News & Politics

Life Amid the Rubble


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

January 17, 1963, Vol. VIII, No. 13

Life Amid the Rubble

By Stephanie Gervis

For the past few months, the saga of Elmer Grossberg has been playing itself out in what may soon be a room in search of a building.

21 Grove Street used to be a rooming house. Today it is hardly a house at all, but it still has one roomer — Elmer Grossberg.

Elmer is holed up in the only room in the rapidly diminishing building that still boasts four complete walls. It is a walk-up oasis in a desert of stripped beams and plaster dust. It is furnished with what look like rejects from a Salvation Army thrift shop — an ugly green table that serves as a desk, a couple of matching ugly green chairs, five boards that hammered together make a kind of open-front, one-shelf cupboard, a cot, a makeshift wardrobe, drab, faded strips of gauze that were once “drapes” framing limp, soot-gray white curtains, the kind of sickly green linoleum on the floor that defies anyone to live with it, a hotplate, and a sink with an upside-down enema bag hanging over it.

The plumbing has been shut off, and the enema bag is a Grossberg-improvised running-water system. He brings his water up the two flights in jug, fills the bag, unties the tube when he wants to turn the water on, and ties it to turn the water off.

Elmer keeps the room very neat. He very carefully stomps the plaster off his shoes before entering. He shuts his door tightly to keep out the debris and the dust, which seeps in through the cracks anyway. His fastidiousness is touching. The place really isn’t much. It can’t seriously be called a home. Why then does this one-man resistance movement not only not leave, but make such a determined last stand against the wrecking crew?

The way Elmer tells it, he is indignant. He has been rooming in the building for about two years. Ever since he moved in, he says, he has been hearing about how everyone would have to move out so it could be renovated and turned into an apartment building.

“You know, they’re cracking down on rooming houses all over the city. They don’t like the type of people who live there. They’re transients, they don’t earn a steady living. They’re not like family people or even salesman people.”

…So the inside of the building is being torn down around him. [The building’s agent, Allen] Wachtel, denied that the plumbing had been turned off. When the remains of what was once a bathroom were described to him, he just said that the builder was taking care of that and he didn’t know anything about it. He admits that the eviction certificate proceeding is still pending.

And so it goes. Offers and refusals go back and forth. If Grossberg doesn’t give in before the eviction certificate is granted, he probably will not be able to collect more than the $100 provided by law. The present living conditions at 21 Grove hardly seem worth the sacrifice of even the most modest monetary settlement. But perhaps this protest will mark the rising of the roomer — a traduced breed — in prosperous mid-century America.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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