The Strangest Landlord-Tenant Relationship In Town?

Stacked up in cubicles for decades, immigrants living in a Bowery tenement may have a very unusual situation.

At his age, the evacuation to the Bronx last year was a strain. While he's grateful to be back home, he's furious at Lee.

"This landlord, he wants to turn it all into a hotel," Wong complains. Like other tenants, he figures it was Lee who called in the inspectors who arrived last year and decided that the wall extensions were a fire hazard because they were blocking fire sprinklers. (The same walls had been inspected for many years previously.)

Lee denies that he called in the inspection, saying that the city ordered it without his prodding. It's a bitter irony, tenants acknowledge, that for years, they'd been calling the city asking for better conditions—but then the city had come, and had kicked everyone out.

Robin Eley

Of course it was Lee who dropped a dime, Wong says, remembering that the landlord had already tried to kick them out with a lawsuit. "That was 1907," he says, and then a neighbor points out that he's off by a century, and Wong laughs. But he gets serious again when he talks about the evacuation.

It was a chaotic scene when Fire, Police, and Building Department officials showed up on the Thursday morning before Thanksgiving last year and gave tenants only about three hours to pack up what they could carry. Red Cross vans took them to a hotel near JFK Airport, where they stayed through the holiday weekend. Soon after that, they were taken to a four-story dormitory at 101 Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Some are still there.

Unhappy with their removal, the residents filed suit. Lee, however, resisted pulling down the partitions that were causing the problem. Instead, he hired a private inspector who disagreed with the city and found that there was no fire hazard. After eight months, in late August, Lee finally agreed to take down the illegal wall extensions—but his lawyer then argued that just because Lee was taking down the partitions, that didn't mean he necessarily had to take back the residents. That frustrated housing judge David Cohen, who gave Lee 48 hours to allow tenants back in.

Lee appealed.

On a warm day in mid-September, the tenants of 81 Bowery were gathered on the sidewalk in front of the building, some holding stuffed suitcases and others carrying signs that said, "Shame on You, Donald Lee."

It had been months since their evacuation, and they were still fighting to get back into their cubicles.

It was one of those New York scenes in which everything seems to be happening at once: Tony Avella, who was still a mayoral candidate at that point, showed up in time to take the microphone and express his sympathies. A reporter from a local Chinatown newspaper came by to take notes. As other people made speeches into a megaphone, a saleswoman from the neighboring cosmetics store shooed the protesters off of the sidewalk. Tourists being led by a Fung Wah bus operator marched in single file directly through the gathered crowd.

At around 3 p.m., someone got a call on a cell phone. An announcement was made in Chinese, and, suddenly, everyone broke into a collective cheer. Lee had dropped his appeal. He would have to let everyone back in.

While the skeletal Wong is talking about the ordeal of living in the Bronx and his eventual return, people pass by him on their way to the bathroom. Some are wrapped only in bath towels. Others are on their way to clean out their dishes in the bathroom's four sinks. Others hang up clothes on nails that serve as hooks outside their cubicles. In a nearby cubicle, a man with hepatitis C is throwing up into a bucket. His son is taking care of him, rushing back and forth between the room and the toilets.

The man who had introduced himself as Mr. Jiang observes as Wong speaks. A longtime resident of 81 Bowery, Jiang is 58, but looks much older. "You only stay here and continue to stay here because you are poor," he says, stepping into the conversation.

Jiang says that he came to the U.S. by boat in 1993, from Lang Qi Dao, an island in the Fujian province. Relatives had scraped up $30,000 to pay for the trip—a huge sum of money for a family of villagers. The voyage was supposed to last only 45 days, but it took 60, and the group of 250 ran out of food. Nobody died, Jiang says, but there was a lot of vomiting off the side of the boat. The ship finally landed in Mexico, where the immigrants were divided into small groups for their dash across the border.

"Those were bad times," he says.

When he got to New York, he began working in restaurants and in construction, sending money home to his wife and kids. A friend told him about 81 Bowery. In 1996, he discovered he had kidney failure, which eventually made him lose the fingers on his left hand. He took on a roommate, sometimes two, to help pay the bills. Now, he goes to dialysis three times a week. "I was hoping to make more money," he says. "But then you come here. You have no talent, no skills, and you get sick. What can you do?" Despite a life of much hardship, he smiles frequently. "You have to be happy. Even if you are poor, you have to be happy."

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