segunda-feira, 12 de maio de 2008

Bronx Hospitality, Unnoticed by the Tourist Guides

The folks who published the AAA 2008 New York Tour Book had a hard time recommending any hotels in the Bronx. They could only find one, in fact, a rather bland-looking Howard Johnson a mile north of Yankee Stadium and hard by a service road to the Major Deegan Expressway.
Hey, the hotel fared better than restaurants, since the guide does not list a single place to eat in the Bronx. As far as the AAA guide goes, Arthur Avenue, Morris Park Avenue or City Island do not exist.

It is an odd distinction for that lone hotel, a Howard Johnson of no particular architectural distinction. And given the borough’s long battles against hot sheet motels that rent rooms by the hour, a casual observer might assume this place was no different.
It is a real hotel catering to real tourists. One day last week, the parking lot was filled with cars from out of state, most belonging to guests who had come to see the Yankees play Cleveland. Retirees from Oklahoma and families from upstate New York eagerly hauled suitcases upstairs as they prepared to change into baseball jerseys and take in a game.
Chadd Morris and Brandon Bebout had driven eight hours from Cleveland to score game tickets. They asked a local police officer for the location of the nearest hotel and were directed to the HoJo.
“We got to New York with no idea where we were going to stay,” Mr. Morris said. “I had heard negatives and positives about the Bronx. We’ll see what happens.”
Negatives? In the Bronx?
“People said we couldn’t wear Indians stuff in New York,” he said. “But Yankee fans wear their stuff in our field, so we’ll try that here.”

The hotel itself has Yankee pinstripe wallpaper in the lobby and a breakfast nook dominated by a photo mural of the stadium. The rooms and windows are tiny, but clean and well appointed, with wi-fi access (and plasma screen televisions coming soon, too). A southbound highway ramp is nearby. The garage even has a waiting area labeled “High Class Passenger Pick Up and Drop Off.”
O.K., “High Class” is not (necessarily) referring to the passengers, but to High Class Bronx, a livery cab service that takes guests to the stadium or back and forth to the subway.
Gaurang Parikh bought the 45-room hotel two years ago when a friend told him the previous owner was having a hard time making a go of the place.
“I came to see the property and fell in love with it,” he said. “It has a river view of the Harlem river.”
Not to mention it was a 20 minute walk to the stadium. It was his idea to redo the décor in a baseball theme.
“I am from India, but I have always been a die hard Yankees fan,” he said. “For me to have a hotel next to Yankee Stadium is a dream come true.”
Actually, he is right next to the old 44th Police Precinct, which now houses the Bronx Task Force. The area is safe. Up to a point.
“I used to have baseballs in the molding of the breakfast area,” he said. American League teams on the baseballs. But people were stealing them.”
Out of town people, for you smart-alecks out there.
He said about 40 percent of his guests are baseball fans, and the place is packed when Boston or Baltimore come to play. The rest are people who want to visit Manhattan but do not want to pay Manhattan hotel rates.
Getting any kind of attention away from Manhattan has always been a challenge for this, the Rodney Dangerfield of boroughs, beset by old images of fire and mayhem. A hotel is planned for the new mall being built south of the stadium. There are also some new, smaller hotels being built, though their very location raises more questions. A sleek, new Day’s Inn is almost completed – at the end of a worn row of red-brick warehouses tucked between Melrose and Brooke Avenues, just south of 165th Street. The rear rooms face the Metro North tracks.
A Comfort Inn planned for Webster Avenue north of Fordham Road met with strong local opposition, though the owner insisted to the Norwood news that it will serve families visiting relatives at Fordham University or being treated at Montefiore Medical Center.
As for the AAA guides, it is usually up to the hotel or restaurant owners to seek approval for listing, having to meet criteria for safety, cleanliness, location and room amenities. Some 32,000 lodgings are rated for North America, said Heather Hunter, a spokeswoman for AAA. Travel editors from AAA visit the properties, and they can recommend others they encounter.
Looks like they had a hard time running across any others in the Bronx.
Of course, Bronx boosters could do more to help get out the word. It was less than a year ago that Bronx Borough president Adolfo Carrión Jr. unveiled a new series of radio ads and billboards aimed at promoting business and tourism in the Bronx (though some thought the ads were really about promoting Mr. Carrion and his political aspirations to higher office in Manhattan). The spots – produced by an advertising agency in White Plains – had a limited run. The Web site associated with the campaign apparently shares the same fate as Bronx hotels: it cannot be found on the server.
The Web site of the Bronx Tourism Council — which is supposed to help the Borough president promote the charms of all things Bronx — lists only one bed and breakfast in the borough, Le Refuge Inn, an elegantly appointed Victorian house on City Island. After that, the Web site lists several local colleges as having dorm rooms available when classes are not in session and a couple of hotels in Westchester County.
A voice-mail message for the council’s marketing director and executive director was not returned. A call to the council’s Bronx hot line resulted only in a recorded greeting: “Please join us for the Bronx’s official tree lighting ceremony, Monday, December 17 at 5 P.M. at the Bronx County Building.”

The Howard Johnson near Yankee Stadium is not listed on the tourism council’s Web site. Nor is Mi Casa/Tu Casa, a guest house located a few blocks south of Yankee Stadium. The house – which has a total of five available rooms, is set to reopen this week after having been closed for renovations after an accidental fire damaged much of the building.
Mi Casa literally is the home of its owner, Julio Pabon, a local businessman and community advocate whose twin passions of baseball and Latino pride are reflected in the house’s décor. A backyard garden has a mural of Puerto Rico’s El Yunque rain forest. The guest rooms feature art from various Latin American countries. The living room is decorated with prints by Puerto Rican artists and figures honoring Negro League heroes “Cool Papa” Bell and Josh Gibson.
Of course there are more than a few photos of Roberto Clemente, too. And one entire room is decorated with photos and drawings of Yankees from every era. That room, Mr. Pabon explained, will soon be occupied for the rest of the season by a Yankees executive.
Though he has relied on word of mouth to keep his house full ever since it opened two years ago, he is frustrated that the borough gets short shrift from guidebooks and even those whose job is to promote it.
“The more things are supposed to change, the more it stays the same,” he said. “People think the Bronx is still a no man’s land so nobody wants to stay here. So there’s no place to stay.”
Yet in the few blocks around his house, there is a gallery, a theater troupe, several decent bars and restaurants. And Yankee Stadium.
“Now I’m going to market this and aim for the people who go to see the Yankees,” he said. “My desire is to market this as a full-fledged bed and breakfast. I just have to learn what are the requirements are. Other than serving breakfast.”

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