[Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this essay appeared earlier in Ananda Sangbad, April 2022 issue]
If you visit the corner of 99th Street and Broadway in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you will notice a seven-story brick building. This 10,000 sq ft building has been standing at that location (244 W. 99th Street) since 1910 and has no doubt undergone its share of exterior facelift and interior renovation over its 112-year life. Today, it is a hotel-cum-condo complex, the home of an extended-stay hotel (Hotel 99) and several individually owned condominiums. This building looks similar in size and architecture to many other structures in the neighborhood, so you are not likely to think twice about it as you walk or drive by. You would not know that back in the 1970s, this building gave much needed shelter to many newly arrived Bengali immigrants. It was a silent witness to the many struggles these freshly landed students and professionals faced in a new country, some 8000 miles away from the homes they had left behind. These immigrants had little money, no jobs, and virtually no one to lean on in case of emergency. For them, Clinton Arms Hotel was a lot more than a simple shelter. In the hearts of those Bengalis who arrived in New York City in the 1970s, this unpretentious building still occupies a soft and warm corner, no matter how basic and unattractive that shelter had been in the days long gone.
America Opens its Doors to Asians
The Immigration & Naturalization act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. For the first time, it became possible for Asians (including Indians) to become legal residents (and subsequently citizens) of the United States. Preference was given by the US Government to “highly qualified professionals” like physicians, scientists, engineers, accountants, pharmacists, professors, etc., to immigrate to America. As a result, thousands of Indian students and scholars already enrolled in degree programs or research projects in American universities or hospitals fairly easily obtained “Green Cards” and became “permanent residents” of the US. Soon thereafter, the US began to encourage highly qualified professionals living in India to apply for “Green Cards” and enter the US. Numerous Indian professionals, including many Bengalis, took up the opportunity and started heading for America, even though very few had job offers in hand. What they had with them were their Green Cards, their professional credentials, a few dollars in pocket – and dreams of a better life. The most popular point of entry for Bengali immigrants was New York City, partly because it was the most well-known American city in the world and partly because the city offered the greatest opportunity to find jobs.
Hard Landings for Early Immigrants
Unfortunately, the US economy suffered a prolonged recession during the first half of the 1970s. Finding good jobs was difficult even for American citizens. For freshly arrived immigrants from India (and many other Asian and African countries), the situation was even more problematic. Most employers were not familiar with Indian universities or companies, and they were reluctant to hire individuals who had not been educated, trained or employed in America. Basically, engineers, scientists and other professionals who had held positions of significant responsibility in India and had excellent academic records were rejected outright by American companies for “lack of relevant and acceptable experience”. Furthermore, India was going through a severe foreign exchange crisis, and the government had placed strict limits on how much dollar an Indian emigrant could take with him/her while leaving the country. So, even individuals from affluent Indian families could not bring with them more than a modest sum of dollars. Some could bring a couple of hundred dollars with them only after a special approval from the Reserve Bank of India, but the vast majority of the early immigrants were allowed to purchase only 8 dollars at their airport of departure.
Some of the Bengalis coming to NYC were forewarned about the American job situation by their classmates or colleagues who had preceded them. Nevertheless, they were determined to pursue their American dream and were willing to take their chances. So, they came to America and ended up facing the hard landing that was waiting for them. There were also many Bengali immigrants who had no idea that the American economy was in recession and the job situation was awful. They arrived in NYC, full of ambition, enthusiasm and hope[DC1] – only to encounter disappointments, sense of shame, homesickness and depression. For them, the landing was probably even harder and more heart-breaking.
Finding a Roof Over the Head
For Bengali immigrants arriving in NYC without a pre-arranged accommodation, finding an inexpensive place to stay in the city center for an uncertain period of time was the first and foremost problem to solve. Since only a few were fortunate to have friends, relatives or colleagues already living in the city, the vast majority of the Bengali immigrants arrived at the JFK airport with suitcases, passports, Green Cards and a few dollars – but without any idea about where they were going to go from the airport terminal. Some asked airport personnel for suggestions and were told to go to a YMCA in the city. A few were greeted by classmates or relatives and taken away to their homes or to a prearranged accommodation like a hotel or a rooming house. Then there were the unlucky ones who had no place to go and had to latch on to other Indian immigrants wandering around inside the terminal -- and decide together where to go. Usually, these collective decisions were based on somebody having vaguely heard of a low-cost hotel in Manhattan that took in Indian travelers. And the name that came up most frequently in these kinds of on-the-spot brotherhood of freshly arrived Indian immigrants was Clinton Arms Hotel in Manhattan.
