City Demolishes Stanton Street Tenement As Residents Look On
by Bill Weinberg
"Do not write 'collapse,'" Lower East Side City Councilmember Margarita Lopez instructs me. We are speaking at a meeting where the shocked and homeless former residents of a neighborhood tenement summarily razed by the city four days earlier have gathered to discuss their options. "They demolished that building," says Lopez. "'Collapse' is baloney."
There were at least 20 tenants living in 172 Stanton Street, at the corner of Clinton Street, which was destroyed by a city wrecking crane on the evening of Saturday, January 24, as the horrified residents looked on across police barricades. The tenants, all rent-controlled or rent-stabilized, were Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Jews and Bengalis. At least 10 were children. They are now considering litigation against the city.
Residents were ousted from the building on no notice at around 9 AM by the Fire Department knocking on their apartment doors. They were told to throw on some clothes and leave the building immediately, allegedly because the building faced imminent collapse -- a claim the tenants contest.
Police immediately secured the empty building as the ejected tenants milled on the sidewalk. They were not allowed back in, but they say workers from the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) repeatedly assured them they would be allowed to remove their belongings before the building was demolished. They also say that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dropped by during the morning to confer with the OEM personnel on the scene.
At 8:30 PM, demolition commenced. Despite hours of promises, no tenants were allowed in to retrieve any personal items. The wrecking crane tore into fully furnished apartments.
The next day, the debris was hauled away in dumpsters without residents being allowed to sort through it. "A few token items were pulled out by police," says Mark Friedlander, an acclaimed video artist and musician who lived in the building. "Broken TVs, empty suitcases, a box of Cheerios. I had my Fender Telecaster [electric guitar] handed back to me with a snapped neck."
The Fire Department was apparently alerted when the brick face came off the back of the building's lower two floors on Saturday morning. "That doesn't mean the building is collapsing," says Margarita Lopez, who insists the summary demolition was uncalled for.
There was certainly plenty of advance warning that the city failed to heed. Councilmember Lopez says there were 98 violations outstanding for at least four years at 172 Stanton St. Of these, 66 were class B violations and 12 were class C violations. Class B violations are those considered serious enough to require court action; C violations are considered immediately hazardous and are supposed to be repaired within 24 hours. Despite months of tenant complaints, they received no action. "The city was not monitoring that building," says Lopez. "That's the only way this could happen."
Landlord Emmanuel Weisberg owns numerous other buildings in the neighborhood, including 176 Stanton St. next door nd 43 Clinton St. across the street, as well as a Hebrew religious-articles store at 45 Essex St. He failed to return phone calls from Tenant. A New York Times account on Jan. 26 likewise reported that Weisberg would not return messages.
Tenants at the meeting Jan. 28 said agents for the landlord had contacted them on the street after the demolition with an offer to return their security deposits. Lopez suspects this is a ploy to terminate their tenantship and evade legal liability. "Do not accept that money," she warned the tenants. "Do not sign a single document from the landlord."
The fact that the tenants are now scattered throughout the city, as well as language barriers, is an obstacle to coordinating a legal strategy. Lopez spoke in English and Spanish, while a girl of around 12 translated to Bengali for her mom.
The Red Cross put the tenants up for three nights in a motel it contracts with near LaGuardia Airport in Queens, 22 blocks from the nearest subway stop, in a two-fare zone. Each family was given $50, and then they're on their own. Most are doubling up with friends or relatives. Tenants who want help from the city finding a new apartment were told they have to stay in a shelter for 50 days first; otherwise the city will not consider them homeless.
The tenants insist the demolition was unnecessary. It took 15 hours to take the building down, affirms a neighbor who was kept awake all night by the sounds of destruction. The wrecking crane didn't depart until the next afternoon.
"If the building was in such danger of collapsing, why did it take so long to come down?" asks Mark Friedlander. "Why did the city have guys on the roof and in the apartments all day?"
