Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dispossessed - Part 2 on being evicted

“The landlord is moving your things into a truck!” my upstairs neighbor cried.
This was how I learned that I was being evicted from my apartment of twenty years. It was 4:00 when he called and I was in the middle of a major grant deadline at work. There was no way I could leave.
My neighbor had gone down to look for my cat but couldn't find her. He wondered if there was anything else he ought to retrieve. I couldn't think of anything, so I thanked him for his concern and went back to making umpteen copies of the grant application, trying to pretend that the world as I knew it wasn’t capsizing.
At 7:00, I finally finished and went home to find my cat. The stammering handyman who had serviced my apartment since the days when it belonged to a Puerto Rican landlord was standing guard as three men trudged up and down the stairs, carrying giant boxes to a waiting truck.
“Y-you c-c-c-can’t go in,” he said, flustered to see me.
“I just want my cat,” I said.
“We didn’t see n-no c-c-c-c-cat.”
“ I know just where she is,” I replied and marched into the apartment, without waiting for his response. He followed me in, stammering protests, as I called the cat out from her usual hiding place.
Books were scattered everywhere. The furniture was already gone. The place was a wreck – everything had either been boxed up or partially removed. I had lived half my life within those walls. The first time I walked through that door, I was a teenager. I had raised my son there, hosted countless dinners and birthday parties, fell in and out of love a half dozen times. The entire neighborhood had changed, but the apartment was still the way it must have looked in 1960. I took one last look at the familiar yellow walls and left, clutching my terrified cat, wondering if I would ever see the place again.

Jean Schneider is supposedly the most lenient judge in housing court but she denied the motion to restore me to my apartment, although I had managed to borrow enough to pay all my arrears.
“ I think it’s time for you to move on,” she determined.
Then realizing that this might make her seem pro-landlord, she allowed a week for me to appeal. After talking to my lawyer and a representative from the local tenant advocacy group, GOLES, I realized that there was no way I could afford a prolonged court case. But since this was the only leverage I had, I played it for what it was worth. I’m not convinced that the landlord really believed that I would really appeal the court decision. I think he just couldn’t believe his amazing luck that he had managed to dislodge a long-time rent-stabilized tenant.
“I’m not a bad guy,” he kept saying.
To prove that he wasn’t a bad guy, he showed me a teensy apartment that he generously said he would allow me to rent for $1,700, nearly double what I had paid for my two-bedroom. I seriously considered it, but I finally just couldn’t stomach the idea of spending more than half of my income for a place as wide as a jail cell, even if it had a brushed steel stove and exposed brick.
So I took $5,500 in conscience money instead. Chump change for what he could make on my apartment.
“I’m not a bad guy,” he insisted as he signed the check.

For the first time since 1992, I went hunting for a home. I had never once considered living elsewhere, but the East Village is now out of my price range. Which is rather ironic, since the reason why the East Village is the East Village is because of its immigrants, activists and artists. Without us, what is the neighborhood? A string of restaurants and bars and designer boutiques is not what makes the East Village edgy, hip and desirable. It’s the unique mix of artists and immigrants that creates value for the neighborhood. But we are now the unwanted tenants.
So I set my sights on Brooklyn, that bastion of exiled Lower East Siders. A joke has been going around: What’s Brooklyn? What Manhattan was twenty years ago. What’s Queens? What Brooklyn was twenty years ago. Well, then, what’s Manhattan? What Queens was twenty years ago.
One of those jokes that’s funny because it’s so damn sad.
In the meantime, I received a yellow letter with a shamrock from New York S Storage & Liffey Van Lines. Apparently, they weren’t satisfied with the $3,000 payment they had received from the landlord and wanted $650 from me for “handling charges.” The letter also gave me one month to retrieve my possessions before they were auctioned off.
I scoured Craigslist and looked at a dozen windowless rooms and characterless cookie-cutter instant renovation jobs in Brooklyn. A few places were nice but there were multiple roommates who wouldn’t be happy with someone who brought a cat and an entire family with her. I finally found a two-room suite in Bushwick, which was inexpensive and an ample size, but was oddly adorned with pink tiles. My boyfriend liked it and the two guys who also lived there didn't react with horror when I revealed that I had a kid who might occasionally visit, so I signed an agreement and gave them a sizable portion of the landlord's settlement.
Just a few days before the impending auction, I arrived at the storage company, anxious to find my HDV camera and a hard drive with the only copy of a documentary that I had been working on for the past three years.

