A Forty-Second Street Saga

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Tenth Avenue and Forty Second Street

Photo by: Robert Wersan

Tenth Avenue and Forty Second Street

We’re not going to move, and that’s it. We have all been through too much, and we can’t give up now. I dare them to try to throw us out,” said Larry Flowers, a long-time resident of a turn-of-the century tenement complex in mid-West Manhattan’s Clinton neighborhood where speculation is rife and ruthless tactics to empty buildings in “hot” real estate areas are practiced freely.

Flowers is one of some 40 cantankerous, low income tenant families who are barely surviving in their modest homes in the 500-block of West 42nd Street at Tenth Avenue -a corner that daily becomes more attractive to sharp operators bent on turning a high profit in quick sales.

With the spectre of the convention center, the contro-versial, high-priced Portman Hotel in Times Square, and generally highly inflated land values in Clinton looming over this neighborhood, with its long history of working class ethnics making their way in the city to-gether, the meaning of this battle to save homes becomes even more poignant, and raises serious ques-tions about the city’s commitment to save decent af-fordable housing for residents who have persevered during the bad years when these areas were undesirable.

“They would have to offer us at least $1 million each if they want to get us out,” said Flowers as he and a handful of tenants huddled in the cold on a recent raw day, while a plumber tried to work on the broken pipes leading to a byzantine, over-large, and inefficient boiler that once used to heat an entire tenement block.

“We hear all kinds of figures for what they want for these buildings,” said Nancy Kyriacou, the housing organizer from a neighborhood group -Housing Con-servation Coordinators -who has been working with the tenants since the early 1970s when they first began to be harassed by unscrupulous landlords and owners -at least four of whom are under indictment and one has been convicted on arson charges.

According to Kyriacou, asking prices for the property range from $2.7 million, as is, with tenants in occupan-cy, and $3 million, empty. The Madison Avenue broker -LB Kaye Associates, Ltd. -confirmed these figures but refused to identify the owner(.s) and mortgage holder(s).

When one indicted arsonist -Ralph Sperling -served as manager, some tenants came home to their apartments to find the front doors ripped from the hinges, combustible materials heaped up in their rooms, and knives stuck in their mattresses.

“You can live in a place all your life, nobody wants it, and then you find yourself watching as they suddenly drive people out, almost over night,” asserted Oliver Gribec, a veteran of the West 42nd Street houses, who has watched properties around him become boarded-up or demolished as the wave of the future -inflated real estate and quick profits -takes its toll on his neighborhood. “I’m not going to say these were gorgeous buildings, but they certainly were habitable -good solid houses -before these real estate crooks came around,” he continued, adding, “then we had the typical attack -a lot of fires; someone trying to blow up our boiler; a man freezing to death. And now, two weeks ago, there was a fire in a mattress in an unoccupied apartment (at 502 West 42nd Street), and a former tenant supposedly was offered $5,000 to move by our latest new owner.”

Suspicious Fires

Plagued by suspicious fires, no heat and water, and, most recently, broken frozen pipes, for more than two years, the families, which once numbered 170 before the property was taken by the city for non-payment of taxes in May, 1978, and redeemed for $500,000 the following year, have lived under a state of siege not knowing from month-to-month who owned the buildings or held the mortgages. But, what they have known for some time is
uilt as model, fireproof tenements in 1900 by Ernest Flagg, a popular high society architect who ‘Yas dedicated to improving urban tenement life, the buildings’ design featured the elimination of long dark exterior corridors in favor of larger interior spaces and the inclusion of private bathrooms in each apartment -an amenity unheard of in basic low-cost housing of the time.

The Flagg family held the mortgage until the early 1970s when a number of landlords with dubious reputations -Walter Scott, Jacob Fine, Henry Hof, Jr., and his wife, Henriette, and Milton Herman, to name a few -owned them at some point, skimped on services, and reveled in selling them back and forth to each” other apparently to avoid paying extensive property liens and avail themselves of paper losses for tax purposes.

Following a year-long, drawn-out court case and the redemption of the property on a technical proceeding, which could best be described as “murky,” in November, 1979, the buildings at 500-506 West 42nd Street and 567 Tenth Avenue were reclaimed for convicted arsonist Joseph Bald, head of 500 West 42nd Street Corporation, by his attorney, Kevin Sullivan, a former city housing official. They were then quickly turned over to the Tenth Avenue Development Corporation, whose chief, Henry Roth, owns numerous buildings in the city and operates as a shadowy figure in the New York City real estate empire. Sullivan insists that Bald was not his client, although such a relationship is listed in city records.

Deny Knowledge

Asked about the properties, Roth and his associates deny any knowledge of them and abruptly hang up the telephone when questioned by outsiders. And, according to neighborhood organizers and the buildings’ latest court-appointed receiver, Seymour Yanowitz, who serves as manager, the “Roth group” as it is known is pushing hard for the buildings to be vacant by spring.

“Anything that could happen to these tenants already has,” said Kyriacou, adding, “some of the malicious attacks on people here should have ended in jail sentences, but they didn’t.” When one indicted arsonist-Ralph Sperling -for instance, was listed as the property owner and served as manager last year, Kyriacou reported, some tenants came home to their apartments to find the front doors ripped from the hinges, combustible materials heaped up in their rooms, and knives stuck in their mattresses. The city has charged Sperling with harassment and fined him $5,000, but it could not be determined whether or not he has paid the fine. Also, according to Kyriacou, during this stormy period last spring, a local daily newspaper called her organization to report that it had received a tip alluding to the imminent “torching” of the buildings. The tenants spent a long holiday weekend on 24-hour guard to save their homes.

During the Christmas and New Year holiday season, the tenants narrowly escaped hasty departures from their homes when the fire department attempted to vacate them because the pipes were frozen. They are now paying for major repairs to the boiler and frozen pipes and sprinkler system with $19,000 from their bank account which accrued during past rent strikes and from August to December, 1980, when the first receiver, appointed by the court -Leonard Drucker of Belson Associates -made no repairs to the buildings.

A recent computer check of the city’s records listed Ken Passafiume, a Brooklyn landlord also under indictment for arson, as the owner of record of the 500 West 42nd Street buildings, noting that there were 60 uncorrected violations on the structures and unpaid back taxes and water and sewer charges totaling $54,613.87.

City Held Title

During the period prior to the redemption when the city held title to the buildings, the West 42nd Street De-velopment Corporation, a nonprofit local development corporation that is sponsoring work on Theatre Row Phase II in the old West Side Airlines Terminal across the street, sought to negotiate a long term lease with the city to rehabilitate this parcel as a combination low income (Section 8) and fair market rental facility. The onsite tenant families , according to the plan, were to be relocated in a nearby motel while the rehabilitative work was being done and then moved back into the apartments as subsidized Section 8 tenants, if they met the income requirements.

The redemption precluded this scheme, but the private developer who was approached by the local development corporation two years ago to render plans for the site, Lewis Futterman, says he is still interested in the property if the price is right. “There’s really no profit in it for me, but because I am committed to this (income) mixture in housing, I might like to give it a try,” Futterman added, noting that he is already doing “open market” housing on the old Armory site between 10th and 11th Avenues down the block. Futterman also emphasized that he has already spent $30,000 on plans for the site and has met several times with the local community board.

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