Since his downtown antiques warehouse came tumbling down two weeks ago, Evan Blum has struck various poses: as an entrepreneur who has rescued from ruin literally tons of historic architectural ornaments; as an art purveyor whose statuary, Tiffany windows, and wrought-iron fencing grace the homes of celebrities and collectors; and now, as a victim whose lifework has been threatened by a gang of city-hired demolition crews. He is, in his own words, "an honest guy who is very well liked by some very important people around the world, and some of the movers and shakers in the city."
But interviews and public records suggest other views of Blum, who himself became something of a mover and shaker on July 13 when his four-story building on East Houston Street collapsed as renovations proceeded in defiance of a stop-work order. The accident shook residents of three nearby buildings, including more than 100 tenants at an adjoining low-income co-op, who were displaced for 11 days while their building was shored up. In the words of a former city attorney, Blum is a "deadbeat" who "stiffed the city"; one longtime neighbor considers Blum simply a "chump."
Blum is the owner of Irreplaceable Artifacts, the architectural salvage-and-sell operation where renovations were under way to add a café. Although the Department of Buildings (DOB) ordered work stopped in May, Blum insists he's "done nothing illegal, to my knowledge," calling those who blame him for the collapse "misinformed." Last week, he won a temporary injunction against the city's continued demolition of his building, arguing that it would cause him "irreparable loss." But records show that Blum himself has caused losses to the very city whose history he preserves, and profits from, piece by piece.
In 1992, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) evicted Blum from a city-owned Bowery lot. Blum had agreed to a $3500-a-month rent but, according to the lawsuit, stopped paying after the first few months. "Mr. Blum is a deadbeat who . . . has not paid a penny in rent for about three years," wrote the attorney for the city. "During a time of fiscal crisis . . . Mr. Blum has stiffed the city out of a sum that now approaches $150,000."
Blum alleged in court papers that city officials had altered his lease by whiting out terms. He told the Voice that HPD "selectively picked me to pick on," and that, except for the parks department, which licensed Blum to use a strip of land alongside his building, "in all my dealings with the city, I get screwed." He says that the demolition of his building was done with "unnecessary and deliberate recklessness"; his two pet cats were presumed to be inside. DOB insists demolition was the only safe alternative.
Despite news stories about Blum hawking high-priced oddities like porcelain urinals for $5000 (Tom Hanks was a rumored customer) or the entire contents of a Carmelite monastery for an unnamed price, Blum is apparently plagued by financial troubles. In 1993, he filed bankruptcy. Records show Blum owes $10,518 to the city and state for business-related taxes. In 1996 and 1998, the Internal Revenue Service filed tax liens against him, for a total of $64,570.82; of that, $7801.15 is for income tax. Blum acknowledges all but the income-tax bill; his accountant did not return calls. Blum generally blames his financial woes on embezzlement allegedly perpetrated by a former employee who he says was indicted but not convicted. Says Blum, "I figured, why should I pay taxes on money I didn't get?"
Blum could be further indebted to the city, since it can sue for the cost of demolition and damage if DOB determines that the collapse was due to his work without a permit. Besides Blum's building (owned by his father), the most damage occurred at the co-op next door, a 22-unit renovated tenement called the Cube, which opened in late 1988 as the country's first co-op for formerly homeless people. Cube tenants, who were scattered among relatives' homes, shelters, and dingy hotels after the collapse, returned home July 23.
"I'm pissed off at that motherfuckin' chump," says Cube resident Edward, who refused to give his last name. "He should've been doing that shit legally and this wouldn't have happened."
Clearly, hospitality has never marked the relationship between Blum and his neighbors. Blum says the community has long been "hostile. They think I'm just some rich guy who's going to ruin the neighborhood." Most of the animosity centers on the Cube. Blum says he saved the building from demolition nearly 20 years ago and wanted it for his business and artists' lofts. When the city instead awarded it to a local nonprofit, he complained that the group was politically wired. An investigation concluded Blum was wrong, but not until the project had been delayed several months.
In 1987, as the Cube was being restored, Blum made an almost prescient, if ironic, complaint to the renovators. "The ongoing work . . . has created a serious hazard to me, my employees, my customers and my business, as well as to my property," Blum wrote. "Last week, we were barraged with falling bricks, some of which not only punctured my roof and damaged some of my wares, but one of which nearly struck me." Blum sued, demanding $113,250 in reimbursement. He lost the case against the Cube on default.
Now that they've returned home, Cube tenants are looking for something more. "People have commented that they're waiting to hear him say he's sorry," says Community Board 3 chair Martha Danzinger. "I mean, three buildings were evacuated, and he's said nothing. I'm sure he's in a state of shock. But some people are blaming him, and you almost can't help it. It would be appropriate for him to apologize."
It would also be a surprise if he did. While Blum told the Voice that blame directed toward him is "irrational and based on hearsay," his comments to Daily News columnist Juan Gonzales are more revealing. Cube tenant Patricia Thompson commented that Blum "talks about irreplaceable artifacts. What about our lives?" Blum's response: "They're worried about people's lives? What about my cats?"
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