Friedlander, who has won numerous awards at film festivals, says, "I had a huge library of hundreds of hours of motion-picture and video footage of street life in the neighborhood, a documentary of Bellevue men's shelter in work, and another one on kids who live in Tompkins Square which was near completion, a music video I made with the band Lotion that was broadcast on MTV, footage from Europe, Africa, L.A. My life's work and my business were lost. My musical instruments, movie and video cameras, computers and personal heirlooms were lost. The apartment was almost like a museum. My roommate lost his rare record collection. They kept saying all day we were gonna get our stuff back and not to worry, they'd let us in one at a time."
When it became apparent that this was not to be, Friedlander decided to risk arrest by re-entering the building. "Because of bad police work, I managed to sneak by all their police lines and entered the building," he says. "I looked all over with a flashlight. There were no big cracks, it was no different than usual."
He managed to get one duffel bag of video cameras and material for his current projects before he was discovered and arrested. "If I had twenty more minutes, I could have gotten the whole archive. Then they hit the side of the building with the crane. I yelled out the window for them to stop. Police rushed in and grabbed me." His back was injured as he was thrown into a police car, requiring medical attention. He was charged with disorderly conduct and released with a desk appearance ticket after about two hours. Police are holding the duffel bag as evidence.
Meanwhile, legal efforts to save the building may have only prompted the city to speed up demolition. Judge Elliott Wilk was informed of the situation by community activists and gave permission for lawyers to bring papers to his home so he could issue a temporary restraining order. Notarized documents were prepared at the junior high school at Suffolk and Stanton streets, which had been set up as an ad hoc Red Cross relief center for the ejected tenants. The tenants signed a petition and several also signed a sworn affidavit about the situation. The paperwork was on its way to Judge Wilk when, tenants say, OEM Deputy Director Jerry McCarty gave the OK for demolition.
"As soon as the guy from the OE heard that we were getting a stay from a judge, the guy got on his cell phone and said 'do it now' and the building started coming down," relates Friedlander.
"We don't accelerate or decelerate because of a proposed injunction," OEM Director Jerome M. Hauer told The New York Times.
OEM public information official Sunny Mindel insists that the decision to commence demolition at that time came from the Buildings Department.
Ted Birkhahn, Buildings Department spokesman, says: "The building was in imminent danger of collapsing. We had a rear collapse between the first and second stories, and when our inspectors arrived on the scene they determined the building as completely unsafe for anyone."
When told that the tenants disagree, Birkhahn replies, "The tenants aren't experts in this field. The last thing we want to do in the world is not let tenants get their belongings. But we have to protect the safety of tenants and save lives. We have no ulterior motive."
Birkhahn says getting lighting in place and calling in a private demolition crew contracted by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development explains the delay of several hours. He says the landlord will be billed by the city for the demolition.
Tenants chanted "Mr. McCarty stop your party!" and "Save our building!" from behind the barricades as demolition commenced. But anger soon gave way to tears.
"Several pets were lost," says Friedlander. "An old lady from the building was out there all day in her nightgown without her medication. There's no reason people couldn't have gone in and got their stuff other than they were in a hurry to get it down. These people were not squatters. These people had been paying rent there for up to forty years. If it had been on Park Avenue, it would have been a different story. They've had bricks fall out of the back wall before and they just patched it up. Everybody in the media says collapse collapse collapse; nobody says the facade fell off and they decided to demolish the building."
Massive budget cuts and slashes in the city's housing-code inspection staff in the last 10 years -- three-fourths of HPD's inspectors have been laid off -- have resulted in a vast backlog of outstanding code violations. The City Council recently considered legislation proposed by landlord lobbyists the Rent Stabilization Association that would have done away with city inspection in favor of landlord-contracted inspectors, but the bill was scuttled by widespread tenant protests.
Many residents now fear that 176 Stanton St., adjacent to the vacant lot where 172 once stood, may be next. Other neighborhood buildings have been similarly destroyed. A city-owned low-income single-room occupancy building at Second Avenue and First Street was evicted in the middle of the night last July, and summarily demolished with residents' belongings still inside. A squatted building at 537-539 East Fifth Street off Avenue B was similarly demolished after the inhabitants were hastily ejected last February.