By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Around city hall, Leo Zisman is known as a contributor to Rudy Giuliani. His wife, Myrna, is regarded as such a model of decorum, she was appointed to the mayor's protocol commission despite her past as a Democratic district leader. As treasurer of the United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth, Zisman has status in Brooklyn's orthodox community. But up on the grand concourse in the Bronx, where Zisman owns two massively decrepit apartment buildings, he is simply known as the Grinch.
That's how more than a dozen shivering tenants referred to Zisman when they held a December 29 press conference to complain that the landlord has left them virtually heatless for two months. And while city housing inspectors found that since November the heat supply at 1326 Grand Concourse has indeed been spotty, a tour of the five-story, 56-unit building makes it clear that warmth alone is not enough to make this wretched place habitable. Busted pipes send sink water splashing into kitchen cabinets, waterlogged ceilings collapse onto rotted floors, black mold creeps along walls, rats stalk cats, and tenants freeze.
"Everybody wants to leave this building," says Lydia Gonzales, who lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her two-year-old daughter and three sons, ages six, seven, and eight. Gonzales washes dishes in her bathroom because the pipes under her kitchen sink are not joined. The floor around the toilet is so rotten, the commode moves side-to-side. A bare bulb hangs from a four-foot-square gape in the bathroom ceiling that reveals dangling wires and electrical conduits. And on the inside of Gonzales's front closet door, roaches languish, not even bothering to scatter when she opens it to show a reporter the rat hole in the floor.
"Welfare says they won't pay for this place no more," Gonzales says. "I'm going to move out of here, and that's just fine with me."
Welfare pays the major portion of most tenants' rent here (which ranges from about $800 to $1200 a month), and Zisman has benefited from the public till in other ways as well. He bought the building cheap from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in 1987, and received a city mortgage and low-interest loans to help pay for renovations. At the same time and with a similar deal, Zisman bought 1290 Grand Concourse, a 47-unit building just south of 1326.
In the early '80s, city officials held a press conference on the stairs of 1290 Grand Concourse to announce plans to renovate it and other buildings on the Bronx's famous boulevard. But today, after 13 years of Zisman's ownership, that building, too, is decaying. HPD records show it has 360 violations, including 67 considered immediately hazardous. Dust on a second-story windowsill is so deep, someone traced a holiday greeting in it with their finger. The floor, stairwell, and hallway remain charred from a blaze that broke out on the fifth floor more than one month ago. The door at the roof is wide open; it has no knob, much less a lock, and condom packages and syringe covers suggest that outsiders know of the open-door policy.
"This building," says one tenant whose door is surrounded by soot, "is the pits."
Zisman did not return calls for this story; neither did his brother Berel, who owns the Bronx properties with him. Zisman, 69, has made a career in real estate and construction. He runs at least 10 corporations, among them Elzee Construction, which gets city contracts, including one that converted a century-old public school in Harlem into apartments. Elzee has also won multi-million-dollar contracts from the New York City Housing Authority. In 1997, NYCHA conducted an investigation and withheld a portion of the payment on two Elzee contracts because it claimed Zisman's companies had broken federal labor law by failing to pay workers the prevailing wage. Ultimately, 21 workers who claimed they were owed more than $1.2 million settled for just over $500,000. The contracts with Elzee were for nearly $20 million to renovate a group of abandoned, city-owned buildings in the Bronx.
While public money flowed to Elzee, the company also sent contributions to politicians. In Rudy Giuliani's 1997 mayoral campaign, the company gave the legal maximum, $7700. As one of the perks of the mayor's protocol office, Myrna Zisman got a coveted permit allowing her to park anywhere, the Daily Newsreported last February. The mayor's office told the News that the pass was necessary because the commission is involved in "ceremonial courtesies" for visiting dignitaries. Myrna Zisman, who forsook her Democratic loyalties not only to endorse Giuliani but also to gush over George Pataki ("He's a mensch," she told Newsdayin 1995) when urged to do so by then GOP senator Al D'Amato, is no longer on the protocol commission.
In 1997, Leo Zisman's Lindenwood Development Corporation gave $5000 to the failed public advocate campaign of Jules Polonetsky. Giuliani appointed Polonetsky to be the city's consumer affairs commissioner, a job he left in 2000. As commissioner, Polonetsky might well have considered whether Zisman tenants were getting a fair deal.
Another city agency, the Department of Finance, says Zisman's companies owe about $10,000 in real estate taxes. Most of the bill stems from a Brooklyn apartment building at 701 Avenue C, which also has 232 housing code violations. Tenants there say they have no complaints about heat.
With ditched Christmas trees piled on the sidewalk atop bags of garbage and the remains of junked bicycles, it was clear that the holidays were over for the tenants of 1326 Grand Concourse. In 30-degree weather with biting winds, they lined up in front of the building carrying posters that decried Zisman as a cold-hearted grinch. "Mr. Zisman: Move your feet! Turn on the heat!" said one. Children carried another: "Please give me heat. I can't sleep at night."
"People use stoves to warm their houses, but they get sick," says tenant Albert Rodriguez, who, with the help of a community organization, ACORN, lead the recent rally. "My wife was throwing up and coughing blood because the stove dries up your membranes." Rodriguez has a computerized thermometer in his window that prints out a tape when the temperature in the room is below 50 degrees. "That's all it does now is print," he says. The day of the press conference, Rodriguez's thermometer registered 64 degrees. He had the stove on full blast, with a pan of water inside to counter the dry air.
The hallways were cold enough to turn breath into vapor, although some apartments were warm. But the heat comes with a price. "Look at this Con Ed bill," said Mario Garcia, producing a $1680.08 bill covering two months; Garcia supplements his stove heat with four electric radiators to warm his family, which includes his wife and four children, ages two, six, nine, and 14. His bathroom's motif is similar to Gonzales'smissing tiles, moldy ceiling, shaky toiletbut perhaps the most disturbing sight was the family cat, a black Siamese called Cojo. A bloody gash cuts into her right ear and down her face; Mario says the cat had tangled with a rat in the apartment a few days earlier. "The rats come out from the hole by where we take a bath," chimed in six-year-old Mario Junior.
In another apartment, Victor Sanandres has tub troubles (it leaks alongside a wall it shares with a hallway, sending water rolling down the floor) and rat problems (a makeshift wooden crate covers a part of the ceiling where rats have gnawed through into the living room). Near the kitchen, a large, L-shaped hole in the ceiling gives him a view of the pipes that sometimes freeze and leak water onto his floor. His mother, who moved into the apartment 13 years ago from a homeless shelter, wears a coat, sweatshirt, and Yankees cap around the house to keep warm.
Upstairs, in a hallway that connects two wings of the building, insulation material peeked out of a hole in the wall five feet high and four feet across. It looked like someone had boxed with the drywall. "People get frustrated with this place," says Rodriguez. "You can't respect it." A moment later, a teenager cruised by jabbing at the air.
"What you got to do," he said, "is destroy this building. Destroy the whole thing, and build a whole new one. One with heat."