A Different Set of Rules
We went to a party that summer at Lilliane and Frank’s apartment on the west side of the building. While my sister and I ran up and down the hallway in our matching A-line jumpers, my parents rang the bell. Lilliane, sporting shiny, orange bell-bottoms and a yellow sequined, low-cut blouse, greeted us with hugs and kisses, “¿Qué tal?” She led us through a black and red beaded curtain into a smoke-filled living room, where our neighbors were sitting on chrome bar stools with red vinyl seats, sipping sangria and puffing cigarettes.
She handed my parents drinks and they mingled with other families while we played with their kids and a fluffy white cat named Ethan. Every now and then, my sister Erica and I snuck some liquor-soaked fruit from the Sangria bowl and sucked it dry.
My mother laughed. “The kids are getting drunk.”
“It’s good for them,” my father said.
Lilliane put a Willie Colón record on the turntable, cranked up the volume, and broke into salsa steps, dancing with a friend. Soon a large group joined in, including Paul and his partner Elliot, who tapped, kicked, turned, dipped, and gyrated their hips to the rhythm of the clave and Colón’s spirited, elegant trombone. My parents were not ones to let loose on the dance floor, so they contentedly watched from the sidelines, clapping their hands to the beat. The movements reminded my mother of the euphoric Horah dancing at Jewish weddings—participatory, exuberant, unabashed, communal engagement.
It was 1967 and we had just moved into our new apartment in the recently built Riverside Neighborhood Assembly (RNA) House, a government subsidized, Mitchell-Lama middle-income housing cooperative at 150-160 West 96th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. The city was near bankruptcy and the Upper West Side was so slummy, crime-ridden, and graffiti-scarred that people were fleeing to the suburbs. Challenged by newly radicalized Black and Puerto Rican communities reeling from previous dislocation, the West Side Urban Renewal Area (WSURA) provided affordable apartments to ousted families by building coops and rentals, and rehabilitating decaying brownstones. The idea was to create a just, economically balanced society and retain the integrated character of the Upper West Side, which was populated by wealthy, white families living in luxurious buildings with doormen on Central Park West, West End Avenue, and Riverside Drive, and working class minorities and whites living along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues in dilapidated tenements. RNA House attracted families like ours, drawn to the proximity of Central Park, the integrationist social agenda, and bookstores and movie theaters, who considered subsidized housing an opportunity.
We chose an apartment high up with southern exposure, opposite the noisy 96th Street thoroughfare, with a view of the backyard, abandoned brownstones, decrepit tenements, and the Empire State Building. Our building was a fifteen story low-rise concrete block, wider than it was tall, with beehive windows, terraces along the corners, and a tree-lined garden in front. It was set back from the street, giving tenants and pedestrians breathing room from the traffic.
We bought our apartment for $3,800, below market rate. Because we had a family of four, we were allotted three bedrooms and charged maintenance adjusted to our family income. Those with earnings above a certain amount were disqualified. It was a liberal scheme of its time and place—postwar America, when money was abundant and fair play and collectivism were dogmas.
Some of the original tenants at RNA House included Jane Lazzare, a Jewish novelist and memoirist and her African-American husband, Douglas White, who became Deputy Commissioner of the NYC Fire Department. Lazzare wrote “Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness,” about being the Caucasian mother of black sons. Catha Abrahams, who grew up with my mother in Brooklyn, led feminist consciousness-raising groups in her apartment. Betty Gubert, author of “Invisible Wings: An Annotated Bibliography on Blacks in Aviation, 1916-1993,” and co-author of “Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science,” moved into the building with her family. Among my other neighbors were Helen Freedman, a lawyer who became a Civil Court judge; Mirra Ginsberg, a renowned translator of Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Isaac Bashevis Singer; and Robert Brown, a reformed murderer who worked with the Fortune Society, a non-profit run by ex-offenders devoted to helping convicts re-enter society. The tenants created an atmosphere of inclusiveness, tolerance and cooperation in times when such attitudes were lacking. Some people may have disliked each other at 96th Street, but disputes were personal, not based on religion, race, or sexual preference.
The residents made group purchases of dishwashers, stoves, and air conditioners to bring down prices. A board of directors and committees formed to manage the garden, the cleaning, the garbage, and each floor of the building. When school began that fall of 1967, a crowd of kids and parents walked down the hill to P.S. 75, a communal sea—black, white, Puerto Rican, and all variations of mixed races. Inside the building, however, we were all alike.
Now, over forty-five years after my family first settled at RNA House, my appreciation for the building has been renewed. I have moved around the U.S. and the world, and I’ve never lived anywhere nearly as integrated, community-oriented or economically just as RNA House. When I visit 96th Street, it’s a homecoming—to a closely-knit, egalitarian village that plays by a different set of rules than the rest of the overpriced and impersonal city. Yet it’s nearly impossible for our family to keep 96th Street, as we have no inheritance rights and the apartment goes to the next person on the waiting list. Unless the building privatizes.
