By James Maher
Occupation: Arts Administrator
Location: Tompkins Square Park
Date: 4 p.m. on June 18.
I was born and raised in Chicago but I came here when I was 20, and I’ve been here ever since. Chicago is a beautiful city but it just was provincial, so it was either here or LA. I had also passed through here before. I was here for a week and I stayed at the YWCA on 38th Street and met a Broadway actor. I just had a wonderful time.
I was an arts administrator and I worked in the visual and performing arts. I started out in the public school system. There was a federal program called CETA, because of high unemployment, to provide work for artists. I got that for two years working for something called Womens Inter Arts Center. From there I did film production, then went back to video, and then for 21 years I worked for an organization that brought the arts to people with disabilities. I did film and video for social change for the most part but then sometimes I’d be involved with video artists.
In the 1960s, I lived on the Upper East Side, and in the 1970s I lived on the Upper West Side. I had a three-bedroom rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. But with the lifting of rent control, even though my apartment was still rent controlled, the neighborhood changed. The neighborhood used to be in some way like this — a neighborhood. Big apartments, people stayed forever, raised families. That’s exactly why I moved here.
I moved to this neighborhood in 1979. The Upper West Side had changed. I also had a boyfriend living with me, and the landlord told me I had to pay for a roommate. I said I don’t even want to live here anymore. So I got a lawyer and the landlord bought me out. He made it back in about 2 months, you know. It was an ugly apartment. He said you’ve got nine months to find a place.
I was spending all my life downtown and on the subway. My friends were living her. I worked in the West Village, and this is where everything was happening. So I just got up early every morning, since I didn’t have to be at work until 11, and I just walked these streets, talked to supers, rang doorbells. I started in January and I think I found my apartment in March.
I live next store to the library, top floor, rent stabilized since 1979. When I moved in we had a wonderful landlord. He was in an insurance brokerage and he just wanted to get out of the business, so he offered the building for $40,000 to the tenants. No one had a pot to piss in, so no one could even contemplate purchasing it. He sold it to the highest bidder.
After that we didn't have a super and no one tending the boiler. The boiler used to break down all the time, so we didn’t have heat and hot water. The super that we did have was simply a junkie, selling drugs. I came home twice to see someone being carried out dead from an overdose. This was around 1980 or 1981.
I’d come home and in the vestibule, because the lock was never fixed, there would be junkies with the needles still in their arms nodding out. Twice I couldn’t get out of my apartment because drunks had just fallen asleep on my door. I had to call someone to come and wake them up.
The first year I moved in I was broken into. I think within two years I was broken into four times. The third time I walked in on them. I knew they were kids even though I couldn’t see them. They threw me down on the floor. I said, ‘None of us want to do this, one of you go out the roof and one of you go out the front door and I won’t call the cops.’ And they did.
What kept me here ... was that I’m so stubborn. I loved the apartment and I was not going to move out. I never even thought about the neighborhood changing or getting better. It never occurred to me because it seemed so bad. For awhile there was one storefront in the building next door that had a bunch of light bulbs and detergent in the window and a guy sitting on a box in front with a machete in his lap. What do you think they’re selling there? I’d see people using on my block, but it wasn’t really dealing except for that bodega.
I knew all my neighbors and then [the landlords] did a gut renovation on most of the apartments, and charged $3,500 a month for a small two bedrooms. I’m not complaining. I’ve got very nice landlords — the people who eventually bought the building in the 1990s.
This is what happens. I don’t need to tell you this but I will anyway. With the removal of rent control — forget stabilization, but that’s a good model — the minute the tenant moves out it becomes market value. You don’t even need to do any renovations. Then there’s no point in keeping an apartment. You move and there’s no commitment to a neighborhood. That’s why I don’t know my neighbors. They’re only signing 1-year leases. Sometimes they pay a little bit more and stay a second year, but why should they stay?
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.