The Second Battle of Bushwick

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

In the ensuing weeks, Furth took to calling or dropping by late at night. In one visit, Morales says, the owner asked her: "How about I give you $4,000 to leave?"

Since December, she's been forced to attend Housing Court hearings seven times on the case Furth lodged against her, usually accompanied by Father Powis, whom she knows from St. Barbara's. To attend the hearings, she's had to use vacation days from her job as a case worker at a nonprofit agency assisting troubled, homeless men. She's worked for various social-service agencies since she obtained a bachelor's degree in human services from Boricua College, which has a branch not far from her home. "I love my work," she says as she sits on a bench waiting for her case to be called by the court's clerk this month.

Her 10-year-old son, Wilson, will graduate from grade school with honors this month. He's been accepted in the talented and gifted program at I.S. 383. "I am saving a vacation day so I can go to his graduation," Morales says. "I don't care what happens."

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


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Asked about the problems at his new building, Furth says the issue is simple: His tenants don't pay rent. "They don't have any money. They don't want to work," he claims.

As for the hundreds of outstanding code violations filed by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Furth is even less forthcoming: "That's between HPD and me. I don't want to discuss that."

HPD, however, had no problem talking about it when officials there were asked to take a look at the plight of 133 Menahan Street. This month, according to agency spokesman Neill Coleman, the city will move in court for an order directing Furth and his partner to cure all outstanding violations. Civil penalties will also be sought.


Carmen Melendez, 52, is the last person standing in her home of 14 years at 81 Bleecker Street, just down the block from St. Barbara's. All the other tenants in the six-unit building were either evicted or have fled in recent months. She's tempted to go as well. "I put my heart and my hard-earned money into making this a home," she says. "But now I am tired. I don't know if I can do it anymore."

Her money is clearly hard-earned. Melendez is a maintenance worker at the Sixth Precinct in Greenwich Village. She spends her days scrubbing floors and cleaning up after the police and their clientele—a job that, at the end of the month, pays her $1,400 after taxes. She comes home to a building that hasn't seen any cleanup work in years. Paint on the entryway has long ago faded and chipped away; a thin front door hangs open and impotent. On the side of the building and above the rear yard, bricks are crumbling. A neighbor says that one fell recently, smashing a car windshield on the street. The holes in the brickwork are so large that sparrows and pigeons nest inside.

Inside the darkened hallway, Melendez faces another challenge: to carefully negotiate the stairs to her second-floor apartment. The steps are crumbling underfoot and the handrail is wobbly. In February, she tripped on a bad step and fell down the staircase. There was nothing broken, but she ached from bruises for weeks.

Her own home is a stark contrast to the disarray outside. She's filled an entire wall in her living room with pictures of her children and grandchildren, and decorated the kitchen with small plastic elephants and pictures of fruit and vegetables. The Virgin Mary gazes from atop a bookshelf. Still, she has stopped replacing the deteriorated linoleum tiles that cover the kitchen floor because the floor slopes so badly that they pop up all the time. Paint on a bedroom wall is peeling, making her fear for the health of her grandchildren, who spend most weekends with her.

The listed owner of her building is an individual named Owen Morrison, but he's a phantom to anyone who needs him. He's stiffed the city for all the taxes he's owed since purchasing the building in July 2005, and has failed to make payments on a $400,000 mortgage, prompting his bank to file for foreclosure. The city lists 188 open violations against the building and is still looking for $45,000 in back payments for the emergency repairs it has made there, as well as another $60,000 in outstanding environmental fines. The only phone numbers that tenants could obtain for Morrison turned out to be disconnected.

Last winter, Melendez said that she and the remaining tenants went without heat for 11 days, as the temperature outside hovered around 15 degrees. She used the oven to keep warm and rose before dawn to heat enough water on the stove to bathe.

John Cordero, 32, was the last person evicted from the building. Cordero, who suffers from epilepsy, grew up in 81 Bleecker, sharing a $550-a-month ground-floor apartment with his parents, then a third-floor unit with his brother. The brother split in January, saying he couldn't take the cold anymore. Despite his disability, Cordero has held down a job at a food warehouse for the past 11 years, advancing to assistant manager. "God willing, I can work," he says. He worked in the building as well, patching the fallen ceilings in his own apartment and doing maintenance in the hallway.


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