A Pizza Shop in the Middle of New York’s Migrant Crisis

This week, outside the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, hundreds of asylum seekers from all over the world languished in a slow-moving line, forced to stand in the sun and sleep on the sidewalk. A nineteen-story building with about a thousand rooms, the Roosevelt opened in 1924 and closed during the pandemic. It is currently

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This week, outside the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, hundreds of asylum seekers from all over the world languished in a slow-moving line, forced to stand in the sun and sleep on the sidewalk. A nineteen-story building with about a thousand rooms, the Roosevelt opened in 1924 and closed during the pandemic. It is currently being used by the city as an intake center for migrants, from Venezuela, Senegal, Burundi, and elsewhere, who have nowhere else to go. By law, New York is required to provide shelter to anyone in town in need of it. But the city’s beleaguered shelter system is said to be at capacity. Tens of thousands of migrants have arrived in New York so far this year, pushing the official census figures in the shelters above a hundred thousand for the first time in history. Mayor Eric Adams, who has spent months demanding more help from the federal government, pointed to the situation outside the Roosevelt as evidence of a breaking point. “It’s not going to get any better,” he told reporters on Monday. “From this moment on, it’s downhill.”

There’s no question that providing even minimal services for so many people has been a strain on the city budget. Government officials, nonprofit groups, and volunteers have done heroic work helping those in need. Images of the crowded sidewalks outside the Roosevelt made news across the world, treated as the latest and most dramatic evidence of the city’s ongoing “migrant crisis.” And yet, all around the hotel, New York life continued on as usual. On Wednesday afternoon, when I visited the area, boisterous happy-hour crowds were enjoying cold beers and cocktails at outdoor tables just across the street from migrants languishing behind metal barricades. Well-appointed couples ambled in and out of the Yale Club. Oxford-shirted commuters rushed for their trains at Grand Central. Some passersby stopped to gawk, but most minded their own business. A woman walking by me shook her head and muttered, “It’s crazy.”

One New Yorker materially affected by the situation was Dino Redzic, the co-owner of Uncle Paul’s, a pizzeria situated in a storefront on the ground floor of the Roosevelt. All week, people had been sleeping outside Redzic’s shop, and business had been down. But Redzic hadn’t minded. “I came illegal, just like they did,” he said, when I popped in to ask how things were going. “I was just as unwelcome as they are.” Redzic had distributed pizza to the people just outside his door, and allowed people to come in and use the bathroom. “They stay in there half an hour, washing themselves—but you can’t blame a guy,” he said. “You just have to clean it up right after that.”

Redzic is a large man with a round, youthful face and a goatee. He is fifty years old. He was born in Plav, a small mountain town in what is today Montenegro. In the early nineteen-nineties, as Yugoslavia fractured and descended into war, he left his parents and siblings behind and came to New York. He got a job bussing tables at the Gregory Hotel, in Brooklyn. “I worked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for seven dollars a day,” he said. “I felt like a rich man.” He applied for, and eventually received, political asylum and official permission to stay in America for good. In Yugoslavia, Redzic had trained to be a physical therapist. In New York, he found a new life in restaurants. He still remembers when New York magazine’s Gael Greene positively reviewed a tapas restaurant that he worked at, Tasca Porto, in 1994. “It was unbelievable,” he said.

At Uncle Paul’s, Redzic’s nephew was working behind the counter. The daughter of a Montenegrin friend of his was waiting tables. The pizzeria sells pies by the slice, and cold drinks out of a case near the register. It was rush hour, and a line was starting to form. Redzic was outraged thinking of how the migrants outside his door were being treated. “To be frank with you, I think we all have forgotten that somewhere down the line, this situation has touched everybody,” he said. “Your father, your grandfather, great-grandfather. I mean, this country was founded by immigrants.” Mayor Adams has called on the federal government to make it easier for migrants to obtain work permits, and Redzic is all for that. “None of these people are here for free housing, for any pampering—all they want is the right to work,” he said. “In fact, I could use eighteen of them now. That could help the city tremendously. They could pay taxes. And, instead of being a burden, they could be an asset.”

Redzic opened his first restaurant, Amici Amore, in Astoria, Queens, in 2srcsrcsrc. He got married, and now lives in New Jersey. He has three children, who have grown up in a world of possibilities. He showed me a photograph of his son, who had been out fishing at Robert Moses State Park, on Long Island, and who had caught an enormous shark. Redzic is now involved in several other restaurants in Long Island City, and one in Connecticut. He opened Uncle Paul’s in 2src12. He bought imported granite from Pakistan for the tabletops, and hung photographs of the mountains and forests of Plav on the walls. “There’s some amazing pasta dishes and salads that you normally won’t find in a pizzeria,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Uncle Paul’s was open twenty-four hours a day. “It was a beehive at all hours,” he said. “COVID took that away.” Redzic and his partner gave away pizza to first responders and essential workers. They endured the emptying out of midtown. They were just starting to get back to something like normal when the migrants began to arrive near his restaurant. “The business is cut in half,” he said. When I asked him if he thought that was because people were uncomfortable being so close to the crowd massed behind barricades, he said, sadly, “Those are your words, not mine.” No one from the city had contacted Redzic about the situation, but he was determined to do something to try to help, and had been heartened to see others with a similar impulse. An investment banker had come in and given Redzic two hundred dollars. “He said, ‘Feed these people, and I’ll be back tomorrow with more,’” Redzic said. After Redzic was quoted in a Times article about the situation outside the Roosevelt, a Mexican man—Redzic thought he might have been a tourist—had come by and given him a hundred and ten dollars, as a donation. “We feed whoever is left out there,” Redzic said.

Redzic knew what it was like to arrive in New York with nothing. “Trust me, the majority of these people have left everything behind,” he said. “Their grandmas, their graves, their pictures. Something is troubling them. They are not in a safe environment, wherever they come from, to continue living. I lived that firsthand. This is the hardest thing in life. You know, accidents, death—that happens everywhere. But to completely move out of your comfort zone, leave everything, it’s just heartbreaking.” He’d just returned from a trip to Plav, to visit his mother. It was good to see the rivers and the lakes of his old home again. Montenegro is a beautiful country, he said, but it’s not the United States. Yet he wondered about the migrants just outside his door, whether they would even get a chance to pursue a new life, like he did.

By Wednesday night, someone made a decision to clear the migrants from the sidewalk. Gothamist reported that city buses arrived and took those waiting outside the old hotel to shelter elsewhere in town. Officials are now talking about constructing temporary shelters in the city’s parks. Adams continues to implore the federal government to take responsibility. But, clearly, the city still has its own choices to make. Redzic felt it was only a matter of time before migrants were outside his door again. “They power-washed the sidewalk, but the barriers are still there, and the cops are still there,” he said. “The amount that came in has been situated, but they said that they’re expecting more.” ♦

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