In the basement of a row house on West 17th Street, a slight woman with bifocals and shoulder-length gray hair sits at a folding table with a volunteer lawyer. A dozen embattled tenants have come to seek her counsel. Jane Wood convenes the weekly meeting of the Chelsea Coalition on Housing by urging these tenants to resist eviction, harassment and hazardous repairs. After agreeing to bake fudge for the coalition’s upcoming annual block party, tenant Dee Vera jokes, “You just can’t say no to her.”
Landlords who have tried to reckon with the spry 94-year-old know it’s an impossible task. Since founding CCH three decades ago, Wood has picketed landlords’ homes, squatted in threatened buildings and rallied hundreds if not thousands of tenants. In the 1980s, she stared down goons hired by unscrupulous landlords to bully and intimidate tenants. She shocked church officials a few years ago by denouncing the manager of Leo House, a low-cost women’s residence affiliated with Catholic Charities, as a slumlord. “If you have Jane Wood on your side, lots of times landlords will just cave in,” said State Senator Tom Duane, who has worked with Wood on housing issues for 25 years. Even when landlords don’t back down, Wood doesn’t feel defeated. “The community organized in such a way!” she says of the fight for the Leo House tenants, who were ultimately forced out. “Part of it is just being together.”
The diminutive St. Louis native has been at the forefront of every Chelsea housing dispute since the 1960s. She began by protesting the destruction of affordable tenements called home by Greek immigrants working on the nearby piers to make way for Penn South, a middle-income cooperative complex. Though the buildings went up, those who had lost their homes were given priority in the new housing.
The intrepid organizer has lived in her three-bedroom apartment on West 19th Street since 1947, and she remembers when Chelsea was a working-class community with a thriving manufacturing district. “That was before the real estate industry decided it was a neighborhood,” she said.
Though suffering from emphysema and hip problems, Wood hasn’t let up on her crusade for “integration not gentrification.” She can be found on the picket lines, even if it means trekking to Brooklyn to protest rent hikes proposed by the Rent Guidelines Board, as she did at the end of April. And don’t think because she has a cane that she needs a rest. When someone at the demonstration tried to get Wood to sit down, City Councilmember Christine Quinn recalls, “She looked at him as if he had four heads! There was a rally and she was there to picket. Why would she possibly need a chair?”