A Fiasco Underneath Forest Hills

Beneath the streets of Forest Hills and within the 71st Street and Continental Avenue subway station, there is a growing concern among subway riders. Over the last few months, there has been an influx of homeless people living in the train station and some passengers find it unsettling and unsafe.

With an increase of drifters coming to the station and making their homes there, many residents feel unnerved and say the MTA has let them down in terms of safety.

“I don’t feel safe and protected anymore when I’m down there,” says Anisa Hudar, who has lived in Forest Hills for 18 years. “At first, it was common to see a few but now, there’s just too many homeless people to feel safe.”

Others share her sentiments.

“As a woman who comes home late from work, I don’t feel safe at all when I’m at the station,” says Sofia Aleyevskaya, who has lived in Forest Hills for six years. “Some of the homeless guys catcall and follow me until I leave the station. I hate it.”

It’s not just the nighttime in which the homeless start to feel like a problem. Some feel the worst time is the afternoon and such is the case in Mariah Estreta’s opinion. Estreta, a mother of two and resident of Forest Hills for eight years, fears for her children’s safety when they return from school in the afternoon.

“As a mother, I just have to fear for my children. I don’t know what some of the homeless are capable of and I don’t want my children to be exposed to any sort of danger,” says Estreta. To ease her mind, Estreta now travels to her children’s elementary school, which is located in Kew Gardens, and brings them back herself. 

Shamsul Rahman, a resident of Forest Hills for five years, believes that the neighborhood has taken a turn for the worse, and the issues at the train station only highlight some problems. “Just in general, the streets and the station feel dangerous now,” says Rahman. “There is also a lack of police at night which doesn’t help the situation.”

Rahman stresses the need for more police officers spread throughout the area at all times of the day so that the streets and subway station can revert back to feeling like “smooth sailing.”

“We all know that some of the homeless people have mental issues and they may be insane which is a danger for us riders,” says Rahman.

The train station at 71st Street and Continental Avenue isn’t the only station suffering from an influx of homeless people. Nearby, the 67th Avenue train station on Queens Boulevard is beginning to experience the same issue and during rush hour, the problem is visible for everyone to see. 

“It feels like a shantytown and it smells awful in here,” says Joseph Webber, who waits for the M train everyday at the 67th Avenue station. “If this keeps being a problem, I might just start looking for alternative routes to work.”

Though the issues haven’t been solved, it doesn’t mean they haven’t been addressed. At the monthly police community council meeting held at the 112th Precinct, Captain Thomas Conforti said that there would be an increase in police presence to insure citizens feel safe again riding the trains in their own neighborhood. Conforti says that with more officers, the 112th Precinct will be able to assess and evaluate the danger in the stations.

However, some doubt the plan Captain Conforti has come up with. Joseph Webber, who was present at the community council, says that the police can’t seem to see the real problem; that homeless people consistently flock into the local train stations. Just last month, a homeless man stabbed a passenger at the Kew Gardens-Union Turnpike train station, which is one stop away from the 71st Street and Continental Avenue Station.

Although most people in Forest Hills want police to clear the stations of all drifters and homeless people, one man who has lived in the 71st Street and Continental Avenue station for three years brings up a different issue. Ang Phan, who sleeps every night on the wooden benches at the station and cleans up garbage even though he doesn’t have to, treating the station like his own home, asks, “Where should someone like me go in New York?”

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Seedy Motel Survives Amidst Controversy

Firoz Uddin counts bills behind a Plexiglass counter while the couple standing in front of him debate on which room they should rent for the night. As another couple makes their way from the bar to the elevators with vigor and excitement in each step, Uddin remains patient, waiting for the couple on line to make a decision.

“They always take time because they are nervous,” says Uddin.

A couple being uncertain in their selection of a room is a common scene at the Kew Motor Inn, a motel that lies on the border of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens Hills. The motel, which labels itself as a “no-tell motel” on its website, takes pride in offering short-term stays for reduced prices.

