By Anna Merlan
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By Darwin BondGraham
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Everything about the derelict apartment building at 2320 Aqueduct Avenue in the Bronx is a gamble. The place is pretty much a madhouse.
From 1994 to 2007, the prewar building was owned by Jacob Selechnik, a former member of the Voice's "10 Worst Landlords" list whom tenant activists dubbed "Jake the Snake"—and not just for his rap sheet of more than 10,000 code violations on his vast array of Bronx properties.
Not so long ago, pigeons were being raised on the roof of 2320 Aqueduct, prompting an invasion of rats on the floors below. More recently, prostitutes plied their trade in the lobby's utility closet (and, when kicked out, they merely took their johns to a nearby radiator and sprawled on it). When the dope dealer out front concluded his business for the day, you could find him living in the building's elevator machine room, perhaps cooking a chicken on his hibachi. Currently, a makeshift casino and numbers parlor operates out of a first-floor apartment—and that's one of the place's amenities.
And then there's the gambling with the building itself by real estate legend Stephen B. Siegel—the guy who put Gucci in the Trump Tower, the guy who is the global-brokerage chief for CB Richard Ellis, the world's biggest commercial real estate operation. Siegel started a side project called SG2 Properties and plunked down $300 million a couple of years ago in a deal with an arm of the huge private equity firm BlackRock to buy 2320 Aqueduct Avenue from Selechnik and 50 other buildings in some of the most rundown parts of the Bronx.
Just imagine: Selechnik, an ordinary guy who works out of a windowless basement office in the Bronx, rounding up his paperwork and traveling to Siegel's sleek midtown office to ink the deal. The city's real estate community gasped at the size of such a big transaction in the Bronx, but Siegel denies that he and the institutional investors in the deal are in the business of simply forcing out tenants and flipping the buildings. He proudly touts his own Bronx origins, recalling the days of his youth when he was busy trying to make a buck peddling sodas and World Book encyclopedias. So how do you make money in such a deal? The Bronx was going through a renaissance, a confident Siegel told a local paper at the time, and he announced that he would transform the buildings little by little, "making sure that doors lock and lights work and that they're well maintained." Talk about a gamble.
Some of 2320 Aqueduct's long-suffering tenants contend that Siegel may be an even worse landlord than Selechnik. That is debatable. But the craziness of New York's real estate market? That's not debatable.
This is what $300 million will buy you.
No one really knows how long 2320 Aqueduct Avenue has been going downhill. So many buildings in the city have similar histories, but the life of longtime tenant Gladys DeJesus, a family counselor at the Department of Education, is a good measuring stick for this one. Even during the turbulent '70s and '80s, she recalls, tenants brought welcome dishes to new tenants and neighbors pitched in to decorate the lobby for Christmas at the six-story building with more than 60 units. By the time Selechnik bought the building in 1994, its stained-glass window was gone and the only furniture left in the lobby was a beat-up couch. In 2003, DeJesus was shot in the leg while walking down the block to a bodega to buy milk. In 2006, she was leaving for work one morning when a prostitute who frequently spent the night curled up by a radiator tried to poke her with a syringe. "I had to turn around and say, 'You don't want to poke me.' That's how bad it's gotten," she says. "Little by little, things just fell apart. Now we have to look out when we come into the building. Half the time, I'm scared."
There's a different vibe, though, in Apartment 1E, the building's ersatz casino, where Perfect Stranger (with Halle Berry) is the matinee playing on TV on a recent Sunday. The gambling parlor is a sparsely furnished room with two faded couches, two genuine slot machines, and a middle-aged woman sitting behind a desk, wearing a purple hoodie over her stringy blond hair, working the phones, taking bets from people wandering in, and reporting results on a variety of numbers games. Pink and yellow pamphlets list the numbers you can bet in various games—some people bet hundreds of dollars. The pamphlets cost 60 cents a pop, are printed in Brooklyn, and carry fine-print disclaimers that say they are not to be used for gambling. Calls with results come in every hour, and the woman behind the desk shouts numbers in rapid-fire Spanish into the phone. To her left is a poster of the Mexican heartthrob actor Diego Luna.
Normally, the denizens of the gambling parlor roast a chicken on Sundays, but today, no one is in the kitchen. People are getting drunk. Some hang out on the couch, watching the movie distractedly, and wait for the results to come in. Others go back and forth to the liquor store. Above the television, there are two video cameras that monitor the lobby so the whole operation can be shut down in seconds.