feet by 8 feet, which is only 10 percent larger than his last prison cell, he said.

He wears an electronic ankle bracelet and can leave the hotel for only four hours a day. The bathroom at the end of the hall is out of the bracelet’s monitoring range, so he has to hurry back to his room after using the facilities.

Yet he is grateful.

“I know I’m safe here in the hotel, even though I’m here all day long,” said Edward, who has served six prison sentences totaling 19 years for breaking into hundreds of Sussex County homes to support a heroin addiction. “I’d be in Newark at a homeless shelter.”

Much like the room occupants, there’s a rotation of characters at the front desk. A no-nonsense Sri Lankan woman sits there most days. At night, there are several others including Ernest Robert Parsons Jr.’s mother, Georgia, who keeps her glasses together with a paperclip.

Some call another clerk “Mom,” a soft-hearted, slender middle-aged woman with blue eyes and bright pink nail polish. Others take care of her. A 26-year-old state parolee from Bergen County with a lip piercing and a forearm tattoo written in Chinese makes her soup when she’s sick.

It’s a family of sorts here between the staff, the long-term residents and impromptu reunions of people who met in prison, at a homeless shelter or at the hotel in months or years past.

It’s also a place of contradictions. On the second floor, room numbers start with the number three. A stack of current issues of the sophisticated The New Yorker magazine sat on a table in the foyer last month. Patrons curse the hotel, then become nostalgic.

“The showers suck. The second-floor shower has one nozzle, a spray — ‘Shhhhsh.’ You got people screaming up and down in the hallway. You got drunks. You got drug addicts. I’m an alcoholic,” said Mark, 45, a dead ringer for the actor Christopher Walken. Mark has stayed here seven or eight times over the past year.

“I’ve heard a lot of knife threats,” he said.

As a kid growing up in Passaic, Mark’s dad warned him never to come to this hotel. But Mark’s become intimate with the Henry Street landmark over the years. This time, he landed here for a week with his wife, who had broken out in a rash while the couple was living under a bridge in Paterson. Mark, an “S.O.” — sex offender — convinced his parole officer to pay for a week’s stay to help his wife recover.

He wished they could spend more time here.

“It’s got cable TV — most places don’t. You got a clean bed, a shower. It’s a roof over your head. In this town, it ranks up there, believe me,” said Mark, standing outside the front entrance.

“If it’s gonna be gone, I’ll miss it.”

Reach Karen Keller at 973-569-7158 or KellerK@northjersey.com.

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