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Tenement Lady

toot tootWhen I first hit town in 1977 as a wide-eyed refugee from Madison, Wisconsin, I found my new East Village neighbors perched on a sand hill in a trash strewn lot that had, only a year earlier, contained tenements. I was moving, with my girlfriend, Gretchen Van Dyk, into a railroad tenement next door to the lot. Our building, on East 14th Street, lurked among a row of nine tenements built in 1897; Sylvester Stallone was said to have lived in one of them. There were four flats per floor, and the claw-foot bathtub was in the kitchen. The toilet, in a tiny room, was flushed by water descending from a copper-lined, oak box tenuously attached up near the ceiling and released via a pull-chain. Once in a while, the box would tear away from the wall and deposit its liquid load on the heads of users below.

    My new neighbors were having a barbecue, gleefully grilling garlic-laced Polish sausages over kindling found in the lot. As we sat down to eat our meal around the campfire like cowboys, the sound of fire engines ripped the night air, and, when we later went up on the roof of my building, we looked across the Lower East Side and saw fires burning in several locations. That was the Age of the Great Fires; one school of thought contended that they were set by welfare mothers trying to get out of their crumbling tenement apartments, having been promised a $3,000 relocation fee by the city, while another insisted the fires were started by landlords so they could kick out their black and Latin tenants, collect insurance, then yuppify the premises. The empty lots left by buildings that had been pulled down eventually became dozens of community gardens, half of which were later destroyed by Rudy Giuliani.

– Robert Sietsema, from New York Calling; E. 14th St photograph also by Robert, c. early 1980s; note Operators Wanted sign, & also here.

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