Location Mott Haven Historic District (South Bronx)
Price $50,000 (see below)
Square feet 5000 (each lot)
Occupants The Ortiz Family
[The Ortiz family owns four houses on the same street. But not everybody lives in their own house. The discussion begins outside, where Luis Ortiz Jr., a restorer, is working on his mother Carmen’s 1880 brownstone.] Hi, what are you doing? [Luis] We’re bringing it down to natural stone, putting acid on the bricks. Once we fix it, we don’t want any more tenants. Six are furnished rooms. [Luis’s brother, Norberto, walks over.] [Norberto] I’m a bellman at the Ritz [now Central Park South Intercontinental], eight years. I make the big tips. Just put in, we’re the Addams family. [Aunt Minerva Gonzalez walks over.] I was nine when we came from Puerto Rico, on a propeller plane. My father bought a house for us. He paid $29,000 in 1957. There were only Irish people here. That’s why he paid so much. He was in the housekeeping department at Beth Israel for a long time. My sister, Luis’s mother, got this house. [Luis] $l8,500 in 1961. [Minerva] I got mine in 1975, $5000. I won’t give it away for $250,000. In the ’50s, we were the first Puerto Rican family on the block. They used to hit my brother. The Irish don’t come here anymore. [Luis] We were living here when it was a war zone. You couldn’t walk around, you had to crawl. [Norberto] It was like a cowboy movie. [Luis] Shooting on the roof. [Minerva] That was in the ’80s. [Luis] Charlie, he had a deli, he shot a guy back in the days. [Norberto] Charlie was known for his ham and cheese sandwiches.
[Next, we go to Luis’s room in his grandfather’s house.] [Luis] I live in my grandfather’s house. My brother lives in my mother’s house but he’s back and forth. Though he now owns my grandfather’s house. I own my mother’s house.
It’s so green in here. Well, maybe it’s the green blinds. [Luis] I try to keep the sun out.
You have a big bowl of pink potpourri, purple candles. What’s the big color photograph of a bride and groom—hand-painted backdrop, palm leaves, balustrades? My mother and father. They met in the Bronx. They split apart. My father moved just a couple of blocks over. That was his hat, with the P on it—for Papi. He left a lot of land upstate near Woodstock, 20 acres, in Bloomsfield.
Is your brother Norberto working on this, his house? My little brother doesn’t know anything about fixing houses.
These photos? That’s when I was younger, I was into modeling. I didn’t have the patience. Here’s one of me and my brothers eating chicken. That’s from Puerto Rico. My grandfather had properties there.
More property! You’re all so handsome. What’s this one? You’re holding shotguns and suitcases full of cash. That was in a Florida studio, they give you costumes. This one, don’t ask, a good friend. He’s doing life. He and this guy went to a party and killed everybody at the party. It was called the Prospect Massacre. They had tried to kill his brother. Then they went back for revenge. Eighty percent of my friends were on drugs, in jail. Me, I’m trying to forget the past.
Will you live here forever? Norberto’s moving to a house near White Plains. The only thing keeping me here is my mother. Someday I’ll go to the Poconos, Florida. It’s about time. I’ve been here all my life.
[Next, Aunt Minerva’s house. We sit on the porch swings and rock back and forth this summer afternoon. I forget to interview her. . . . Then I realize I have a job to do.] I better ask you a question. What’s growing in the garden? Corn, tomatoes. That’s a peach tree. My goddaughter is coming to live upstairs. She’s going to be a veterinarian.
It looks like Connecticut in your house. Oak cabinets in the kitchen, captain’s chairs at the breakfast bar. Gaby—that’s what we call Luis—did it all. I lived in Queens for 17 years, Jackson Heights. I moved because I thought it would be safer. Hah. I was so scared. Over there, nobody knows if you scream. I moved back here three years ago. I just wanted to be close to the family. I was lonely in Queens.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 6, 2002