New York City maintains a list of homes ordered vacant by the Fire Department because of unsafe conditions. There were 89 properties on the list that was active at press time, from 1182 Jackson Avenue in the Bronx to 90-71 Pitkin Avenue in Queens.
Vacant properties have a powerful history in New York, reminding people of the dark days when fire and flight nearly emptied parts of the South Bronx, as well as the later, more hopeful era when abandoned properties facilitated the Koch administration's Ten-Year Plan for affordable housing.
Vacancy also has present-day significance. Some housing advocacy groups have called for the city to catalog vacant buildings and lots, and prod their owners to develop them to ease the housing crunch in a city where high rents have replaced plywood windows in many neighborhoods.
So properties that the FDNY—having observed what a spokesman called “imminent fire and life safety issues, such as lack of a means of egress or illegally converted apartments and basements”—at one point ordered vacated tell us something about the past, present and future of the neighborhoods where they lay.
Indeed, a look at the FDNY Vacate List in mid-January found three properties that reflect the past and present of housing in the borough of Brooklyn.
The oldest listed property was 495 DeKalb Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, whose listing dated back to April 1985. It lies in a neighborhood often portrayed negatively, still seen by some as “the ghetto.”
In 2000, 70 Washington Street was added to the list from Dumbo, an area that has been completely transformed into a trendy, hip luxury neighborhood.
And in November 2011, 176 Suydam Street was added from Bushwick—a neighborhood recently branded as up-and-coming and a new target for gentrification.
When we visited this winter, each building had tenants living within it, and two have since been removed from the list (which happens if buildings are brought into compliance with the fire code and owners pay the necessary fines).
But all three buildings differed in condition and the effect the surrounding neighborhood had on them, and vice versa, over the years.
Blight in Bed-Stuy
Ordered vacant nearly 27 years ago, 495 DeKalb has been reoccupied but shown little to no sign of improvement, often finding itself facing tenant complaints and building violations. Built in 1972, the building is three stories high, sharing part of the first floor with 495 DeKalb Deli on the corner. The most recent building violation was closed on September 2011 according to city complaint files. That record of complaints suggests the building has undergone illegal conversions; in 2006 a caller reported that each apartment had four bedrooms instead of two. Owner Joseph Jacob of Dee Dee Foxon LLC, the company that bought the building from Carmen Rios in 2005, could not be reached to comment on his future plans for the property. Ali Mohamed, who works at 495 Deli, said he has never seen or heard of the owner.
Local resident Geneses Rivera, 21, says, “The building has been there my whole life. I don't see any negative change because I am use to seeing the neighborhood like this.” There are several empty properties in the area that have been boarded shut and others that are simply vacant lots. Across the street from 495 DeKalb are the Lafayette Gardens housing projects.
The neighborhood's crime rate is above the city average (its 2005-2007 rate of felonies per 1,000 residents is the highest in Brooklyn and fifth highest in the city, according to the Furman Center's data tool) But residents say its reputation of being dangerous has outgrown reality. “It isn't dangerous here, people just assume this because there are project buildings here,” says Enasha Phillips, 21.
“When you see wealthy people move in, I guess that fixes the neighborhood, but it replaces what was once here,” she adds. Indeed, Bed-Stuy is a neighborhood in transition slowly becoming more like Williamsburg, Greenpoint and other once-gritty areas of Brooklyn that are now hip. Mohamed believes that the area has gotten better, but adds, “I do see too many strangers moving in. Too many.”
Furman Center statistics show an increase in white population, from virtually no presence in the year 2000 to more than 10 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, the black population has slipped from nearly 80 percent to 60 percent. The development of high-priced housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant is a growing concern for low-income families in the area. Near 495 DeKalb, people want to see a certain kind of change.
“I would like to see the building turned into a renovated low-income house,” says Rivera. “It should keep the people living there already, I see no benefit from strangers moving in to a place where I know everyone.”
Neighbors suggest that the area be redeveloped through a community effort rather than a big developer.
Michael Skrine, 54, a computer engineer, believes that rebuilding Bed-Stuy will “give work to people in the neighborhood who need it, instead of pulling people out of state.”