Barbara and I moved into apartment 5-I in the Grinnell with our baby daughter Danielle in February 1970. I was 29 years old. (You can figure out how old I am now.) 5-I had been occupied by friends, the Beinarts, who had moved to 5H. We could not believe how lucky we felt to have such a wonderful apartment, and to have such wonderful neighbors. Our daughter Eve was born the next year.
Almost immediately we were involved in protests against the landlord, someone named Breitbart, because of reductions in services. A rent strike soon followed.
The building was really changing when we arrived and immediately after. There were very few people of color as tenants. Barbara and I were involved with a program through what was then the City Commission of Human Rights to pose as apartment seekers for apartments where families of color had been told there was no vacancy. When we were offered the apartment, the landlord was required to rent it to the original applicant. We gained some terrific new neighbors that way.
Services in the building declined pretty steadily in the early ‘70s. I wish I could remember all the details. But I remember many meetings and at least one sit-in in the Housing Preservation and Development Office on 110th Street. There must be photos somewhere.
By the Fall of 1976, things had gotten much worse. Elevators were frequently not working, the boiler was down, and the landlord was having trouble renting apartments. By the early spring of 1977, ½ of the apartments in the building were vacant.
There had been a succession of managements and the one we were dealing with in 1976 was no different from the others. Services disappeared. The Tenants Association organized a truly powerful rent strike, and the management actually signed a contract with us whereby our rents were reduced 1/30 for each day there was no elevator service or not heat or hot water. This actually went on for months as we went into the winter of 1976. In the rent strike, the tenant’s rent strike committee collected the rent and held it back from the landlord. When they agreed to make repairs on one of the systems we allocated some of the rent money we had collected, but in the end it was impossible. With so many apartments vacant, plus the rent strike, the negotiations were at a dead end. The landlord oscillated between threats and trying to split us by rumor mongering. (So and So was gay; So and So was communist, etc.) The tenants remained solid in their determination to save the building and our homes. One morning we woke up to find a sign posted in the lobby warning that the building would be burnt down if the strike didn’t end. That was scary, because all around the neighborhood at that time were abandoned apartment houses, many burned.
Many people will not remember the winter of 1976-77. It was one of the coldest in history in the Northeast. The Hudson froze over, and factories were closed because they could not get enough gas to heat the buildings. There were dozens and dozens of consecutive days when the high temperature remained below freezing. We heated our apartment as we could. In 5-I, we closed off the end rooms, installed a window fan in the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, and kept the oven on with the door open. That way we could blow the hot air that rose to the kitchen ceiling down the hallway to keep the temperature in the 60s in the other rooms. We tried to make it seem like fun. It was very hard to say the least, but it was also a wonderful time of community and sharing in the building. The children in the building were good friends and their parents supported each other in the hardship.
Things came to a head in the early spring of 1977 when Con Edison, after 20 months of the landlord not paying the electric bill for the public areas of the building, shut off the power. The hallways were dark. Our teenagers escorted people up and down the stairs with flashlights and carried packages and groceries for those who were unable to carry them themselves. The city intervened as well. After no tax payments had been made for a long time, the city foreclosed on the building.
The tenants were amazingly resourceful all during that winter. Mysteriously, shipments of oil were delivered. The oil burner was repaired, and magically within a few hours, the lights in the public areas were restored. Now one knows how that happened…
In the end, the Grinnell requested a hearing to seek what was called a 7-A Administratorship whereby the city appointed an administrator to collect rents and try to return the bulding to the tax rolls. Rarely were these 7-A Administratorships granted to actual tenants in a building, but our demonstrated capacity plus strong support from the community allowed us a huge victory. Joel Rothschild was named administrator, and we had control of the Grinnell, at last.
The tasks ahead were daunting. Many systems were in terrible shape, the roof was leaking in many places, and apartments were empty. But this was the beginning of the process which led to the ownership of the Grinnell being transferred to the tenants five years later.
All along it was a story of courage and friendship, and of determination to keep our wonderful homes. There were strong opinions and some heated arguments about the best way forward. But mostly, though it was a time full of hardship, it was one of the most meaningful times in our lives.