Oh, Norman!


Location Harlem

Rent $659.24 (rent stabilized)

Square feet 675 (studio in eight-unit 1889 brownstone)

Occupant Duana C. Butler (filmmaker; marketing director, Film/Video Arts)

It looked like the Taj Mahal for a minute. Come out of the subway at 116th and there’s this big red, blue, and yellow dome in the sky, green minarets—”Welcome to Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market.” It’s like being on vacation when the tour bus stops for shopping—purple satin robes with gold thread, bracelets made of pearl. I got a wedding present there for someone the other day, this beautiful bowl and carved giraffe heads on the knife and fork. You saw Native, the restaurant on Lenox. And Settepani, the café. When they dropped that down, I said, What? Everything’s happening so fast. That Conway came together overnight! My mother visited. She said, Where am I? She used to live across the street from here, ’91 to ’98. My sister, brother—he’s a manager of Banana Republic on Columbus—we all lived with her then. She works for HPD in lead contestation. Her landlords relocated her to renovate the brownstone but she didn’t like the way they did it so she moved back to the Bronx. I got this apartment six years ago—the typical tree-lined brownstone block. Friends say it’s like Sesame Street—Hi, Hi, Hi. I’m doing a documentary: Harlem Stories: A Community in Transition.

Every other brownstone is either boarded up or stunningly restored. I dream of owning a brownstone. I come from a renting family. I don’t know what ownership is.

You should talk to your landlord. Actually you have some very interesting landlords. The one now, Orlando Rivera, is head of the Greater Harlem Real Estate Board Development Fund—they give home-ownership seminars. It turns out he used to work for the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington. He said he was at his New York City HPD office in 1986 and this man popped up at the door and said, Hi, I’m Harold. He wanted Orlando, who was in tax indication, to work for him in Chicago. Anyway, Orlando and his wife, she’s a bank VP, he said they’re homeless because they were about to buy a brownstone—he said he just owns this one with other relatives as an investment—but he found out he was being “scammed.” Here he is, the expert at “smelling real estate scandals.” He said Harlem prices are crazy today, “no rhyme or reason. You could pay a million for a shell with no floors. . . . If it’s in Harlem, it’s a million.” He bought your building from Queva Lutz, who really sounds interesting. She wasn’t raised in Harlem or anything. She said she got her first Harlem property in 1982 and then this building and then renovated it “in two months” because she didn’t want to “inconvenience” the tenants. She said she was raised all over the country, left home at 16, never went to college, had her own business for 25 years with all kinds of properties, some on the National Register of Historic Places, plus she owns 55 Bar, the jazz club in the Village. She had some operation. When something needed to be fixed, wham. Her people were there. This is such a cute apartment. But I’m a homebody who doesn’t get to spend time in her home. At night, I crash. I have so many projects. I could just be in my home for hours. My one recurring dream is I move into a new place. It’s always a huge apartment. I’m excited because I get to fix this new place up. I might have the dream two or three times a month.

I had one a few weeks ago. I met Norman Mailer at this diner, little counter stools, and we went to his apartment, a tenement, with a tub in the kitchen. We had an affair. While he was taking a shower, there was his jacket hanging, a wide-wale corduroy in that ’70s tan color. I wrote about him on the back of the jacket with chalk, all this text, and then I thought, Oh no, he’ll walk around and everybody will be able to read about him. So I was scrubbing it off with a wet paper towel.