Clinton Arms Hotel
In the 1970s, Clinton Arms Hotel provided very basic, no-frills accommodation to a budget-conscious clientele who wanted rooms for extended stay. Some stayed for weeks, some for months and a few for even longer periods. The clientele included students studying at Columbia University for post-graduate programs, senior citizens – often widows and widowers, and quite a few newly arrived immigrants. The hotel was reportedly owned by a Jewish gentleman and was run more like a YMCA than like a traditional hotel. There was a lobby with a security guard-type of attendant but no common arras to speak of. No dining facilities, no bars either. Single rooms predominated, although a few couples stayed every now and then. Most rooms offered a single bed, one table and a clothes rack or a closet. Shared bathrooms and kitchens were at the end of each hallway. The shared kitchens were small, and each contained a cooking range, a refrigerator and a limited number of utensils. Some residents used the kitchens but many brought in food from outside, Payphones were installed on the hallways; no private lines were available. Residents had to stop by the front desk to pick up their mail because there was no room delivery service of any kind. No in-house laundry facilities were available, and residents had to lug their dirty clothes to nearby laundromats. There were three elevators in the building but not all of them worked all the time.
Let’s review the experiences of several Bengali immigrants who spent some time in Clinton Arms Hotel immediately after arrival in NYC. They are all living in New Jersey now, so it was easy for the author to reach them.
Experiences of Early Bengali Immigrants
Shyamal Ghosh arrived in NYC on January 31, 1970, in the middle of the American winter season. Before coming to the US with a Green Card, he was a high-level engineer-officer at Jessops & Co, a well-known engineering design and construction company. He had graduated in mechanical engineering from IIT-Kharagpur and had worked for a couple of years in Germany on designing cranes and other heavy-duty hoisting equipment. He was married and was the father of a young son.
One of Shyamal’s friends from IIT was doing his doctorate at Columbia University and was staying in Clinton Arms Hotel. As a well-wisher, he had repeatedly discouraged Shyamal from coming to the US because of the poor job situation at that time. He had reluctantly booked a room for Shyamal in Clinton Arms Hotel, and he was at JFK to receive Shyamal when he arrived.
In Shyamal’s own words, “Arriving from Kolkata, the place did not appear uninhabitable to me.” His room was “plain and simple with basic and minimal furnishing. Steam heating was very noisy. On the hallway, there was a pay phone. A common bath and a common kitchen with a refrigerator were shared by three or four residents on my floor.” Shyamal never cooked in that shared kitchen during his stay.
On the day after Shyamal’s arrival, he walked from Clinton Arms Hotel on the 99th Street to 41st Street in freezing rain to look for a well-known employment agency. He did not use the subway because he was not yet familiar with the system. Thinking of that day’s experience, he wrote “It was a miserable day for me. When I reached the address, I was told that the building had been “torn down”. The trip was wasted, but I learnt a new word – torn down!”. Fortunately, he found a job in a small engineering firm where a German-speaking engineer was needed. Shyamal’s knowledge of German language was the key in landing this job. But the job was in Long Island, and the daily commute to Long Island was time-consuming and tiring. So, after two months, he moved from Clinton Arms Hotel to an apartment closer to his work, and soon afterwards, his wife and young son joined him.
Bhawani Mukherjee, like Shyamal Ghosh, arrived in 1970. He had graduated from Jadavpur University in 1965 in electrical engineering and had joined General Electric Company (GEC of UK) as a management trainee. By 1969, he was married, well-settled in Kanpur as an officer – and enjoying company-provided perks such as a car and an apartment. But America beckoned him, so he applied for and received his Green Card quite easily. Bhawani arrived in NYC on October 13 and stayed at an YMCA for three nights before moving to Clinton Arms Hotel. The weekly rent at Clinton Arms was $15 whereas the daily charge at YMCA was about $5, so it made economic sense to move to the cheaper accommodation.
When asked about the living conditions at Clinton Arms, Bhawani’s reactions were mixed. The hotel was in a run-down condition. Cockroaches were frequently visible. But he had many good things to say about the residents. There were probably about ten or twelve Indian immigrants in the hotel and about half of them were Bengalis.
The location of the hotel was excellent for all job-seeking immigrants. It was just a couple of blocks away from the 96th Street subway station, so job seekers could easily go to distant locations for job search and work assignments. Columbia University, the Central Park and many tourist attractions (such as the Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History) were within walking distance.
