Hookers, Slot Machines, Rats: Life at the Bronx's 2320 Aqueduct Ave

Life is a gamble when your home is a bargaining chip

Beyond that, regarding what sort of returns he promised his investors, Siegel says he only remembers that it was "good."

"I'm the equalizer in the building," Adolph Santana says with a smile. "Whether you're gay or straight, sick or going blind—I'll help anybody. I'm the president of the tenants association! I know when the girls get their periods. Kids come out to me. Everybody knocks on my door."

Brave and cheerful words from someone who may not fit the picture of a typical crusading activist for tenants' rights. A former law enforcement officer and addict who specialized in providing security for thugs and gangsters, the 58-year-old Santana is missing a few teeth and is covered in metal. He wears three silver chains: Two bear silver crosses; the third, a Virgin Mary pendant. He sometimes adds a fourth silver chain, to which is attached a giant "S." He also wears a silver Virgin Mary bracelet and two giant silver rings on each hand that also have the letter "S" engraved on them. He is short and very stocky, and the Dominican women in the building refer to him as "El Gordito." After studying forensics and psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he says, he had a stint in law enforcement. In the '80s, he says, he worked as a bouncer at after-hours clubs where he was approached by legendary Harlem heroin kingpin Nicky Barnes with an offer of employment. Santana says he turned him down. Most recently, he was on the security team for Bronx State Senator Pedro Espada; he says he guarded voting precincts from the security team hired by Espada's rival, Efrain Gonzalez, in the September 2008 election.

Concerned about other aspects of security, Eva Perry turns to Santana during one encounter and asks whether the video cameras that SG2 had installed in the building (not the ones the gambling parlor installed to protect itself from the cops) actually work. He says they do. "So they should know what's going on," she murmurs to nobody in particular. The prostitutes are bad enough, but that's not the biggest problem for Eva: "What really gets to me are the kids. What kind of parents let their kids run around at all hours?" she says.

Santana can sympathize, and he says he does what he can. The building's kids, he claims, "come to me before they go to their parents, because they know I don't judge them. I sit in the park a lot of the time, so I see what goes on. I see when they are in trouble. I tell them to go to their parents, or I have sit-downs with the parents. But the sad thing is, a lot of the time, the parents are worse than the kids."

Eva and her husband go inside their apartment, and Santana resumes the narration of his life's story.

He is a devout Catholic, he says, but he strayed for a while. After a bitter divorce in the late '90s, he lived with his dog, Charlie, in Central Park for three years. Then he wound up in a homeless shelter in the Bronx. After three years in the shelter, he got himself a Section 8 apartment at 2320 Aqueduct in 2003, resumed going to church, and promised his mother he would settle down.

When he first moved in, his sixth-floor apartment had shattered windows, no heat, broken plumbing, and a floor so rotten that he could see into the apartment below him from the bathroom.

Though the apartment was falling apart, Santana recalls being thrilled. It was spacious and, of course, it was much better than the shelter. The way he saw it, he'd had a hard life and by the time he moved to Aqueduct Avenue, he felt like an old man and pretty much wanted to live quietly. He says he soon discovered that was impossible.

When he moved in, prostitutes lived in empty apartments on his floor, and homeless people squatted on the roof. He and another tenant took to patrolling the hallways with a baseball bat. He says he was stabbed in the stomach, and someone set fire to his door. "I got tired of it," he says. "Coming home every day, tenants crying, seeing prostitutes. I said, 'I've been through too much. I'm too old for this.' "

It was his idea, he says, to form a tenants association. For years, he held monthly meetings that were attended by around 20 people. He was president; Gladys DeJesus was secretary.

In late 2006, when SG2 sent appraisers to look at the building, Santana says, he gave them a stack of papers listing all the violations and tenant complaints. He told them about the mold, the rodents, and the other vermin dealing drugs. After SG2 bought the building, it would send representatives to some of the tenant meetings. "Every time someone would come, I would hand them more papers," he recalls. "You can't say they didn't know."

Santana says that SG2 was slow to react in some ways, but responsive in others. Many tenants didn't help their own situation when they simply stopped paying rent and even refused to let building inspectors in. "I try to tell them!" he says.

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