To cheers of "knock it down," demolition equipment began tearing down a notorious West Hempstead hotel Thursday morning.
The ceremonial demolition was a victory for groups that had long sought to get rid of the Courtesy Hotel because of its history of drug and violent crime arrests.
About 200 people -- including community, religious and government leaders -- watched as two excavators cranked, roared and crashed through the hotel's walls at 11:50 a.m.
Heavy machinery brought down bricks, wallboard and dust, while exposing the inside of what used to be hotel rooms.
"It seemed pretty surreal," said Steve Hagendorn, 23, a lifelong resident of West Hempstead. "I've never seen the community so excited to see a building being torn down."
Harold Hahnan, 79, a retired construction worker and 43-year resident of West Hempstead, said: "It was rundown and had a lot of crime. I am glad to see it go. It was a long time coming."
Rosalie Norton, president of the West Hempstead Community Support Association, said she and other residents had complained for years to town officials about crime at the hotel, as well as the registered sex offenders who lived there.
"With this building gone forever, it marks a beginning for a better West Hempstead," said Norton, who led the movement to shut down the hotel.
The hotel, which was shuttered in January, will be replaced by a residential complex next to the Long Island Rail Road's West Hempstead station.
"I am astounded by the turnout," said Maria R. Rigopoulos, vice president of development in the Northeast for property owner Mill Creek Residential Trust.
Mill Creek, based in Wilton, Conn., purchased the 3-acre property along Hempstead Avenue for redevelopment on Feb. 9. It plans to construct a four-story residential building with 150 upscale rental units, a resort style swimming pool, landscaped courtyards, a clubhouse, a fitness center and Internet lounge, a theater room, a cafe and a two-story underground parking garage.
The housing project was able to move forward because the town created a "transit-oriented development" zone in late 2008 that allowed for greater density in the area. The LIRR's promise to keep vacant its 1-acre site between the hotel and the train station also gave the project its required space.