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In addition to the lawsuit by Ceballos and 39 other tenants, and the case outlined in the El Diario story, Neustein has been involved in numerous personal injury lawsuits: He had to pay $750,000 to a worker who fractured his knee when he slipped on dog urine on the stairs, and another $527,000 to a tenant who slipped on construction equipment. Eleven years ago, Neustein settled a lead poisoning case involving two children in the building who suffered developmental problems after inhaling paint flakes.
When he was contacted by the Voice, Neustein said, "There are some buildings that are newsworthy to write about. But this one is not," referring to 78 Post Avenue. He attributed the negative news stories there to one disgruntled tenant, presumably Ceballos.
Margarita Adames, whom everyone knows as La Vieja—"the Old Lady," even though she is only 60—is a home-health aide who lives on the fourth floor. She, too, is a party to the current lawsuit. She says her teenage son and two other children in the building continue to suffer from learning disabilities from lead poisoning that was the subject of the lawsuit 11 years ago. Adames demonstrated that the moldy pipes and the exposed bathroom wall leaked every time she turned on the faucet.
Sitting on her couch in a nightgown, Adames pointed to a plastic bucket that she keeps near a window. "When the dealers start making noise out front," she said in Spanish, "I boil the water and pour it over their heads!" She and Ceballos slapped each other high fives and laughed.
Ceballos said that Amy Neustein had reached out to her and had shown a great deal of concern for the situation at 78 Post Avenue, even though at that time, she had never actually been there.
"I want to meet Amy Neustein," Ceballos said. She paused and then said with emphasis, "She really doesn't like her brother."
Amy Neustein lives in an upscale condominium near Fort Lee, New Jersey, where she moved after she was forced out of her previous residence, another high-end condo in Edgewater, New Jersey, for starting a tenants' rights lawsuit against the co-op board.
A meticulous researcher, she was very prepared for the meeting. On her desk, she had stacks of court documents with information about her brother. Her co-author, an attorney named Michael Lesher, had come by to help provide explanations of legal matters.
Neustein possesses a doctorate from Boston University in sociolinguistics, and when she isn't writing books, she is editing a trade journal called the International Journal of Speech Technology, which focuses on things like voice-recognition software. She is also on the editorial board of another publication, the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. She has wispy reddish hair and calls herself a "bleeding-heart liberal." She speaks very quickly and can become overwhelmed with feeling at just a moment's notice.
"When I learned about the lead poisoning, I started to shake," she says, visibly trembling. "Devastated is an understatement. The ground just came up beneath my feet. I just said, 'I am my brother's keeper.' "
She and her brother grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in a house a few blocks from the shore. Their father was an Orthodox rabbi who taught contract law at City University and, she says, was too busy in the community to spend much time at home.
Neustein paints her brother as a malicious person, saying that his cruelty toward her began at age two, when he pushed her off a tricycle. But some family members say the two weren't always at odds, pointing out that Josh offered to help during her custody battle—something she denies.
Their current falling-out, Neustein says, occurred when their father died in 2002. She says her brother changed the locks at the Brighton Beach house and has barred her access to it ever since (she's suing him for access to a large collection of her papers that she says are still in the house). She claims that her brother forged their father's signature to keep her out of the house, and an NYPD expert she hired agrees with her that the signature is a forgery. Josh Neustein denies that the signature is fake.
Neustein insists that she doesn't have a personal vendetta against her brother. She's simply motivated by a desire to protect the tenants from a landlord who possesses what she calls a "sadistic" streak.
Josh Neustein, for his part, tells the Voice: "Go into any family, and there are problems. People do things for whatever reasons."
Her desire to help others, Amy says, comes from her own experience of oppression when she lost custody of her daughter and had to fight a losing battle to get her back. "I've been an activist all my life," she says. "I know what oppression tastes like firsthand. I know what it's like to be disenfranchised."
We were learning quickly that Amy Neustein was rarely far from the center of a dramatic fight.
In her opening remarks at a tenants' forum at Rutgers University in May 2007, she introduced the condominium case that had resulted in her being forced from her previous place of residence by saying: "I'm living under a cloud of tyranny that is so dark and forbidding that I'm kind of restrained as to what I can say today."