New York S Storage & Liffey Van Lines, Inc. is owned by an Irish family. Danny, a stocky older guy with graying red hair, took $650 from me to transfer my things from a “bonded area” to a regular storage unit and then said in his melodious brogue that I needed to give them another $500 for two month’s rent. I only had another $350 on me.
“Not a problem,” he said soothingly, “You can pay what you owe next time. “
He then pushed a piece of paper in front of me, declaring, “Just a formality.”
I filled my name in the blank space and cursorily read the paragraph as I started to sign at the bottom, but then I stopped mid-stroke. The document said:
“I _________of ________hereby release New York S Storage & Liffey Van Lines, Inc. and all their agents and employees from any and all responsibility regarding my property. I have personally inspected my belongings and find them to be in good condition and intact.”
“I can’t sign this – I haven’t seen my belongings yet,” I protested.
“Oh, that’s all right,” Danny said, as he whisked away the offending document, “Merely a formality.”
He looked troubled though, as he called over a younger Irish man, Mark, who took me upstairs past a long hallway of gated and locked storage rooms, each with an oak tag bearing a name in black marker. I noticed that most were Latino and I began to muse about these other people who had also probably been evicted. Unlike me, they most likely weren’t able to get a settlement from their landlords. I wondered how they must feel to lose all their possessions and what might be found in those units – baby clothes and family photographs, stereo systems, plastic-covered couches, angel figurines?
At the end of the hall, Mark stopped at a storage room with an oak tag with a creative variation of my last name, “Linchun.” He pulled up the gate and the first thing that greeted me was a poster from the first play I wrote.
I dug through four boxes and found my computer, but if my video camera and the hard drive were still in my possession, they were buried beneath a billion books. As I attempted to lift a humongous box to the ground, a young Latino came and told me that the building was closing and I had to leave.

The next weekend, I came with my boyfriend and a car. This time, Danny was adamant about the document, “You’ll have to sign if you want to go up again.”
“Okay,” I replied and began to amend the document, crossing out that I had inspected my belongings.
“You can’t do that!” Danny exclaimed, yanking it away from me.
I sputtered a protest and my boyfriend chimed in, saying that some of the things in the storage unit belonged to him, since he lived with me. This gave Danny another reason to prohibit me from going upstairs, since now, he said, it was unclear whose possessions were in the storage unit. I attempted to brush past Danny, but he wouldn’t get out of the way. Mark came running and accused me of attacking an old man. Then he started to get ugly with Matthew, who retreated outside to avoid a brawl. I obstinately refused to go.
“I don’t know what you think you can accomplish,” Danny said.
In answer, I stared at him until he looked uncomfortably away. I spend the next hour patrolling the reception area. After staring at Danny, I stared at the receptionist. Then I looked at the world map on the wall, counted the toy trucks that lined a shelf and read all the signs. I imagined camping out and picketing the place. Danny picked up an Irish Times. I watched him thumb distractedly through it.
“If you don’t leave,” he said, “I’ll call the police.”
“Go ahead,” I shrugged. I made a quick mental calculation and figured that if I did get arrested, I would most likely just be in detention for one day and I could still be at work on Monday.
He hesitated and went back to his paper, but after another few minutes, he reconsidered, thinking that I was just bluffing.
“The police are on the way,” he said menacingly, “You’ll be arrested for trespassing.”
“We’ll see,” I replied. I could see this made him a little nervous but he was still too bullheaded to back down.
I continued to wander back and forth as we waited tensely for the police. After a moment, I began to tell him about the documentary.
“You know, the Taiwanese are like the Northern Irish,” I said, “The film I’m making is about their struggle for independence.”
Danny assiduously ignored me as I told him about the 1947 massacre in Taiwan and the White Terror and the democratization of the island and how the pro-Chinese party had been voted back in and how the country is now in danger of losing all the rights that had been so bitterly won. I began to wax on about how I identified with the Irish independence movement and independence movements all over the world.
“I don’t want your business here,” Danny finally said, “You take your things tomorrow and we’ll reimburse you for the month you paid and you get out.”
“Okay,” I agreed as the police arrived, just in time to witness the deal: No document, no boyfriend, an insured mover, reimbursement and I never come back again.
Of course, it didn't happen that way. The following weekend was St. Patrick's Day and Liffey wasn't open. So when I showed up with an insured moving company as promised, Mark immediately reneged on the agreement, stating that since it was already the end of the month, they didn’t need to reimburse me after all. But I still owed the outstanding balance of $150. With the landlord’s settlement, the money didn’t matter to me so off I went to the ATM. I suppose that must have puzzled them – I hope they choke on dollar bills in hell while being guilted over their Irish heritage. I was relieved when the moving men were finally allowed to load my things into the truck.

