By Albert Samaha
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When the Kenmore Hotel on 23rd Street reopened on May 4, politicians flocked to the ceremony, anxious to be associated with a project that had reincarnated the building from a murderous drug den into 326 units of affordable housing. In a famous 1994 raid, U.S. Marshals had seized the roiling crack house and turned it over to a nonprofit agency. Now, five years and more than $40 million later, the decrepit old Kenmore Hotel was making its debut as the spiffy new Kenmore Hall. But amid the speeches and gushes of awe at the Kenmore's reinvention, no one seemed to notice that a certain middle-aged man who had played a role in the hotel's transformation wasn't there. That's because Tony Merritt, once an insider at the Kenmore, was unwelcome.
From 1991 to 1998, the 57-year-old Merritt not only lived at the Kenmore as a tenant; he was a confidential informant (CI) for the New York Police Department, fingering drug dealers who plied their trade in the Kenmore's shoddy hallways and cubbyhole rooms. Merritt, who had learned the ins and outs of the drug trade from his own seven-year crack addiction, says he helped cops make hundreds of arrests, many of which led to evictions of drug dealers at the single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel.
But by August 1998, Merritt himself was embroiled in controversy at the Kenmore. Merritt's landlord was suing him for back rent totaling $2150. And fellow tenants had sued him, alleging Merritt had subverted their efforts to start a tenant group, though a judge would later rule that Merritt had "violated no rights of the plaintiffs."
Then Merritt caught a lucky break. Just as the Kenmore was being rehabilitated, drug problems emerged at another SRO, the Times Square on West 43rd Street, and Merritt's CI status landed him a room there. The Times Square, a former welfare hotel that had also been "rescued" by a nonprofit agency called Common Ground Community, turned to the NYPD for help. Pleased with Merritt's work at the Kenmore, cops recruited him to be the in-house snitch at the Times Square. Under Merritt's tenure, 49 drug arrests were made and several evictions followed.
Now, a year later, Merritt is being evicted from the Times Square. On August 10, housing court judge Bruce Kramer ordered him out by September 10. Common Ground executive director Rosanne Haggerty says Merritt must leave because he was never a tenant, only a "licensee" in a police investigation that has reached its conclusion. Merritt argues that Common Ground is dumping him because he did his job too well, finding the much heralded Times Square far more infested with drugs than Haggerty cares to admit. And he charges that the nonprofit, known in housing circles for its political steam, reached out to the NYPD to cut the investigation short, fearing that too many drug arrests would jeopardize Common Ground's cachet. The investigation ended in late March.
Haggerty is out of the country and was unavailable for comment, but she did testify in detail about Merritt's allegations during his housing court trial. There, she admitted that she told the police captain in charge of the investigation that she wanted it ended. But she denied any inappropriate intervention, saying police stopped the operation because the drug problem had been dealt with.
Police sources close to the investigation refused to discuss it on the record. But tenants say drugs remain a problem at the Times Square, and since May two months after the investigation ended five drug arrests have been made there, says Deputy Inspector Denis McCarthy, borough commander of Manhattan South Narcotics. "We're monitoring the location, and it's not like we're going to stop an investigation because somebody feels there's too many people being arrested," says McCarthy, who was not involved in the effort. "That's not the way we work."
Merritt's case, with his accusations of criminal behavior and coverup, rivals the most acrimonious landlord-tenant dispute. Drawn years ago from the hills of his boyhood home in the South to New York City, Tony Merritt is at once an insider wise to the ways of crack dealers and cops, and an outsider whose very speech marked by a genteel drawl than has not worn away after 17 years in the city gives him away. Merritt is on the way out, and he knows it.
"I've opened up many doors, usually by having them kicked in, your honor," Merritt quipped during his housing court case before Kramer. "In this case, I may get the door. I know I'm washed up." But hours later, pondering Kramer's decision to let him stay at the Times Square until September, Merritt credited his role as an insider. "I think the judge gave me some professional courtesy," mused Merritt. "He realized we're both kind of in the same line of work law enforcement. I'm just on the low end of the totem pole."
Merritt may indeed live on a rung that most people would consider lowly out of work and short on money, he rarely eats but is reluctant to accept handouts. He walks everywhere because he can't pay subway fare. He represents himself in court, and submits handwritten legal papers. But he's smart enough to quote from Abraham Lincoln and to win an extra month's tenancy from a landlord who wants him gone yesterday. A user who was used first by law enforcement authorities and then by a well-regarded social service agency, Merritt is now trying to bring his own sense of justice to the fore a justice he admits is partly rooted in vengeance.