Tension between the Queensbridge Houses community and hotel owners has hit a boiling point.
At a rally held on Aug. 15 in front of the Center of Hope International, residents and community leaders called on Xiao Zhuang Ge, owner of the Howard Johnson Hotel in Long Island City, to keep what they say was his promise to hire members of the Queensbridge community.
“You build here, you hire here!” protesters shouted as they marched around the corner to the new hotel, set to open in a month.
According to Bishop Mitchell Taylor, the senior pastor at the Center of Hope International, he and other leaders within the Queensbridge Houses met with hotel representatives about 10 months ago to discuss the impact the hotel would have on the Long Island City neighborhood.
“We had a wonderful conversation,” Taylor said. “The main concern was that on the building site, there was not one person of color, but Mr. Ge said ‘I promise you, I want the people of Queensbridge to have the jobs at the hotel.’”
Taylor, who heads Urban Upbound, a job agency dedicated to Queensbridge residents, said Ge agreed to allow the agency to recruit and screen applicants for the jobs at the hotel and send over the most qualified people.
As time went on, Taylor said he hadn’t heard back from anyone from the hotel, which eventually led to a heated argument between the bishop and hotel workers.
On Aug. 8, Taylor was captured on film in the hotel lobby, where he and a few workers got into a scuffle that made its way outside and resulted in Taylor swinging around a pickax. The bishop promptly apologized for the incident when the video was released.
“I regret the way I was portrayed,” he said. “I apologize for that kind of aggression, but I don’t apologize for standing up for the community.”
According to Taylor’s team, the video was heavily edited and omitted a moment when one construction worker attempted to grab Taylor, which resulted in the bishop shoving him into a window.
There is no evidence of splicing in the video circulated by the Daily News, however.
In addition, Taylor’s team said he immediately went to the police and filed a complaint.
Representatives of the hotel tell a different tale of manipulation and corruption.
“Bishop Taylor is trying to control everything, he’s trying to control the hotel,” attorney Elio Forcina said. “This is a textbook extortion scheme. He’s made threats, he’s threatened to break windows if he doesn’t get what he wants.”
Another claim being made by Forcina involves Taylor receiving a cut for providing applicants to Howard Johnson.
“He alluded that he wants 30 percent of all income made,” Forcina said. “He’s already been able to shake down $4,500 from a couple of scared Asian Americans who come to this city when they could have invested anywhere in the world.”
Taylor and his team adamantly denied the allegations.
“I’ve been in Queensbridge virtually all my life, serving our community for over 30 years,” Taylor said in a written statement. “This is about jobs and has been since day one. All I asked from the hotel is that our neighbors be given a fair chance to apply for the job openings this new business brings. I offered Urban Upbound, a free service, as a resource that connects qualified workers with businesses. This is a standard process used across the city. The primary issue at hand is that our community has a skilled and dedicated workforce who should not be overlooked in the hiring practices of this hotel, especially when unemployment in our area is almost 17 percent.”
According to the bishop and other individuals present during meetings between Urban Upbound and hotel representatives, money was never mentioned, and the only monetary exchange was a $2,500 donation from Ge and his wife for a gala being hosted by Taylor’s organization.
Queensbridge Tenants Association President April Simpson was livid when Forcina accused Taylor, who sits on the NYPD Civilian Complaint Review Board, of malicious intentions.
“You are a liar!” she screamed, holding a picket sign. “I was in those meetings and you are lying!”
After the protest, she told the Chronicle that her emotional response was out of frustration and feeling as though she and the rest of the Queensbridge community were not being heard.
“They’ve been out and out lying from day one,” she said. “Anybody, if you build in their area, you would want to open the door. All we want is a fair shot. I sat right there, they’re liars, no matter how they reword it, a lie is still a lie. These people, we don’t know them. This has nothing to do with race, it’s about being fair.”
She added in all of Taylor’s years in the community, she has never seen or heard of him doing anything wrong.
“I’ve stood by him and I’ve continued to stand by him,” Simpson said. “We are lower income people, but he’s always been about empowering and uplifting. He’s like a mentor to me, in a sense. With Queensbridge being the largest housing projects in the country, this man has done so much in our community. I’ve seen him feed people that was hungry. He’s been doing this for 25, 30 years.”
Why the alleged promises made by Ge and other hotel representatives went south is unclear, though rumors of new hotel administration hires possibly breaking down communication between Taylor and Ge have been thrown around as a probable reason by protestors.
Despite the release of the video and a growing list of accusations being thrown at the bishop, community members stood by Taylor’s side, shouting words of encouragement, though the normally vocal leader remained quiet during much of the rally.
“I have come to stand with Bishop Taylor in his fight for jobs,” Johnnie Green of Mobilizing Preachers and Communities, said. “We do not want the incident that took place at the Howard Johnson hotel to cloud the reason why we’re here. The problem is, we need jobs in the community, you would agree with that. We are tired of false promises.”
Speaker after speaker, including Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Sunnyside), echoed Green’s concerns.
“This is a call for racial and economic justice,” Van Bramer said. “We need jobs and what Bishop Taylor is so rightly engaged in is if folks are going to come here and build, they should hire people from this neighborhood because that is the right thing to do.”
Still, Forcina said the incident that took place on Aug. 8 should not be overlooked.
“He came here, he used threats, he was violent,” he said. “I think the mayor should look at that, I really do. No city official should act that way, ever.”
Many protesters were angered when they heard of job postings on Craigslist, as well as a preliminary search conducted in Flushing for construction cleanup crews. George Frangolas, a representative of the hotel, said the search was done in Flushing, because the Mayflower Hotel company, which owns this specific Howard Johnson hotel, is headquartered there.
“We will have a job fair or open house in three weeks or so in this community,” he said. “I already have 300 resumes inside. People can walk in and drop off their resume with us. This is a private-sector building.”
Frangolas added the hotel has already hired seven people from the community though he did not specify if they are Queensbridge Houses residents.
Urban Upbound and community members said they will picket in front of the hotel until their demands are met.