Of all the 260 Mitchell-Lama developments constructed as part of The Limited-Profit Housing Companies Act of 1955, only 98 are left, the rest have privatized. Following that trend, many tenants who are currently living in RNA House are pushing for privatization, wanting to buy their apartments at reasonable insiders’ prices and thus obtaining an extremely valuable property, which they can either sell or pass on to their children. Two earlier votes for privatization, in the 1980s and 1990s, failed by big margins. Today there is a possibility the majority will vote yes.
However, the process of transfer is costly. If RNA House were to go private, it would have to hire expensive attorneys to seek government approval, and would no longer be eligible for tax abatements and subsidized loans to finance its mortgage. Maintenance fees would rise. Tenants on fixed incomes would likely not be able to afford their apartments.
“What’s with the elevators?” I asked my mother during a recent visit over the winter holidays. Hurricane Sandy had just destroyed large chunks of the city, and I felt more grateful than ever that 96th Street was still standing.
“They’re shiny and fast.”
“They were in terrible condition. It’s about time they were renovated, don’t you think?”
My mother, now smaller and silver-haired, cleared off a pile of The New York Times from the dining room table and set them on a stool.
“Is the building privatizing?” I said.
“RNA House? No, never!” My mother slapped the air. “It’s not for the common good.”
“But we’re going to lose this place one day.”
“Don’t dwell on that, darling.”
I imagined walking to P.S. 75 with the gang of kids and playing handball in the backyard. I remembered telephoning my grandmother, who lived in a Mitchell-Lama on 95th and Columbus, and telling her to stand at the window so she could see me when I waved from the terrace. I pictured my sister sketching in the Papa Bear chair while I turned cartwheels on the rug, my parents sitting arm-in-arm on the couch looking on an intact nuclear family and I wanted to preserve the apartment forever. Change nothing. A museum piece. To pass on to my son. But I most likely can’t.
Later that day my mother told me that the next vote to privatize was coming in 2015, when the mortgage was up for renewal. “There’s a secret group of tenants plotting, but I don’t think they’ll get enough votes,” she said. “I’ll never go along with it.”
In the early years, RNA House was open and unprotected. We skated around the building, circling the front, sides and backyard. Rust Brown, a jazz club next door to our building at 733 Amsterdam Ave., a low-rent urban renewal tower, was popular with Knicks stars. At night, when we played in front, we saw Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and others hanging out on the west side steps of RNA House, smoking and drinking. We inched closer, stealing glances, gaping in awe at their greatness and “The Pearl’s” two-toned blue Rolls Royce. They nodded and smiled back in acknowledgment. “Whatcha doing up so late? It’s dangerous out here!”
In second grade I became friends with Gwendolyn, a black girl, as small as me, who lived in a dilapidated tenement on 93rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. She came over to play after school and we went out to buy some candy. We wandered past the methadone clinic where a long line of addicts waited for their compromised fix, milled about inside an anti-Vietnam War storefront, inhaling a mixture of pot and incense as the tie-dye wearing protestors handed out leaflets and chanted about revolution, and finally made it into the old-fashioned candy store on Columbus between 95th and 96th, the only business left on the otherwise burnt out block.
Hair and body potions as well as hard candies were displayed in rows of glass bottles. There was a lunch counter with green stools and a soda fountain, which had egg creams. We handed the clerk 10 cents and were each given a paper bag full of candies. Just as we were walking out, Gwen’s mother spotted us. She was dressed in a double-breasted brown trench coat and her hair was ironed straight.
“What are you doing out here?” she said to Gwen. “Never, ever go out on these streets alone. You hear me?”
Gwen looked down and nodded.
Gwen’s mother turned to me. “Where’s your mother?”
“Let’s go talk to her.” She grabbed Gwen’s arm and yanked her around the corner as I ran to catch up. When we got upstairs, my mother invited them in, but Gwen’s mother refused, asking only that I find Gwen’s backpack and bring it to her.
“I don’t approve of my daughter walking these streets alone,” Gwen’s mother said.
“I respect that,” my mother said, straightening her dashiki.
“If the girls play again, it’ll be at my house.”
After they left, my mother hugged me. “I can understand why Gwen’s mom is more protective than I am,” she said. “I think it’s fine for you to go out alone, honey.” She kissed me, then added, “As long as you don’t wander too far.”
As an adult, I often wonder about my parents’ laissez-faire attitude about their kids roaming the streets. I guess they felt we were part of the fabric of the city, owned the streets as much as anyone else, and saw little reason to inhibit our behavior. We never got hurt, though we certainly brushed up against danger, and we learned to be street smart.