The other great attraction of Clinton Arms was the ready availability of friendship and emotional and tactical support of other immigrants facing similar challenges and frustrations. People traded information on odd-job openings they knew of, unsafe areas of the city to avoid, churches or other charitable organizations that were giving away winter coats, and inexpensive eateries and grocery stores within walking distance. Experiences were traded, lessons were passed on. For lonely, frustrated Bengali young men, Clinton Arms was like an oasis in a harsh desert. Bengalis living in other parts of NYC would visit their friends in the hotel and hold modest parties to celebrate occasions like birthdays – or someone landing a real job.
Luckily for Bhawani, he was hired by GE (General Electric Company of the US) within about two weeks and was able to move out soon thereafter. He had cold-called a GE office in NYC, thinking that it was the same company, GEC of UK, he had worked for in India. The Chief Electrical Engineer of the GE’s NYC office invited Bhawani for lunch, and once the confusions were cleared up, he offered Bhawani a job. Bhawani joined GE on October 30. This gentleman also sponsored Bhawani for his Master’s program at the City University of New York (CUNY) which Bhawani completed in two years. Later, Bhawani worked for Austin Company in Cleveland, OH, and then several pharmaceutical companies like Wyeth and Pfizer in various management roles.
Another Bengali engineer, Saroj Bhol, also stayed in Clinton Arms Hotel, when Bhawani Mukherjee was there. In fact, Bhawani and Saroj were roommates for a while.
Saroj had graduated in 1965 in civil engineering from Bengal Engineering College, Shibpur (now known as Indian Institute of Engineering Science & Technology) and held a high-ranking position with W.S. Atkins, a well-known engineering and construction company. He was married and located in the Delhi offices of the company when his application for Green Card was approved. His classmate, Amitabha Chatterjee, picked him up from the JFK airport on a day when there was some kind of general strike in the city. Amitabha took Saroj to a house in Queens where he stayed as a paying guest because there was no room available for that night at Clinton Arms Hotel. Amitabha had arrived in the US a couple of years earlier as a graduate student for at the Brigham Young University in Utah. He had moved to NYC only a few months before the arrival of Saroj.
Unlike Shyamal and Bhawani, Saroj had a difficult time in finding a good job. He held several temporary jobs before finding a draftsman’s position in an engineering firm in Queens. Going from one odd job to another was a frustrating and demeaning experience. Pay was low, the winter was harsh, and lots of walking was involved in many jobs. For example, Saroj worked at the Valentino boutique as an inventory clerk for $2.50/hour because he could operate a calculator machine! He later found a semi-professional level job at the Wall Street office of Merrill Lynch in the inventory management section. Saroj’s manager at Merrill Lynch liked him and his work, and when Saroj requested him to sponsor the visa application for his wife, Shipra, his manager agreed without hesitation. This was a great act of kindness, Saroj readily admits. (It so happened that a few months later, Bhawani’s wife, Alolika, and Saroj’s wife, Shipra, traveled together from Delhi to JFK in the same flight. By then, Bhawani and Saroj had moved out from Clinton Arms Hotel to apartments of their own)
It took Saroj about two months to land the draftsman’s position which put him on a path to getting recognized later as a full-fledged engineer.
Shyamal Sarkar, a pharmacy graduate from Jadavpur University, arrived in NYC in October, 1977. For the first few nights, he stayed in an apartment in Jersey City, NJ, with a few of his friends from Jadavpur. Then he moved to Clinton Arms Hotel in Manhattan so he could concentrate on finding a job. Like Saroj, he went through a long and hard period, looking for well-paying jobs, but had to survive by taking on odd jobs of all sorts, barely making enough to make ends meet. Here are a few snapshots of his experience during those dark and depressing days:
“The job market was very bad in 1977. Even getting an odd job was a real challenge. Engineers, accountants, even professors with excellent levels of experience, were scavengers of jobs. Many accepted jobs as un-skilled workers, low-level clerical staff, even as security guards.”
He went on to add:
“I worked at 5-6 different odd jobs in that first year: two of them were far away, so I had to quit; one job required me to carry heavy boxes which I was not able to do, and I was fired; one temporary job was for copying documents. I started to become worried and frustrated for not having a steady and better paying job. I had to pay my rent at the Clinton Arms Hotel weekly, otherwise, I would be thrown out on the street.
Finally, a break came for me. Ranjan, another classmate from my college, got admission to City University of New York for chemical engineering. Before leaving for college, he put me in his position at Shezan Restaurant, next to the Plaza Hotel on 58th Street, Manhattan. I spent my first winter in the US working at Shezan.”
But working in a restaurant for long hours was not easy. Shyamal wrote in an article about his experience at Shezan in a poetic style where his physical pain and mental suffering came alive:
“Job market is terrible but I am lucky, I got one.
Shezan is a better odd job place, a destination eatery of celebrities.
I learn American English every day, moreover
I do not need to cook, and that helps me save money.