I doubt if there’s ever been a study of those evicted, but if there were, I would bet that very few people recover their possessions. If I hadn’t been able to get that settlement from the landlord, I would have had to jettison everything as well. There is something very wrong about a company levying $1,000 from an evicted tenant after already receiving payment from the landlord. And then on top of this, they won’t allow you to even see your belongings until you sign a document releasing them of all responsibility in the eviction. The upshot is those who are evicted are doubly dispossessed, both of their homes and their right to their possessions.
I don’t own anything expensive. I had an adverse reaction to the material values of my working-class immigrant parents, who live and breathe the American Dream, complete with a Cadillac and plasma TV. I love beautiful things but I'm not interested in owning anything – not a house, not a car, not a yacht in the Bahamas.
But being dispossessed does make you think about your relationship to possessions. Six months later, I still haven’t gone through everything and I am constantly remembering yet another missing item. The objects that I am saddest about losing may not be materially valuable, but they are utterly irreplaceable: A set of six hand-made bamboo steamer baskets that my great-aunt made in the 1950s. A 1930s hand-painted photograph of a little girl who had been adopted into my father’s family, cradling a bust of Beethoven like a doll. A quilt made by my boyfriend’s mother from the shirts he wore when he was a little boy. Two fortunes created by a spiritualist for my grandmother in brushed calligraphy on red paper, redolent of a time, place and tradition that no longer exist. I mourn the loss of these items as if they were old friends, recently deceased.
I mourn too my loss of community. I was born in the East Village and I lived in the same apartment for twenty years. I know the history of every block, every shop. I could chart the long-buried canals under the street. Contrary to what others may say, at heart, New York City is not a city of transience. Generations of families live, work, love and die in the same neighborhood, particularly a neighborhood like the East Village, which has a special cultural resonance. I find the transience rather disturbing – how can a community sustain itself when people are forced to move year after year? Floating from place to place, they can never put down stakes, join in neighborhood struggles or even discover what those struggles are.
But newer residents to New York think this is normal. Unaffordable housing and the resulting transience is now considered standard to New York City life. Transience has been commodified as the preferred lifestyle of celebrities and wealthy elites. Marketing jargon on new condominiums shrewdly peddle the idea to gullible college kids and their well-meaning parents: Time well spent. Sophistication of a boutique hotel.
This is probably exactly what developers want: transitory residents who don’t feel an ownership to where they live. I can’t, for example, imagine tenants of the Avalon or Blue Condominium handcuffing themselves to cement blocks to keep Esperanza Garden from being bulldozed. But it’s those very gardens that make the neighborhood desirable in the first place. Without the community standing its ground, defending its gardens and theaters and parks and community centers, the East Village would be a far less remarkable place.
This palpable shift to transience as a preferred lifestyle is insidious and short-sighted. Landlords, real estate developers and public officials who are intent upon decontrolling rent stabilized apartments fail to see that their rush to capitalize on market value in the East Village is eviscerating what is really of value – the unique blend of artists and immigrants, without which the East Village would have none of its substance or allure. This is not a predestined tragic cycle – artists do not inevitably gentrify a neighborhood, only to get the boot after paving the way for real estate developers. If long-term residents were more widely recognized for adding value to the community, there would be greater appreciation and protection of rent stabilized apartments. In order for a neighborhood to remain healthy and alive, its community needs as much protection as its historic buildings.  

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