In the mid-seventies a fence strung with razor wire was constructed for security. The neighborhood hadn’t gotten more dangerous; we had already had our apartment broken into twice. Rather, the tenants had finally acted upon its perils. The building became safer, but more fortress-like and the tenement kids from across the street no longer had entry to the backyard.
One evening after dinner I helped my father, a short man, with thick brown tortoise shell glasses and black, tightly curled hair, carry his large, green, handmade telescope down the hall and into the elevator. When we got to the lobby, Fredrico, who lived in a tenement across the street, was talking to the guard. “I want to play in the back,” he said.
“You don’t live here.”
He fidgeted, twisting his Mets cap. “Julie invited me.”
“That so. Where is she?”
Fredrico started to walk towards the back door.
“Where do you think you’re going, man? You gotta leave.”
My dad stepped in. “It’s okay. He’s with us. He can help me set up my telescope.”
He motioned for Fredrico to follow and the three of us went into the backyard. My dad found a good spot. He set up the lens and showed us how to focus it. The wind swept the smog away, the night was clear, and the full moon rose. A sea of kids gathered and formed a line. One by one we gazed at the stars, urban children in our concrete backyard wilderness.
The principles we lived by in the building, where we were all alike, certainly didn’t apply once we walked through the lobby door and onto the street. Once the gang of kids turned seven or eight we walked to P.S. 75 unescorted. On the “pervert block” between Amsterdam and Broadway, Nancy and I held hands. We avoided eye contact with the Puerto Rican men who sat on tenement stoops calling out, “Mamacita puta, muy bonita madre, dame beso.” When we got to Broadway, we hurried across before the light turned red so we wouldn’t get stuck with the heroin addicts nodding out on the island in the middle of the boulevard.
Much scarier were the tough girls who every so often tried to mug us at lunch. Nancy and I walked up the hill to get pizza, 50 cents in our pockets. As we turned onto Broadway, we saw two big black girls approaching. “Yo, white Bitch,” one of them yelled at us. “Give me your money.”
“C’mon,” Nancy cried, and we ran across the street. Cars braked and horns honked, but we made it. So did the girls who were chasing us. Terrified, we escaped into, FOWAD, a cheap clothing store, with a large, Peter Max style sign in front.
“What’s the matter?” the salesperson said. He was tall and skinny, dressed in brown polyester pants and beige dress shirt, and spoke with a Puerto Rican accent.
Nancy pointed at the door. “These girls want to mug us.”
“Lemme go see.”
We hid among the seconds hanging from racks taller than I was, clutching the fabric, covering our faces, while the guy watched from the glass door.
Finally, he turned. “The coast is clear,” he said. “You can go now.”
We broke up during junior high school. Our local school, Joan of Arc, was notoriously dangerous. Kids had knives, and one time a file cabinet was thrown out the window. Many in the building took the subway to various public schools around Manhattan. Erica, Nancy, Gina, and I went to Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, a private elementary and high school, at 93rd street off Central Park West, where there were only one or two token black or Latino kids in each grade. It was at the private school I became friends with Eve, slim and regal, who lived in the San Remo, a luxury building on Central Park West at 74th Street, where the television show, “The Odd Couple,” was filmed. The San Remo was only two blocks away from The Dakota, John Lennon’s famous abode. Picassos and Matisses adorned the walls of Eve’s living room and a buzzer underneath her dining room table summoned the maid to serve dinner.
Eve’s mother was a Jewish Jacqueline Onassis—tall, glamorous, and elegant. She held court in the living room, sipping tea and socializing with her fashionable friends, while Eve and I spread out her gymnastics mat in the hallway, as big as my apartment, and tumbled down the corridor. It was exciting to be there, but also disheartening to see the contrast between what we had.
Before I left, Eve’s mother offered me taxi money, which I declined. Descending in the carpeted, marble elevator, I chatted with the elevator man, who wore a formal gray uniform with lapels and black velvet stripes. He escorted me to the doorman, who wanted to call me a cab. Shaking my head and feeling depressed, I crossed the street and waited for the number 10 bus to take me uptown.
When I got on, I pushed through the crowd and found an empty seat at the back. Clothed in only a flimsy 1940s vintage dress, I wrapped my arms around my chest to block the air conditioning and scowls of the other passengers, and I stared out the window. I spotted a tall, skinny guy wearing round wire-framed sunglasses, a T-shirt, jeans, and a Greek fisherman’s cap, walking along Central Park West, a smile on his face. I couldn’t believe it and squinted to make sure. Yep, it was him—John Lennon! I instantly cheered up. As the bus sped off, I stuck my head out the window to catch the last glimpse.
A week later, Eve came to visit my apartment, and we got along well, until it was time for her to leave. Curling her hair, she asked me to accompany her downstairs in the elevator, which seemed unnecessary, but I agreed. After waiting interminably for it to come, we gave up and took the stairs.