But cheap pricing and short-term rentals is not what the hotel is all about—or at least that’s what it wasn’t about.

The Kew Motor Inn, which looks like an ordinary roadside motel from afar, is in reality a sex hotel, much like the ones found in Japan and in Europe. The rules are simple; you enter, you select and rent out one of the 69 themed rooms for three hours and you get out.

“We are convenient for people who don’t want to stay for too long. That’s why we have our prices,” says Uddin.

The reputation of the motel was severely tarnished in 2012 when undercover cops posing as prostitutes discovered what was really going on. They found out that the motel and its employees turned a blind eye to the illegal activities occurring within the confines of the motel; crimes which included prostitution, procuring of prostitution, bribery and falsifying business records.

After five arrests were made of employees from both the Kew Motor Inn and the Par Central Inn (a motel just blocks away from the Kew Motor Inn that has closed permanently), an extensive inside report came to light exposing the seedy and shady conditions in which the Kew Motor Inn operated.

The fallout from these reports and arrests led to heavy surveillance from the law, which effectively forced the Kew Motor Inn to close its doors for a few weeks. However, even after it opened again, there has been a sense of caution amongst employees and patrons. No longer can people just rent a room without any identification and now, employees are alert to those who loiter in the bar for far too long.

“We are under new management,” says Uddin who reassures that nothing illegal goes on anymore within the motel. “We don’t do business like the other people used to do it.”

Although there are new company policies to ensure that it never has to shut its doors down again, the Kew Motor Inn is deemed a place of ill repute, which does not deserve to have a place in the community.

“It’s a disgrace for the neighborhood because it’s all pretty quiet here but then you got this place,” says Kevin Hernandez, who has lived in Kew Gardens Hills for seven years. “I don’t care who is running the place now, it just shouldn’t be here anymore.”

Others contend that the motel doesn’t harm anyone with its existence.

“Sure, there’s going to be some bad company in a place like that but as an adult, you have to understand where you’re going into,” says Sid Sansi as he waits for the Q46 bus across the street from the Kew Motor Inn.

“We all know what used to go on in there but after the reopening, there’s not really been any problems with it,” says Lieutenant Brian Goldberg of the 112th Precinct. “I can’t say there’s anything wrong with the place.”

The Kew Motor Inn may never receive the embrace of the community but its purpose is simple; it serves as a haven for adults who want discretion.

“As long as it’s legal,” says Firoz Uddin with a smile behind the counter.

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Fraudulent Phone Scam Plagues Forest Hills

The citizens of Forest Hills and Rego Park are under threat from a new form of crime that has never plagued their community before; MoneyPak cards and phone scams designed to con money from elders. Lieutenant Brian Goldberg of the 112th Precinct alerted attendees of the community board about how these scams work.

“What these guys are doing is telling people to take money out from the bank in return for profits,” said Goldberg. Although Goldberg told the community that crime rates have dropped four percent within the past month, there has been a rise in crimes involving scams through phone calls and false promises of monetary gain.

In total, there have been three victims from these phone calls and it’s evident that there’s a particular audience these scams are targeting.

“These guys go after senior citizens and elder members of the community,” Goldberg stated. Joseph Hennessy, Chairman of Community Board 6, updated the community on what measures have been taken so far to prevent further occurrences of these financial scams.

“We have a special task force for these crimes,” said Hennessy at the beginning of the community board. In addition, NYPD Community Affairs officers passed around packets containing information about the various scams that have been reported.

The task force intends on catching these con artists by tracing the phone records of elders in the community to see if there is a persistent call source, one that may be responsible for the scams.

Pinpointing the perpetrators may have taken longer than expected for the task force because of the numerous methods used to scheme inhabitants of Forest Hills and Rego Park.

“They call people’s homes, asking for money, pretending to be someone else,” said Goldberg. “They say they’re from the cable company or pretend to be family members and ask for wire payments.”

