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.

Jiang has other relatives in the States, but he says they are just about as poor as he is and don't have room for him. They live in New Jersey, and visit him from time to time, bringing him money and clothes. His wife is in China, but he hasn't seen her in decades. "I have no money to send her," he says, but the two talk occasionally on the phone.

Jiang recalls a stabbing that occurred in a cubicle near him about eight years ago—between a man from the Guangdong province who worked in a casino, and the Fujianese roommate he had taken on to help pay the rent. He'd gone to see what was happening, and was slashed. He still has a nasty scar on his right wrist where, he says, he was struck by the knife. "Here, it's life and death," he says, looking down the hallway toward the room where he was injured.

Apparently, not much has changed in a couple of centuries. In 1875, 81 Bowery housed a saloon, where a bartender was fatally stabbed while trying to smuggle out liquor in his coat pockets. In 1892, The New York Times reported that a resident of the Germania Hotel named John Carson had his throat slit by a local killer known as John the Slasher. The Times described Carson as "once a lawyer and a respected citizen of Baltimore," and "a handsome and well-built fellow," who had squandered his fortune on "electrical inventions" and later succumbed to drink. He had been working as a canvasser for Scribner's Sons, and died owing the publisher $12.

The tiny rooms of 81 Bowery have no ceilings, for now.
Jackie Snow
The tiny rooms of 81 Bowery have no ceilings, for now.
Only about a dozen residents have returned to 81 Bowery's cubicles since an evacuation last year.
Jackie Snow
Only about a dozen residents have returned to 81 Bowery's cubicles since an evacuation last year.

In 2005, the Chinese-language newspaper Tsing Tao spoke with the residents of 81 Bowery, who then numbered about 60. An elderly tenant of 97, Lu Yi Cai, told the paper that in the 1960s, the men on the fourth floor had only beds, no cubicles. At that time, he said, gang activity was bad, and he joined a triad to make money collecting debts. By the 1970s, Lu said, he had $17,000 stuffed under his bed, but later lost it all as his health began to deteriorate. A Mr. Wong—the same Wong who spoke to the Voice—told Tsing Tao that Lee's first ploy as landlord to get rid of the men on the fourth floor was to stop taking their rent payments for several months after he purchased the building in 2003. Wong said Lee was hoping to refuse their payments long enough to kick them out for nonpayment, but the scheme failed.

The article noted that nearly all of the older men were facing the same situation: They had left China for their families, but now were cut off from them. Nearly all of them spoke of their abject loneliness. Said one man: "Eight years without a woman's warmth. Who will embrace me now?"

Like the other tenants, Mr. Jiang had fought to return to 81 Bowery. But when he came back, with the tenant-built partitions gone, a life that was merely tolerable became difficult to bear. Jiang says he can't sleep because of the fluorescent lights in the hallway that are on all the time and shine into his room. Even worse, Lee has installed video cameras on the ceiling.

"Even a prisoner doesn't live like this," says a longtime tenant, Ai Jian Jiang (no relation to Jiang, but the two come from the same province in China). Ai Jian, who says he is over 60, works in construction. He says he was "heartbroken" the day he was relocated to the Bronx. While living there, he was robbed and lost work opportunities because of the difficulty of the commute. Like the others, he was unused to living out of Chinatown and was at a loss in a place where no one spoke Chinese.

But now that he's back at 81 Bowery, he, too, is furious about the removal of the partitions—even though it was part of the court's order to get the tenants back in the building. "If there really was no light and no ventilation, then you fix it properly. You don't just cut off people's ceilings," he says. "If it was a fire hazard, then just put one sprinkler per cubicle."

Ai Jian had two bunks in his cubicle—one for sleeping, and one that was filled with shopping bags full of clothes and household items. Standing on one of the bunks, he shows how easy it is to peer down into his neighbor's cubicle. He points to other cubicles, where Lee has placed chicken wire across the top. "It's like an animal cage," he says.

Ai Jian says he has a son who lives in Brooklyn. He holds up an MTA subway map, where the Myrtle Avenue J/M/Z station has been circled in red ink. "He lives there," he says, pointing at the circle. He prefers to stay in Chinatown, however, because it's close to work. But he also rents out his cubicle to roommates, to supplement his meager income.

Like the others, Mr. Jiang is disturbed about the removal of the wall extensions. Without them, he can't take on roommates, as he has in previous years. He doesn't know how he is going to make his rent. (Like some others, Jiang says his rent is $200 or more, but Lee insists that he's still charging just a little over $100 per cubicle. There are no lease documents to confirm the amounts.) With the video cameras aimed down at the cubicles and the light on all the time, he can't sleep.

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