By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Juan Azize and Francisco Suero stand across the street from two old buildings on Wadsworth Terrace, a dense, steep, and brief street that is almost unknown below 191st street. They watch with bemused expressions as men cart refrigerators and panes of glass from the backs of white trucks and through the front doors of the buildings, where the two men live. Azize raises his palm toward the trucks.
"This," he says, "is a show."
The sudden appearance of these windows and fridges on a day when word has leaked about a tenants' association meeting and a visit from a city inspector makes Azize cynical. It would take a lot of used refrigerators and windowpanes to turn these crumbling buildings in Washington Heights into decent places to live.
At 46-52 and 54-60 Wadsworth Terrace, where rents range from $400 to more than $900 a month, ceilings collapse on children as they sleep in their bunk beds at night. Black soot belches from the boiler and fills apartments with foul air. Overburdened wiring shorts out the electricity at random. Brown waterfalls run through kitchen cabinets and collect in giant soup pots. Cracks creep silently along the foundation.
City inspectors have cited the decrepit buildings for more than 40 immediately hazardous violations this year alone. The landlord is expected in court April 11 to answer four construction violations for the cracking walls and ceilings. The only confusion is this: Just recently, after a month of publicized rallies, the newly mobilized tenants heard that the buildings had been sold without their knowledge by their landlord, Alexander Feig of Brooklyn, to a man named Ari Schwartz, also of Brooklyn. That makes Azize cynical too.
The tenants didn't hear of the sale from Feig. They heard it from Schwartz, who sent them a letter in February telling them to pay rent to his company at a Coney Island address. Feig's company, incorporated six days after he bought both buildings on a summer day in 1975, for the price of a Mercedes, is called 46-52 Wadsworth Terrace Corp. Schwartz's company, incorporated on January 14, is called Wadsworth Terrace Realty LLC.
Feig's wife, Frieda, maintains that the sale occurred several weeks ago. "It was time to move on," she says. "It's been 26 and a half years, and, what do they say?the natives were getting restless. They were destroying and vandalizing the building. People had not paid rent for eight months. There were rabble-rousers. There were men in their fifties paying $300 in rent."
"Thank God we're out of there and that's it," she continues. "My husband did a lot of good things for those people and it's very hard to take this kind of abuse. When the landlord is doing his best, and people just absolutely rip things apart and break things, that's too much."
How exactly the tenants stained their walls with mold, caused their ceilings to rot, and cut off their own power in the structures, built in 1922, remains unclear. Even less evident to tenants is why anyone would buy a building in such bad shape. Asked the question, Schwartz replies, "That's what I do. I make people's lives better. If you look around, there are buildings in a lot worse shape. It's not in great shape, but it's not insurmountable."
He says he owns the buildings now, as well as "a few others" in the tristate area, but he would not offer details about the sale. "We're doing a lot of things for the building to benefit it after it had been neglected," says Schwartz.
That neglect is clear on a walk through the buildings. In an apartment near the boiler, Juana Colon and her children, nine and four, live with humidity so thick it curls your eyebrows when you walk through the door. Ten months after a chunk of ceiling crashed down on Griselda Disla's three children, Karla, Paola, and Christian, the hole is still there and the family is living with a neighbor. Disla continues to pay $538 a month to keep her place in the building, even though the apartment is in shambles.
Tenants say Schwartz's recent repairs have been merely cosmetic. And they are more prepared than ever to do something about it. Azize first tried to start a tenants' association in 1982, without luck. The mentality was different then among the buildings' many Dominican tenants, he says. You came to America to make money to bring back to your family on the island; you worked hard and played the cards the city dealt you while you were here. That mind-set has changed. At last count, 48 families had joined the association; many are also members of the group ACORN.
"The landlord used to tell every tenant that if you go to the meeting, you're out of the apartment," Azize says. "Now people know he can't do anything and they don't care. They're all suffering."
Councilman Miguel Martinez has reported the buildings to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development's anti-abandonment division. An HPD spokeswoman says Schwartz signed a repair agreement last week to cure the violations, and officials will be monitoring his progress. "I hope he improves the conditions," Martinez says. "If not, we'll try to get the city to move in and put the buildings in the tenant interim lease program." Under that program, designed for city-owned buildings, tenants work with HPD to manage and eventually own their own buildings.