By Steve Weinstein
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By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
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He'd be joined in that prayer by longtime resident Miriam Diaz-Marin, who re called a warm atmosphere two decades ago in the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings. A small woman with short dark hair and warm brown eyes, Diaz-Marin, 53, smiled as she described how the women in the building threw holiday parties and exchanged homemade food. They named a bench in the court yard after her son Adam when she christened the building with its first birth. She was thrilled with her new apartment developed by Gigante's company, and when her family grew to five, she was grateful for her living space, including two bathrooms that she designated "a girls' bathroom" and a "boys' bathroom." "It was so new," Diaz-Marin said. "I was so proud of it."
Diaz-Marin doesn't leave her apartment much any more. Suffering from a respiratory disease, she has difficulty breathing without an oxygen tank. It's bad enough for Diaz-Marin that there is a lack of heat in the winter, the closet doors pop unexpectedly out of place, and the kitchen cabinets sag, but for three months she was without a functioning shower. The shower in the "boys' bathroom" stopped working in the fall of 2005, she said. Then in the fall of 2006, SEBCO management told her to stop using the shower in the "girls' bathroom" because it was flooding the apartment below her. They told her they would fix the problem in a week. Instead, they gave her the key to a vacant apartment on the first floor and didn't fix the problem until three months later, in December. Diaz-Marin is prone to pneumonia and afraid of catching a chill, so many days she took a "cat bath" in her tub with a small blue bowl. One day she craved a bath so badly that she turned the water on, but the neighbors appeared almost immediately. " 'Miriam, Miriam,' " she recalled them yelling. " 'Turn off the water. It's flooding!' "
Diaz-Marin lives in the worst of the four Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, but all of them are in disrepair. The SEBCO management team sent a letter to the tenants on March 30, 2006, explaining that the buildings needed complete gut rehabilitation. In the letter, they wrote that they would relocate the tenants while they renovated the buildings. So far, there is no relocation plan. In the meantime, tenants wait, anxious to know whether they will still have an affordable home. Tenants like Diaz-Marin are afraid they will be forced to move permanently, or worse, end up homeless. "I've been taking sleeping pills for the last year and a half," she said. "The worries get me going. I just don't sleep. Oh Lord, I hope they don't make me move."
A security guard standswatch 24 hours a day in a small booth at the head of Gigante Plaza between Tiffany and Fox streets in the South Bronx. One side of the plaza is decorated with fountains of lions' heads made in Italy. On the other side, a security camera aimed at the plaza is perched on top of St. Athanasius, just below the church's cross. A weatherbeaten blue-and-white sign tied to the courtyard fence reads: "SEBCO: Dedicated to Our Community. Helping Our Neighborhood Grow." Once referred to as "Giganteland," the plaza stands in stark contrast to the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings on the other side of Bruckner Boulevard.
Back on that chilly October night on the sidewalk in front of the Hunts Point I Rehab buildings, Gigante and his entourage walked under the creepy scaffolding and entered the community room of 741 Coster Street. Roughly 40 residents gathered in the shabby room, restless with anticipation. Monsignor William J. Smith, the current St. Athanasius pastorand also secretary treasurer of SEBCOglided down the aisles, shaking hands with residents. From behind him, Father G. watched, a half-smile on his face. At the back of the room, near the door, the cops and security guards stood with their arms folded. Seated on backless folding chairs were the tenants, mostly Latina mothers and grandmothers, anxious to learn about the future of their homes. The tenants were quiet at first, and Father G. stood to address them. He alternated between blaming the tenants for the problems in the buildings and being conciliatory. He promised to relocate them and renovate their apartments.
At a meeting two weeks earlier, Gigante tried the same tactics, one moment admonishing the tenants and the next moment pleading for their support. "I know you've suffered," he said to the room. Then he spun around in a circle and waved an arm at provocative signs on the wall that read things like: "We want a new owner!" "We want responsible management." "Enough is enough!"
"With all I've read on the walls," Father G. said, "I don't know why you're still here." Then he attempted to win their support by suggesting they work together to improve the apartments. "I've come tonight to tell you that it's the real thing," he said. "We will own the buildings. But I need your help. I need the people's voice."
The tone was similar at the later meeting Father G. alternately cajoled and coddled. "I'm disgusted by what is going on in the buildings," he said at one point. "Prostitutes having sex in the hallway!" The room erupted. The tenants were furious for being blamed, especially since Gigante's company hadn't fixed one of the front doors, which contributed to the problem. "Do you want to exchange your living situation with me?" one of the tenants shouted.