Everything seems good, but....
A pain of guilt, working in a restaurant, haunts me all the time.
Working in a restaurant is a cultural taboo, I tend to deny it.
I hide the truth from my folks in Calcutta.
Masking the fact is not right, I know that and I suffer.
Still I do it knowingly because truth would be more painful for them,
At night, after walking long hours in the dining hall,
the pain radiates from foot to calf and above;
still I don’t moan; quietly limp to the common bathroom and
comfort my aching feet with soaking hot water.
Pain of guilt is worse than the physical one.
Sadly, both of them spend many sleepless nights with me.”
From there, it took Shyamal a few more harsh and tiring months to land on his feet. He found a well-paying job as a pharmaceutical representative and later become the owner of several pharmacies in the NYC area.
Another pharmacy graduate from Jadavpur, Dilip Chakrabarti, arrived in NYC in 1976 and stayed in Clinton Arms Hotel for more than a year. On his third day in the city, he found a job at a Duane Reade drug store at $2.40/hour pay – and he was happy as a lark. He wrote in one of his articles the following about his subsequent life in NYC:
“Days and months went by this way. Soon I realized that a year had passed since my arrival in the US. Financially I was almost ready to bring my wife from India. I rented a small, one-bedroom apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. Rent was low at $140 per month. I furnished the apartment with very cheap furniture: a double bed, a small dining table with four chairs, -- and believe it or not, a color television! The airfare for my wife was $550. I did not have the entire amount but I could borrow some from a friend. I paid him back in a few months but I will always remember his kind help.”
Clinton Arms Hotel – Beyond the 1970s
Notwithstanding the struggles and sufferings experienced by the early Bengali immigrants who stayed in Clinton Arms Hotel, most were ultimately successful in establishing themselves as highly valued professionals in their areas of expertise. Unfortunately, a few had to return to India, after exhausting their limited resources and feeling defeated by the lack of job opportunities.
Nobody knows exactly how many Indian or Bengali immigrants stayed at Clinton Arms Hotel during the 1970s. I guess that the total number was in the 100 to 200 range, if not larger. By 1980, the torrid pace of Indian and Bengali immigrants arriving in NYC with Green Cards had slowed to a trickle. Clinton Arms Hotel began to assume a much diminished role in the minds and lives of the NYC Bengali immigrant community.
The Diversity Visa System (also known as Green Card Lottery Program) was introduced in 1990 under the Immigration Act of 1990, signed into law by President H.W. Bush. This law created immigration opportunities for individuals who were not considered “highly qualified professionals”. This law was enacted to issue Green Cards by lottery -- to applicants from smaller countries that could not compete against nations like China and India on the basis of “highly qualified professionals”. One of the direct beneficiaries of this visa lottery program was Bangladesh, and several thousand Bangladeshis arrived in the US during the 1990s. However, it is not known if many newly arriving Bangladeshi immigrants made Clinton Arms Hotel their home for a period of time.
The Immigration Law of 1990s also created the H1B Visa program. It was intended to help American firms deal with labor shortages in rapidly growing fields that demanded specialized skills, such as research, engineering and computer technology. These H1B applicants had to be sponsored by American firms who were ready to offer employment to the applicants immediately upon arrival. The H1B visa applicants received temporary permits to stay and work in the US – and did not come with Green Cards. It is fair to assume that none of the H1B visa holders had to stay in Clinton Arms Hotel or similar accommodations because they could head directly for the housing pre-arranged for them by their employers.
According to the NYC records, the building at 244 W. 99th Street, Manhattan, was sold to new owners on January 11, 2007 for $14.25 million. It may be fair to assume that Clinton Arms Hotel closed down at that time or had shut down a few years earlier. I do not know exactly when Hotel 99 came into existence in place of Clinton Arms Hotel.
Alternative Housings in NYC for New Immigrants
Clinton Arms Hotel was not the only inexpensive housing option for newly arrived Bengali immigrants. There was another hotel, Hotel Alexandria, located at 306 W. 94th Street, in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just a few blocks south of Clinton Arms hotel. This hotel was shut down in 2018, reportedly because of its poor condition. At that point, the New York City administration decided to convert the facility to a 220-bed shelter for homeless residents of the city.
Back in the 1970s, Hotel Alexandria was very similar to Clinton Arms Hotel in terms of condition, character, cost and clientele. Rama Haldar, a pharmacy graduate from Benares Hindu University, spent a couple of weeks in Hotel Alexandria after arriving in NYC around the 1971 Christmas. His memories of his days in Hotel Alexandria mirror those of the Bengalis living in Clinton Arms Hotel at about the same time. Rama moved out of Hotel Alexandria after he found a job at a pharmaceutical sales representative.
