By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Cowboy, a middle-aged man notable for his gold Geronimo belt buckle and old-fashioned beret, says his lucky number is seven. He always bets on seven. But it must not be too lucky, because he gambles every day. A jumpy fellow, he spends his Sundays shuttling between Aqueduct Avenue, the nearby liquor store, and other gambling parlors in Bronx laundromats. Sometimes, he goes to Yonkers. He lives in another building in the neighborhood.
As Cowboy strolls out of 2320 Aqueduct, he passes Eva Perry and her husband, Thomas, who are returning from church. The Perrys have the misfortune of living on the first floor, and their windows face the street, so they can see and hear the everyday drama of the building—a drama they are not fond of.
"When I first moved here, it was like Park Avenue," says Eva, who wears a conservative plaid skirt and a small gold cross over her blouse. "You thought you were in the country. You could hear a pin drop." She shakes her head after Cowboy saunters by. "You didn't have none of this." She lives roughly 20 feet from the gambling parlor, but insists that she's only vaguely aware of it. What really bothers her are the kids who play in the hallway, bouncing balls at all hours. The couple, who has lived in the building for three decades, recalls the days when new tenants had to go through an application process and be screened. "Now it's just welfare and Section 8," Eva says. Every June, for the past three years, neighborhood punks have smashed her front window, and ever year, it takes months to get the landlord—first Jake the Snake and then Siegel's SG2—to fix it. Since SG2 bought the building, in February 2007, the city's Housing Preservation and Development agency made 85 emergency repair visits because SG2 was taking too long. (The city billed SG2, and the company paid.)
As Eva goes on about the kids, a man standing outside of the building beside her reminds her of the Utility Closet Story. The man is Adolph Santana, president of the building's tenants association. Eva gives him a look—as if he's mentioning something she just wants to forget. Then, reluctantly, she explains: Over the past few years, when the front door was perennially unlocked, prostitutes had been using the utility closet on the first floor for business. Tenants on the first floor complained a lot about it, and eventually, the super nailed a two-by-four across the closet door. It didn't really help, Santana said, because the prostitutes just moved to a nearby radiator. "You wouldn't believe what goes on here," Eva says quietly.
To contend with the chaos, the tenants in the building—mostly working-class African-Americans and people of Caribbean descent—have learned to keep to themselves. They mind their own business and avoid their neighbors.
For the most part, they accept that there's a cyclical nature to their being under siege: The landlords install a lock on the front door. Someone breaks it. Drug dealers and prostitutes move in. The tenants complain to the landlords and call 311. They wait and wait and, eventually, it gets fixed. Sometime after, someone busts the front-door lock, and the drug dealers and prostitutes come back. With great skepticism, the tenants hope each new landlord and super will be better than the last.
To get to Jacob Selechnik's office, you take the 1 train to 281st Street. You pass a Dominican diner on Broadway, and then you walk through a parking lot and descend stairs to an unmarked door. You wouldn't know that you were entering the office of a very rich man.
Selechnik's office is full of kitchen cabinets, haphazardly stacked on top of each other. Other than the cabinets, the office is relatively bare. Motivational phrases that you see in offices are tacked on a bulletin board. Elsewhere, the walls are adorned with a large photograph of Selechnik's grown daughters that looks as if it was taken in the '80s, and a portrait of a rabbi. Selechnik's desk has no computer—he appears to know every aspect of his business by heart. "Of course I'll talk to you," he says, offering a seat. "As long as you don't put me on a blacklist." Despite the fact that the Voice had put him on its famed "Worst Landlords" list numerous times—he landed there in 2006 for having 15,260 housing-code violations on 110 properties in the Bronx—he seems happy to talk. First, he explains the kitchen cabinets: He manufactures them himself—it's cheaper that way. "Do you know how much you can get a cabinet for at wholesale, at Home Depot?" he says. "$110. And how much do I make them for? $75." He pauses, and his cell phone rings. "We're counting pennies here!"
He remembers 2320 Aqueduct Avenue right away. "I loved that building!" he exclaims. "The lobby with those beautiful chimneys! The rooms are very large—beautiful apartments! Apartment 4J has two bedrooms with a big foyers. I promise, you or I would love to live there."
Selechnik insists that he kept the building well-maintained. Then he turns to the deal with SG2. "This company made an offer," he says, a Yiddish lilt turning the statement into a question. "And, well, I'm not getting any younger." He is 65. "It was a decent offer," he adds, and the buildings hadn't even been on the market when SG2 approached him.