The Second Battle of Bushwick

Thirty years after the blackout riots, it's getting hot all over again

That's another view from the top floors of 358 Grove Street: blocks of ailing three- and four-story buildings where a desperate but largely invisible hand-to-hand combat is under way, a disputed turf that right now is up for grabs. "I have a crystal ball," the condo sales agent confides to a pair of potential buyers, young white men who would fit right in at a Bedford Avenue café. "Bushwick is about to explode. Three years from now, you won't even recognize this neighborhood."

The mixed blessings contained in that message are most apparent to Father John Powis, who served for 37 years as pastor of the nearby St. Barbara's Roman Catholic Church, whose bell towers on Central Avenue long dominated the local horizon before the new tower rose. Built by wealthy German beer barons at the turn of the last century, St. Barbara's still draws hundreds to Sunday mass. Most parishioners are low-income residents, many of them immigrants. Powis was supposed to take retirement three years ago. Instead, he stepped down from the pulpit to form a community advocacy group that he calls the Bushwick Housing Independence Project. At 73, he trudges regularly to the city's Housing Court, clutching his red appointment diary, and holds nightly meetings with embattled tenants.

"I call it 'the assault,'" he says, standing earlier this month amid the bedlam of lawyers shouting into cell phones and babies wailing that is Housing Court in Brooklyn. "I've got nothing against fixing up the buildings and new people moving in. But these people," he adds, gesturing at a tenant he is there trying to help, "the ones who were here and who worked through the bad times—they've earned a right to hang on."

They won't go: Tenants Nereida Sanes and Gladys Melendez are fighting eviction and demanding repairs at 1430 Putnam avenue.
photo: Filip Kwiatkowsi
They won't go: Tenants Nereida Sanes and Gladys Melendez are fighting eviction and demanding repairs at 1430 Putnam avenue.

Details

This story was reported by students in a class on urban investigative reporting at Hunter College inspired by the work of longtime Voice writer and Hunter alumnus Jack Newfield. The reporters are: Tony Antoniadis, Elizabeth Bieber, Robert Cruse, Ruben Gonzalez, Johanna Gustavsson, Miyako Hannan, Iesha Irish, Kelle Jacob, Alex Neustein, Tamaki Ondo, and Steven Rummer. The story was co-written by Voice staff writer Tom Robbins, who served as the Jack Newfield Visiting Professor of Journalism at Hunter, with assistance by Anna Lenzer.

Tune in: Tom Robbins on the New Battle of Bushwick


That's the second battle of Bushwick, one being waged 30 years after the neighborhood was ravaged by the city's worst firestorm.

One of the assault's targets is Isidro Uribe, who has lived with his wife in a six-family, three-story walk-up at 133 Menahan Street for 15 years. In March, Uribe, 51, got up in his first-floor apartment to see who was ringing his buzzer. Beneath him, rotten floorboards under an old carpet crumbled. One foot went directly through a hole in the floor. Uribe hung there, one foot still on the first floor, the other perched on the gas meters in the basement. "I was split like a ballerina," he recalls; his groin was mashed against the broken floorboards.

The potential for an accident shouldn't have been a surprise. City housing-code violation records show that inspectors cited rotting floors throughout apartment 1R as early as 2005. All told, there are an astonishing 259 violations listed against the building, two-thirds of them classified as hazardous or "immediately hazardous."

A few weeks before Uribe's fall, his wife, Altagracia, had her own accident, slipping on broken tiles on the bathroom floor and fracturing a rib when she fell. Like the floorboards, inspectors had also noted the broken tiles years before. "Properly repair with similar material the broken or defective ceramic tile floor in the bathroom located at apartment 1R," the inspector instructed in June 2005.

The current owner of 133 Menahan Street says his tenants are the ones at fault here. "Tenants want to make trouble for me," says Yuda Furth, when asked about the problems. He had fixed the floor, he adds, only to have "tenants break it again."

Despite the scores of outstanding violations in an occupied and rent-stabilized building, Furth and his partner, Moshe Mandel, forked over $410,000 last November, buying the property as 1274 M & F Management LLC. Within months of their takeover, three tenants were evicted.

Uribe says that Furth is often aggressive, but the threats come from an assistant who follows in the landlord's wake. "He says in Spanish, 'Move out! We're not fixing anything.'"

Tanya Morales, 30, has lived in the building since she was two years old. She met Furth when he and another man knocked on the door of her top-floor apartment one night after 9 p.m. "What do you want to do about the back rent—leave or pay up?" Furth asked.

Morales explained that she didn't think she owed rent, since there hadn't been any maintenance at the building for more than two yearsever since the old landlady walked away. In the interim, Morales, Uribe, and other tenants had hauled the trash, chipped in to pay to keep the hallway lights on, and called the city's housing department for oil and boiler repairs.

Morales has kept her own apartment as pristine as she can. She has paid for a new hardwood floor, carpeting in the bedrooms, and new pipes under the sink. She painted the apartment and had a closet rebuilt. She could do little about the roof leaks, however, which allow water to pour through her ceiling as if it were a sieve. Her living-room ceiling is collapsing; a large, swollen plaster bubble hangs over the kitchen.


Furth was unmoved. He produced a legal document called "Assignment of All Rents and Leases," which entitles a new owner to any rent still claimed by the previous landlord. Based on his calculations, Morales owed him $12,039.30, even though the old owner hadn't been around. "I'm not leaving," Morales told him. "I can tell you that now."

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