I was set to say goodbye to her in the lobby, but she asked me to go outside, so I followed her onto the street. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Hailing a taxi.” She lifted her arm, waved, and looked up and down the block, scanning the street for a cab.
“Just take the bus,” I said.
“It’s too dangerous. My mother said I should take a taxi.”
A Checker cab came and she hurried in and slammed the door. After that evening, I begged my mother to take taxis wherever we were going, but she said no.
My father took a seat in the L-shaped music room, out of my sight, and the class began in honor of Father’s visiting day. I played xylophone in the corner with some other students. Minutes later, my friend came over and told me my father was lying on the floor, his knees bent, breathing heavily. A couple of other fathers who were doctors were pumping on his heart.
I was taken to the headmaster’s office and someone brought in my sister. We waited, crying and shaking, until our mother, who’d been volunteering in the library at P.S. 75, arrived and told us that our father had died. We took a taxi home, even though we lived four blocks away. This time I didn’t have to beg her for the ride.
A few years later, my sister and I were in our own rooms one night. She was painting and I was reading Simone De Beauvoir. We were listening to the radio. It was late, almost 11 p.m.
“John Lennon’s been shot. John Lennon’s been shot.” We met halfway in the hallway.
“Did you hear what happened?” my sister asked.
I nodded and we stared at each other, then went into her room and listened until the deejay announced he was dead.
The next day at The New School, which I was attending instead of finishing my final year in high school, I couldn’t focus in my Colonial Literature class. My friend Karen and I asked the teacher if we could skip out and go to The Dakota.
“I’m not going to stop you,” he said.
We took the subway uptown to 72nd Street. As I stood in front of The Dakota, I pictured John Lennon walking along Central Park, how I saw him from the bus, and how it comforted me. We huddled with thousands of mourners, some weeping, some holding candles, some singing John Lennon songs.
The best Beatle had been viciously murdered—it cemented what felt like an end of an era, after a long list of changes: Ronald Reagan had just been elected president, and the first luxury building, The Columbia, went up at 96th Street and Broadway, a portent of things to come. The Upper West Side Mitchell-Lama pioneers had made the area attractive for the wealthy, who would take over the neighborhood with a vengeance. Greed and cocaine were about to explode upon the scene. I was 17 and my dad was dead and now, John Lennon was, too.
During college and the years following, the kids from the building separated even more, which was fine with me. It was time to leave the neighborhood behind, though I had no idea I’d be priced out if I ever wanted to return. New York City was climbing out of its economic crisis, the Upper West Side was gentrifying quickly—thanks to Mitchell-Lama buildings like ours, and people connected to the financial industries were moving in, though the crack epidemic made the neighborhood more dangerous than when I was a kid.
The tenements across the street where the Latino boys had once lived were renovated, with new track lighting installed inside and a fresh coat of paint on the façade. The hovels where the dirty old men hung out weren’t fixed up, but the perverts disappeared anyway, replaced by young white men in suits. I escaped to quieter and cheaper Brownstone Brooklyn. By the time I moved to Vancouver, the grit, clamor and concrete of RNA House seemed less desirable than ever.
When we first moved into the apartment, my family went down to the basement garage, an empty concrete cave. Erica and I ran around, screaming echo echo echo at the top of our lungs and played hide-and-seek behind the rectangular cement pillars hung with sand-filled fire buckets.
My father chased and tickled us, while my mother in her brightly patterned Marimekko dress stood watching, arms crossed, an amused smile on her face.
“C’mon, girls,” my father said after he tired of the game. “I want to show you the spot I’ve chosen for the car.”
We had an olive green Studebaker Lark, which up until now had been left on the street. He pointed at space 18. “It’s close to the elevator. More importantly, I chose 18 because the number in Hebrew, Chai, means life. It’s made up of two letters, Chet ח and Yod י .”
Taking a notepad and pen from his pocket, he drew the letters, showing us how they combined to get חי Chai. I studied the writing in the weak fluorescent light. It seemed like a complicated cosmic math equation.
“Even a parking spot needs meaning,” he said.
My desire for privatization in order to hold on to the apartment contradicts my beliefs, and I pondered how these precepts would now stop me from keeping the apartment, which I love. Although I believe strongly in the common good (i.e. affordable housing in Manhattan), I know that if the building remains public, I will eventually lose 96th Street. Either way, something will disappear. With privatization, the egalitarian, integrated nature of the building will be wiped out. If the building remains public, my place in it will vanish.
Jennifer Baum has been published in the Village Voice, Canadian Jewish Outlook, and The Jewish Observer. In addition, her short films have screened in Havana, Seattle, Tokyo, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Toronto, and Ottawa. She is currently working on a novel.