Not only are they posing as workers from utility companies, but some of these “financial prank callers” are maximizing their efforts by shamming people into thinking they work for the Internal Revenue Service and that they need financial information for tax returns and audits.

How else do the scams work?

“Well, from what I understand, they call an elder’s household and falsely inform them that their cable or their heating will be cut unless they make a wired transfer to some account,” said Joshua Silverman, a member of the community board for the past three years. “Other things they say are that they are a family member of the ones they call and they need payment for a medical bill but it’s all really just a series of lies created to take money.”

Being alert to these phone calls was the message throughout the community board meeting as there is an apparent worry over these calls. These worries certainly heightened when Lt. Goldberg mentioned that there have been losses “up to $20,000.”

The NYPD community affairs officers passed around sheets which contained an effective way to fight off these con artists’ calls; simply hang up the phone when the caller requests financial information.

Although no arrests have been made, a task force is set on tracing the origins of these financial scam calls in an attempt to offer respite to the homeowners of Forest Hills and Rego Park.

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More Than Just a Job

Beads of sweat converge across the bridge of Ahmed El-Khatib’s nose yet he still manages a smile on his face as one customer vocalizes how much white sauce he wants upon his rice.

Customers constantly checking the statuses of their orders is a common occurrence in the typical day of El-Khatib, as he clatters his spatula against the grill, working inside the popular food cart, Sahara Grill, located on 71st Avenue and Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, Queens. Sahara Grill, which is open 24/7, has been a mainstay in Forest Hills for just about five years now and still, El-Khatib sees lines of people hoard in front of his food cart.

“We got good business quickly because there are no other cart food places around in this area,” says El-Khatib.

Born in Egypt but now an American citizen, El-Khatib has been cooking in carts for 13 years and it was he who decided to open up Sahara Grill. Until the opening of Sahara Grill, the salivating selection of items such as lamb gyros, grilled chicken kufta over brown rice, and falafels weren’t offered in the Forest Hills area so El-Khatib figured the uniqueness of his food could be appreciated within Forest Hills.

When El-Khatib isn’t manning the grill and taking order after order, it’s his Lebanese friend, Adam Kanoon, who is.

“At first I did this job to help a friend but then I saw it paid well so I keep doing it,” says Kanoon, when he has time to share a laugh in between figuring who ordered a lamb gyro and who demanded hot sauce on his falafel.

In a lot of cases, immigrants are forced to give up their culture in order to assimilate to their new surroundings but that is not the case with El-Khatib and Kanoon. They choose to keep their heritage alive through their cuisine and it’s evident once you breathe in the aura of grilled meats and toasted pita bread. While it may not offer the traditional sit-and-eat experience a lot of eateries offer, Sahara Grill instead relies on the passion and authenticity within the food to keep customers returning.

Primarily a residential area, Forest Hills does contain strips of shopping areas and Sahara Grill falls right in the center of the shopping hub as well as being in front of the 71st Continental Ave train station.

“This place for me is like a gold mine,” says El-Khatib as he reflects on the convenience and advantages regarding the locale of his eatery. However, it’s not just the popular reception of Sahara Grilled that pleases El-Khatib; rather it’s the fact that he was able to embrace his culture and create a career out of it.

“With every meal I create, I am remembering where I come from and I am also sharing a piece of Egypt with the people I serve,” states El-Khatib as heaps of individuals surround the glimmering silver and orange cart.

“This guy really has something great going on here and I’m happy to see people line up for his food,” says Gavin O’Byrne in praise of his old friend El-Khatib. “I never heard of kufta or gyros before this guy came along and now I always find myself here,” says O’Byrne jokingly as he waits for his order.

Sahara Grill is not just a food cart for El-Khatib and Kanoon. Instead, it’s a preservation of the Mediterranean culture that each grew up with and it’s their career, a job that they’re really good at.

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