The other housing option that was utilized by some Bengali immigrants were the YMCA hostels in the city. These hostels were quite popular those days among students and budget conscious tourists, usually for stays of a few days. Asit Ray, a chemical engineering graduate from Jadavpur University, stayed at the Sloane House YMCA (on 8th Avenue) for five days before he was invited by another Bengali immigrant to share a small, studio apartment near the George Washington Bridge. Asit had to go to the YMCA because when he landed at the airport on November 13, 1971, he was expecting two Bengali acquaintances to receive him. When no one turned up, he sought the help of a friendly South Indian gentleman He suggested to Asit that he go to Sloane Square YMCA because it was the largest YMCA in town, with 1595 rooms! Here are some memories of Asit of his short stay in this huge YMCA:
“My room was on the third floor. The window was shut, and it was sweltering with steam coming off of the heater. I was sweating but was afraid to crack the window open for fear of getting cold. The first thing I was going to do was to take a shower. I did not know that a big cultural shock was awaiting me. I saw big guys freely walking around in their “birthday suits”. I felt very uncomfortable and rushed back to my room until the coast was clear. Around 7 PM, I decided to take a walk and send a telegram to my father to let him know I had reached NY safely. In order to save money, I composted a short yet clear message: “HAPPY WITH THE NEW YORKERS.” – I heard a food peddler shouting “Pretzels! Hot Pretzels!” To me it sounded like pizza, which was suggested by my colleague Dr. Dasgupta before I left Calcutta as a good choice for a cheap meal. I bought one large hot pretzel thinking it was pizza. I did not like it at all but ate it anyway to satisfy my hunger. Later that night after a dinner consisting of fruits and candy, I tried to sleep, but tossed and turned all night long, often awakened by the deafening sounds of sirens blaring from fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. I wondered why they had to be so loud. The next morning, I walked to the Social Security Office to obtain a temporary card. I spent the rest of the day on a walking expedition of New York City. I bought a subway map and went down the stairs at a subway entrance. I was startled by the roaring sound of the trains operating at two levels below street level. I decided to postpone my subway escapade for some other time.”
He also remembers that
“One day I was aimlessly walking along the streets of the city when I noticed a small park adjacent to the New York Public Library. I sat on the bench and ate the lunch that I had made for myself. There were many pigeons in the park and I started to feed them, which had a calming effect on me. Unfortunately, odd jobs were also hard to come by. Very soon, my daily ritual became traveling from door to door inquiring about odd jobs in the mornings and hearing the same response each time- no, no, no! Then, in the afternoons I would come to the same park to eat my lunch and feed the pigeons. At times I would spend a few hours in the library reading newspapers and magazines. That park was, symbolically, the silent witness to my pangs of frustration. I suffered in my early days of America. The worst part of the day was to go back to the confinement of the four walls of my small room. The loud fire trucks continued to drive by our room, breaking the silence of night, and adding to my mental torment.”
But like the many Bengali immigrants before and after him, Asit did work many odd jobs for a while but ultimately gained a solid footing as a qualified engineer. He was recognized by his employer as such and was properly compensated.
Time and events took its toll on the Sloane Square YMCA. Founded in 1930as William Sloane House, it was built to provide inexpensive housing for men serving in the US Armed Forces. With time, the number of servicemen declined, and the facility was opened to women, students and welfare recipients. Following a tragic fire in 1974 that killed four residents, use of the facility declined dramatically, and it finally closed down in 1993. The building was eventually purchased for five million dollars and remodeled, becoming the 360 West 34th Street, a building of affordable rental apartments for young professionals new to New York.
This article is a tribute to the tenacity and hard work of the early Bengali immigrants and the success they ultimately achieved in their lives. It is also a tribute to the inexpensive and unappealing places like Clinton Arms Hotel that helped newly arriving Bengali immigrants hold on to their American dreams as they wrestled with harsh realities. By doing so, these facilities unknowingly carved out for themselves memorable markers in the history of Bengali immigrants in America.
I am grateful to all the individuals mentioned in this article for sharing their early experiences in New York City in a frank and honest manner, even when some of the memories were painful to recount. I also thank Shyamal Ghosh, Shyamal Sarkar, Dilip Chakrabarti and Asit Ray for allowing me to quote liberally from their articles published in earlier issues of ImmigrantBengalis.com. Thanks are also due to Amitabha Chatterjee, Sujan Dasgupta and Surya Dutta for giving me many helpful leads for my research.
(Posted July 10, 2022)
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Clinton Arms Hotel in New York City:
Where Dreams Met Realities