Tenants Be Gone

Amid West Side development fever, a pit bull landlord on West 45th street confronts his loft dwellers

The blocks west of Tenth Avenue, past the railroad cut in Hell's Kitchen, have always been a no-man's-land, an anything-goes kind of place where bad things can happen to good and not-so-good people alike. So when the big bald-headed guy with the pit bull stepped into the concrete courtyard of an aging industrial complex now filled with artists' living lofts, bellowing that he would kill the next person who called the authorities on him, it wasn't the biggest shock in the world for those who heard him.

Hell's Kitchen knows from tough guys. The sunken railroad line just east of the property is where the old Gophers gang used iron spikes to clobber the guards before they looted the boxcars. In the '70s, when the artists moved in, a savage crew called the Westies shook down everyone in sight. These days, however, it's the land itself that's worth the most. The new bandits are more likely to swipe homes than wallets.

And as near as the beleaguered tenants of 517-25 West 45th Street could figure out, the man screaming in the courtyard, a Vin Diesel-style bruiser with a criminal record named Kaine Rosado, was there at the request of their landlord to make their lives somewhat less than comfortable. After all, when Stavros Papaioannou, owner of a couple of pizza restaurants in the Bronx, bought the place, he promptly told the building's rent-protected residents they would all have to go.

Embattled: Tenants of 517-25 West 45th Street (left to right), Osage Lewis-Ashley; organizer Bob Kalin; Elissa Patterson, son Mercer, Ross Patterson; Tom Cayler, son Cai (seated)
photo: Dennis Kleiman
Embattled: Tenants of 517-25 West 45th Street (left to right), Osage Lewis-Ashley; organizer Bob Kalin; Elissa Patterson, son Mercer, Ross Patterson; Tom Cayler, son Cai (seated)

Records show that Papaioannou paid a hefty $5.2 million, a price that bought him an ailing four-building property with 18 units containing a hodgepodge of eight rent-regulated tenants who'd been there for years, paying less than $500 apiece, and 10 free-market units topping out at an impressive $3,200 a month. Papaioannou first told his tenants their days were up at a meeting in the courtyard. Then, incredibly, he put it in writing. "You have been here long enough," the landlord wrote in May 2004. They had "two choices": "the good way," which meant a modest $12,000-each buyout, or a vague "second choice" that included "lawyers, city clerks, etc." They had a month to decide.

The tenants didn't budge. Last week, Papaioannou's lawyer, Michael Hartofelis, dismissed the letters as a "feeble attempt" at eviction that had been "misconstrued" as harassment. "He took a shot," said Hartofelis. "Let's not kid each other. A landlord is looking to displace the lower-paying tenants. So the tenant goes and finds out what his rights are and says, 'Hey, go scratch your ass.' "

As for the trouble with the big guy with the dog, Hartofelis insisted his client had absolutely nothing to do with that. Residents, however, couldn't help but wonder.

Their suspicions began when Rosado, 32, moved in last summer, telling everyone that he was friendly with Tommy, Papaioannou's son, who serves as building manager. Rosado announced that he was installing an eight-bedroom bed-and-breakfast on the fourth floor of the rear building. While the bed-and-breakfast gambit was a new one, tenants knew that the space had already been scouted by massage parlor entrepreneurs, and wasn't even supposed to be used for residential living.

"He was this big guy, all bulked up with tattoos, and he had three other big guys with him," recalled Branden Solotoff, who lives on the ground floor. "I asked him what it was going to be, and he said, 'There's going to be people coming and going here all the time.' I was like, 'I'm not sure that's such a good idea,' and he said he was going to do whatever he wanted and we better stay out of his way."

Things went downhill fast from there. Rosado let his 70-pound pit bull roam unleashed and menacing around the courtyard. At three or four in the morning, his work crews were still hammering away over the heads of Tom Cayler and his wife, Clarice Marshall, who live on the floor below.

One night in the wee hours, Rosado and a girlfriend took a stroll on the roof of an adjoining two-story building in the property, awakening Edward Jaheed Ashley and his family downstairs. Ashley, who's lived there since 1978, enduring countless leaks in the fragile roof, went to see what was up. Words were exchanged in which Rosado suggested he didn't appreciate being questioned and that the complainant could "just go fuck himself." That was Rosado's version, anyway. Ashley heard something more along the lines of "I'll deal with you tomorrow," a threat that disturbed him enough to file a complaint with police.

Cayler and others called everyone they could think of—the buildings department, the fire department, the cops. They got crucial help from the Mayor's Office of Midtown Enforcement. Robert Sacklow, an inspector from the office, along with two police officers assigned to the unit, warned Rosado that his construction was illegal and posted violations. Rosado didn't appear fazed. "He went around giving everyone these long, hard stares," said Ashley.

Tenant jitters increased when it was learned that Rosado had a record, stemming from a kidnapping incident involving an underage girl in New Jersey. In 1999 in New York, records show, Rosado also pled guilty to criminal contempt for harassing a woman. He got probation on both charges.

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