By Anna Merlan
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By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
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Surpassing even the usual high standards of probity and compassion exhibited by Manhattan property owners, one of the largest real estate empires in the city is nearing success this week in its year-long campaign to evict a blind Russian immigrant from a bare white room on the East Side.
The man's name is Ishak Kakiashvili. He is 63 and has no family in New York. Without assistance, he can no longer afford the continually rising rentnow more than $1000for a small studio in the shadow of the United Nations at 310 East 44th Street. His landlord is the Brodsky Organization, the mega-developer that recently opened a multimillion-dollar luxury apartment tower atop a new Broadway theater. Brodsky, a member of Beaux Art Realty, has refused to accept $600-a-month partial payments from Kakiashvili's SSI check. As a result, Kakiashvili now owes the landlord more than $10,000.
Kakiashvili's blindness, though, turns what may seem a simple hard-luck story about a man who can't pay his rent into a more poignant story about how much a stable neighborhood can mean to living a coherent, fulfilling existence in New York. Born to a Russian Jewish family in a village by the Black Sea, Kakiashvili spent his youth canning pickles and jams in a Soviet plant. In 1974, he moved to New York and found work on West 47th Street in the diamond district. At first, he sold small diamonds to the customers of a bigger operator who took him under his wing. In time, he grew sharp at identifying the "four C's" that define the tradeclarity, color, carat, and cut. He opened a business. He strolled to work from his apartment on 44th Street every day.
He went blind slowly. One day in 1990, another dealer said to him, "Ishak, what's with you? You make too many mistakes." He took a vacation to rest his eyes, but the affliction worsened and he never went back to work. What saved him, he says, was the goodwill of New Yorkers, and his neighborhood. He can describe his crisp mental map of the blocks around the United Nations. To find the subway at Grand Central, he crosses Second, takes a left, takes a right on 43rd, crosses Lexington, walks five or six steps, turns right into the door, and descends the stairs, listening for the clunk of the turnstile. He can tell you how to find his bank, his drugstore, and his supermarket. "I know this neighborhood like my five fingers," he explains, raising a hand.
But over time, his $120,000 in savings dwindled to nothing. His rent continued to rise. His $632 from Social Security could not cover it. He went to the New York City Housing Authority in November 1999 to apply for a Section 8 voucher to supplement his rent. But NYCHA, he says, would not accept his application because applications have been frozen since 1994 for all but battered women, witnesses under protection, and the homeless. Brodsky, meanwhile, moved to evict him. Growing desperate, Kakiashvili began to thread his way to the housing authority offices at 250 Broadway every day, asking that they process his application. That is when a new level of trouble started for him.
After he made several visits to the public building, NYCHA officials had Kakiashvili arrested for trespassing. He returned. They arrested him again. In an incredible move, they took out a restraining order against him in the name of one of their security guards, and began to have him arrested not only for trespassing, but also for violating the order. In the first four months of this year, they arrested this 63-year-old blind man 14 times, and threw him in Rikers Island twice. Again, he says, the compassion of New Yorkers saw him through, particularly the ministrations of a bank robber who walked him to lunch every day and talked with him about War and Peace. When he got out, he continued his hard journeys downtown. "I remind them in a simple way that I'm not going away," he says. "It may be irrational. But for me this apartment is everything, like air, like water."
In late April, a judge lifted the restraining order, and the arrests stopped. But on June 10, hours after a NYCHA spokesman told the Voicethat this was a "very sad situation," the authority had Kakiashvili arrested a 15th time. The spokesman, Howard Marder, would not comment on the arrests.
"We've attempted to help him," Marder says. "But he will not accept anything other than a Section 8 voucher for the apartment in which he currently resides, and his landlord refuses to take part in the Section 8 program." Marder says the authority offered him housing elsewhere and he refused.
Beaux Art spokeswoman Michele de Milly says the real estate magnate has a "policy" of not accepting Section 8 in that building. Asked if the landlord would consider lowering the rent to assist his tenant of 22 years, she said, "It's not up to the landlord to deal with a private situation."
Last week the court refused to extend his stay of eviction. On June 24, Kakiashvili faces the criminal charges. He could be out his place by the Fourth of July. "All my life I lived an independent life," he says. "I have to retain my independence. That's why I'm fighting. To be a functional, capable individual." Will the goodwill of New Yorkers save him again?